It used to be in Hollywood that a surprisingly successful flick would almost immediately spawn a flood of knock-offs that tried to ride the financial coattails of the hit. The many “killer big animal” movies that followed in the wake of Jaws (1975) are the prime example of this. These days, studios are more protective of their property – they’ll make their own sequels and reboots, thankyouverymuch.
Some of the examples are only clear in retrospect; those usually wind up getting their own subgenre. When Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) blew everyone away thanks to the performances of Betty Davis and Joan Crawford, a number of movies borrowed the idea of a deranged older woman terrorizing people, and the “psycho-biddy” genre came out of that.
Robert Aldrich, who produced “Baby Jane” and another entry in the genre, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), snarfed up the rights to the 1962 novel The Forbidden Garden by Ursula Curtiss, and turned it into Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon were signed to play the protagonists, the aging widow Claire Marrable and her housekeeper Alice Dimmock, respectively.
In a prologue so long it makes you wonder if you missed the opening titles, we find that Claire is a recent widow whose late husband apparently hid their financial status from her. All the assets she has left are an old dagger / sword / letter opener, a briefcase, and his stamp collection. I’m guessing that the house and its furniture were also included – but it’s still darned little for her to continue to live in the style in which she’s become accustomed.
In the very next scene, and still before the opening titles, Claire is bashing her housekeeper’s head in with a shovel, and burying the body in the hole they’ve dug in Claire’s garden. The hole is in a little line of pine trees, and sure enough, the next day Juan the Landscaper shows up with a new tree to be planted there.
It’s probably rare to see a FAIL of this level in a mainstream Hollywood film. What’s Claire’s motive for murder? What was it exactly that sent her over the edge? We can guess at the latter, but why kill your housekeeper?
That will all have to wait; it’s time to meet the secondary characters. And what a dull lot they are. We’ve suddenly been transplanted into a boring soap opera. Everyone is hanging around at a cocktail party, gossiping in a most tiresome manner.
Eventually we find out that Alice Dimmock has been sent there by a relative of one of the former housekeepers to find out what’s going on. And eventually, we do find out. Claire has been conning her housekeepers out of their life savings, killing them, and planting a new pine tree over their bodies.
This could have been decent. Two great actresses in the lead roles, lots of opportunity for tension….but it doesn’t work. There’s a huge hole in the film. It takes far too long for the viewer to be clued in on why Alice is there, and even then, too little attention is given to that. The wooden acting of the supporting cast doesn’t help.
The whole mess comes across like it was originally intended for a TV Mystery Movie of the Week – but they completely ripped out the role of the Detective In Charge Of Solving The Mystery, and didnt’ even bother to patch over the holes. There should have been someone in there saying “Gee, Mrs. Marrable, isn’t it interesting how your pine trees are all different sizes…. And you know, I checked with the nursery where you got them, and the dates you ordered them – and just one at a time, mind you – correspond very well with the dates your housekeepers left….”