The Best Horror Movie of 1962: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

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The Best Horror Movie of 1962: <i>What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?</i>

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

Another good year, at least compared to the doldrums of the early 1950s. Horror has pretty much established a baseline of quality here, where every year has enough releases—now coming from several different film markets, including Europe and Asia—that it always has a nicely varied pool to draw from. This year’s top few films fall more into the psychological thriller side of the spectrum, whereas other years are more dominated by gothic horror, monster movies, science fiction or the slowly emerging underground scene of more extreme, gore-forward horror.

The top picks for 1962 are a bit contingent upon whether you’d classify both What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Cape Fear as horror cinema. The first seems undeniable, featuring a mad-as-a-hatter Bette Davis serving her sister a dead parakeet and generally being completely unhinged. The latter is more of a discussion, but Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady certainly makes for a worthy horror villain and a logical continuation of The Night of the Hunter’s Rev. Harry Powell. One wonders if the horror elements of the film might have been played up even more if it had been directed by Alfred Hitchcock, as originally intended, rather than eventual director J. Lee Thompson.

Roger Corman is busy as ever in 1962, directing both Tales of Terror and Premature Burial, both continuing to draw on the name of Edgar Allen Poe. The latter is an odd outlier for the fact that it stars Ray Milland rather than the persistent Poe vessel of Vincent Price, but Price makes up for it by appearing in all three stories of anthology film Tales of Terror. I have a particular soft spot middle story “The Black Cat,” which sees a shabby, drunken Peter Lorre, in one of his last film performances, running circles around a snooty Price in a wine-tasting competition, before gleefully sealing him up alive in a loose adaptation of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” The two would appear together once more, in 1963’s The Raven, from … yeah, it’s Corman again. Who else?

Other notable entries for 1962 include the effectively minimalist, Twilight Zone-reminiscent Carnival of Souls, the only feature film from director Herk Harvey, as well as yet another adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, this time from Hammer. And finally, we should note mad scientist flick The Awful Dr. Orloff, one of the first films from the prodigiously prolific Jesús Franco, which is generally credited as being Spain’s first proper horror film. As this decade goes on, both the Spanish and Italian horror markets will often become horror’s leading edge, especially when it comes to pushing the boundaries of “good taste.”

1962 Honorable Mentions: Carnival of Souls, Cape Fear, Night of the Eagle, Tales of Terror, Premature Burial, The Awful Dr. Orloff, The Phantom of the Opera

The Film: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Director: Robert Aldrich

The “psycho biddy” subgenre of horror has never been one that has seen a ton of exploration, but with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, it can at least claim to have a rock-solid foundational text. This is a genuinely unnerving psychological horror film, sometimes wrongly referred to by cinema fans as a mere “thriller.” That word simply doesn’t cut it in describing Bette Davis as “Baby Jane” Hudson, a withered performer who makes Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond look positively well adjusted by comparison.

You’ll have to forgive the Sunset Boulevard reference, but it’s one of those cases where cinematic comparison between two movies is inevitable and impossible to ignore. They both revolve around forgotten starlets who live in crumbling Hollywood mansions, clinging to the past in desperation as their sanity leaves them behind. In “Baby” Jane’s case, though, there’s the unpleasant matter of Blanche as well. Paralyzed from the waist down decades earlier, in an accident that may or may not have been masterminded by her jealous sister, Joan Crawford portrays Blanche Hudson as a sweet, rather gullible, middle-aged ingenue who chooses to delude herself rather than admit that a quickly deteriorating and delusional Jane wants her dead.

And of course, by the time this becomes inarguable, it’s already far too late. The film’s horror often lies in Blanche’s realization of her powerlessness—as a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair on the house’s top floor, she has literally nowhere to go, and escape always seems both maddeningly close and impossibly far. It’s agonizing to watch her sit in her chair at the top of the stairway, weighing the likelihood of injuring or killing herself by trying to throw herself down the stairs to freedom. Few films capture the feeling of being trapped so well, or the indifference of those who might be able to help. Even in the film’s conclusion, as Blanche lays near death on the beach, she’s often only feet from those who might be able to help her—if only they would pay attention to her obvious plight. Instead, though, they just go on living their lives.

It should likely go without saying that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? requires a handful of trigger warnings when it comes to the subjects of emotional and physical familial abuse in particular. Jane’s methods of torture toward her sister are all the more shocking for the fact that we often don’t understand much in the way of their purpose—and nor does she, most likely. It’s not always clear whether she even knows what she’s doing to Blanche, but other scenes make it perfectly clear that she’s reveling in each opportunity to remind her sister that she holds her life in her hands. Still, as she slips further into delusion, and begins focusing more on reviving her long, long dead career, the film steadily changes tacks, giving us as many reasons to pity Jane as we have to fear her. The relationship between the two sisters is ultimately revealed to be both more and less complicated than we’ve been led to believe.

To modern audiences, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is likely best known simply as a backdrop, against which the personal feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford played out. Be this as it may, it remains an extremely effective, Hitchcockian thriller, ripe with pathos, and deserves to be evaluated on its own merit, rather than as a footnote in a classic bit of Hollywood gossip.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.