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2 reviews, 53 user ratings
|Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte
by Doug Bentin
Critical response to the current release “The Skeleton Key” ranges from “abysmal” to the towering heights of “it’ll do in a pinch,” but I have yet to see anyone compare the film to the grande dame of Louisiana Gothic “Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” That’s a little surprising since the new movie borrows so heavily from the 1964 original.Look at the two movies’ mutual elements: 1) both are set in Louisiana, 2) both involve spooky goings-on in an old mansion/plantation house, 3) both have oily lawyers we’re supposed to trust but don’t, 4) both have a female protagonist/antagonist conflict, 5) both contain at least one sequence in which someone tries to get a drugged person out of the house, 6) both are about ghosts that turn out not really to be ghosts, 7) both spend their running time convincing us that we know what is going on only to have everything turned topsy-turvy in the last reel, and 8) both call on the services of well-respected, older actresses.
"The Queen of Louisana Gothic"
No, I don’t mean to suggest that the new film is ripping off the old one. For once, I suspect that the similarities really are homage.
Director Robert Aldrich and star Bette Davis were coming off the surprisingly successful “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” which was released in 1962. In that film, Davis played a woman who had been abandoned by show business to take care of her crippled sister, played by Joan Crawford. Crawford had the victim role and Davis was the madwoman. Those roles would be reversed in the follow-up, but Crawford dropped out of the project not long after filming began. An emergency call was put in to Paris and Davis convinced her mostly retired pal Olivia de Haviland to assume the part of Charlotte’s snotty cousin Miriam.
On a side note, yes, Davis and Crawford really did hate each other. At the time of filming “Baby Jane,” Crawford was the widow of Pepsi Cola’s CEO. Davis must have taken sardonic delight in having Coke machines installed around the set. Funny. Bitchy as hell, but funny.
In “Hush . . . Hush,” Davis plays Charlotte Hollis. (Note that Kate Hudson’s character in “Skeleton Key” is called Caroline Ellis, not that much of a stretch in names.) The film opens with a flashback to 1927. Charlotte’s papa is throwing a party. He pulls aside John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), a married man who has plans to run off with Charlotte, and warns him away at penalty of death. John slips out to the summer house to tell Charlotte that he doesn’t love her anymore, an act of total cowardice. Charlotte bursts into tears and rushes away.
As John sits in the shadows feeling sorry for himself, he hears a noise and looks up. “Charlotte,” he says and we can’t tell for sure if he’s asking a question or naming the person who just entered the room. Suddenly, a meat axe flashes down on his wrist, severing his hand from his arm. Then Aldrich cuts quickly between the axe being raised into the air in preparation of its next descent and shots of John pleading for his life.
Moving back into the ballroom, Charlotte steps through a doorway, her face hidden by shadows (this may have been done simply to hide Davis’ age or camouflage the fact that a double was being used, but it works for creating suspense). There is blood on the front of her gown. Papa Hollis (Victor Buono) walks toward her to lead her away.
Jump to 1964 and a pack of young boys outside Charlotte’s house are daring one of their number to enter the place and steal something that Charlotte has touched. The local legend is that she murdered John and that his head and severed hand are still missing. This episode gives us the chance to see Charlotte for the first time.
We learn the next morning that the state has condemned her house to make way for a new road and bridge. The feisty Charlotte chases the road crew away with a rifle. She’s rarely left the place in 37 years and is helped to get along by dogsbody Velma Cruther (a cacklingly over the top Agnes Moorehead, who won a Golden Globe for this performance).
Soon, cousin Miriam (de Haviland) arrives to lend Charlotte some moral support as she packs to leave the house. Charlotte thinks the younger woman is there to help her run off the construction crew, and Miriam and old family friend Dr. Drew Bayliss (Joseph Cotton) can’t convince her of the inevitable.
This quarter constitutes the film’s main cast of characters. Also on hand are John’s betrayed wife Jewel (Mary Astor, in her last screen appearance), a sleazoid tabloid reporter (William Campbell), and a Lloyds of London investigator on the scene to find out why Jewel never put in a claim when John died (Cecil Kellaway).
Charlotte is still a little bonkers on the subject of John, her great lost love, and one of the questions the film poses is just how crazy is she? The people who know her best think that she isn’t mad at all, but just pretends to be in order to keep strangers at bay. But when the long-dead John seems to be coming back to call her name in the night and play the harpsichord in the music room—unlikely, but the harpsichord makes a spookier sound than a piano would—her grip starts to loosen.
The Scooby-twist in the plot, one that isn’t difficult to anticipate, is that Miriam and Dr. Bayliss are in cahoots to drive Charlotte dotty so Miriam can gain control of the Hollis estate. One night, Bayliss dresses up like John, missing head and all, and stalks Charlotte in the ball room. A pistol has been left there for the dazed woman to find. She fires at the headless corpse and ends up killing Bayliss. A stunned Miriam, infuriated at the death of her lover and co-conspirator, forces the terrified Charlotte to help her dispose of the body.
To say anything more about the plot would run the risk of ruining the last surprise. Aldrich and screenwriters Henry Farrell and Lukas Heller do a nice job of building to the revelation of Miriam’s and Bayliss’ machinations. They pull off the difficult trick of making us think that we have figured out the movie’s surprise twist when in fact they are playing us like hooked marlins.
The movie contains some moments of nicely presented grand guignol, none of which run the risk of upsetting innocent stomachs with gore. There is no gore. The murder of John begins the film with the threat of worse horrors to come, and a later moment finds his long hidden head rolling down the grand staircase. In the horrific climax, the ghost of someone who has risen from the bayou confronts Charlotte on the same stairs and Davis earns her reputation as being one of the great scream queens not with an ear-splitting bellow a la Fay Wray, but with a series of restrained, realistic and terrified yelps. She’s too scared to scream. She has dropped to a crouch and backs down the steps as the thing pursues her. Her eyes are wide open and she seems to be the very definition of “barking mad.” It is one of horror cinema’s great moments.
Joseph F. Biroc’s splendid black and white cinematography is one of the stars of the film. Every room in Hollis House is shrouded in shadows. There are no grays here—everything is black or white, and frequently people move into and out of the shadows so we’re not allowed to determine their moral characters by the way they are lit. Shadows are not just effects of the movie’s light scheme, they are its theme.
And Bette Davis, brilliant old pro that she was, brings an inevitable tragedy to Charlotte. Many horror films flirt with melancholy, with their hosts of pitiable losers in lead roles, but the end result of this one is the decided sadness of a life wasted in suffering for a crime committed by someone else.Somewhere Ray Bradbury wrote that all nightmares are memories. This is a film in which all memories are nightmares. For all the fun of its sometime over the top performances and the joy of watching friends working together, “Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte” is a fine example of a horror film that is sardonic fun on top and serious as death underneath.
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originally posted: 08/12/05 12:45:34