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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964)

There are few places on this earth more psychologically fucked-up than the American south, a fact mined for storytelling fodder to great effect by such authors as Kyle Onstott, Tennessee Williams and the odious Lance Horner (whose GOLDEN STUD is one of the truly great plantation-set sleaze novels). After the critical and box office success of the ultra-fucked-up "hag horror" prototype WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE (1962), director Robert Aldrich wisely looked below the Mason-Dixon Line for the setting for his followup "creepy old broad" movie, 1964's HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE, and that creative decision payed off in spades, allowing for a parade of southern Gothic intrigue, family dysfunction, psychological cruelty and outright madness.

In 1927 Louisiana, during a lavish party at the Collins House mansion, Collins family patriarch Big Sam (Victor Buono) dissuades married man John Mayhew (Bruce Dern) from eloping with his daughter, Charlotte. As John breaks off his affair with Charlotte, telling her he "made a mistake," Charlotte runs away in tears, leaving John alone in the mansion's summerhouse. As John sits with eyes closed, pondering how things have fallen apart, a female figure runs into the room and graphically (for 1964, anyway) hacks off John's hand with a cleaver, then rains repeated cleaver blows down upon him, eventually beheading him (not seen on camera). Shortly thereafter, a dazed Charlotte walks into the party, the front of her party finery drenched in blood. As the body is discovered and all the attending guest stare in disbelief, Big Sam escorts his daughter away from the party.

The narrative then shifts to the present day of 1964, and we learn that Charlotte was sent away to England to allow the murder scandal to die down. Though never convicted of John's murder, Charlotte (now played to the hilt by Bette Davis) has become the town's local "crazy, witchy old lady" and lives, seriously unbalanced and just a bit dangerous when she's got a rifle in her hand, in her father's mansion, well-off but alone, save for her white trash servant, Velma (the inimitable Agnes Moorehead). After repeatedly refusing to heed the orders of the Louisiana Highway Commission to vacate her home so a new highway's construction can proceed, Charlotte calls her sole surviving kin, Miriam (Olivia DeHavilland), for aid in preventing the demolition of Hollis House. Once a poor girl who lived with the Hollises, Miriam arrives and assists Charlotte's doctor, Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotten), in the care of her unstable cousin. As Drew and Miriam rekindle a relationship that ended when Drew dumped her after John's murder, Velma fears that Charlotte's cousin is after her money, so she arranges for a Lloyd's of London insurance investigator (Cecil Kellaway), to look into matters. As all of this goes on, Charlotte's sanity takes a steady nosedive as she begins seeing and hearing evidence of her dead lover's presence, and it's only a matter of time before the men in the white coats come to take her away for good...

HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE is very engaging and deserving of its considerable fan base, but for my money it could have done with a nip and tuck here and there. It's definitely overlong at two hours and thirteen minutes, and while its leisurely pace is like a mint Julep-induced hothouse dream that allows us to fully get to know the characters, it occasionally feels like it's taking forever to get from one scene to another. It does, however have some nifty scares, most notably the sight of John's mutilated corpse walking into Charlotte's study and baring a hideous and haphazard neck wound — is it real, or is Charlotte completely barking mad? — and both Davis and Moorehead are a lot of fun to watch at work here, especially the way-over-the-top Moorehead. The film's tag line should have been something along the lines of "Trust No One," and by the end of the movie you'll discover just how tragic Charlotte's thirty-seven-year nightmare of guilt, loneliness, dodgy sanity and status as a social pariah really is...

The bottom line on this one is that it comes in at number three in the hag horror pantheon, a ranking determined solely by its over-length. If it had the benefit of a tighter edit, it would have a firm hold on STRAIT-JACKET's rank in the number two slot, but even then it would still fall short of the superb WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? Now if only this had been written by Tennessee Williams...

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