Films That Haunt Me: HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE

A little break from the snow and ice – let’s travel down to Louisiana, for Robert Aldrich’s follow-up to the Grand Guignol classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” After the success of that film, Aldrich teamed up with Bette Davis again – this tim excluding Joan Crawford, who dropped out for ‘health reasons’ – to create this classic Southern Gothic nightmare called HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE.

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This film starts, like “Baby Jane,” with a bang: the first thing we see (in shockingly graphic detail for the 60’s) is a man getting decapitated. It’s the climax of a love affair between the man and the young daughter of a plantation giant. But who committed the crime? Forty years later, the daughter has grown into an old woman (Bette Davis), trapped in her decaying plantation mansion by the guilt of what she did or did not do. It is far from over, though – when Charlotte’s long-estranged cousin comes to visit, Charlotte begins to deteriorate into hallucinations, hinting at a sinister plot going on in the shadows.

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It isn’t as original of a plot as “Baby Jane,” but it is made unique by the manner of its telling. This film drips with dark atmosphere that is special to the South – sprawling swamps, drifting moss, and thick shadows. The images that populate this setting are equally bizarre. As Charlotte falls into madness, we see what she does – phantasmal shadows crossing the windows; ghostly balls with faceless dancers; and the spectre of her lover, headless, reaching for her. Is any of it real? The film doesn’t give up its secrets easily. And that’s the fun of it. This type of psychological horror yields the most fascinating imagery and tone, because it is allowed to access the subconscious and all its mysteries.

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For the most part, this film plays like a moody thriller – but there are definite moments of pure horror. The shadow-crossed house and Bette Davis’s wafting, nightgown-clad Charlotte provide the perfect platform on which to launch some legitimate scares. Like “Baby Jane” as well, the film is adept at putting the viewer inside a character’s mind, so every fictional experience becomes utterly visceral. It’s a creeping, dread-filled piece of surreal cinema.

And, at the same time, it manages to speak heartbreakingly to a life lived in the past, drowned in guilt. Bette Davis plays her character so tenderly  – chewing scenery, of course, but with palpable sincerity. There is a beating heart to this chiller, even if that heart gushes blood. Charlotte is a woman whose ideals were shattered by violence – to see where that leads her is truly disturbing. The characters around her, too, all seem to have ulterior motives – speaking to secrets kept and deception maintained in the name of greed. The people in this film are drawn boldly and convincingly, yielding most of the terror from their own actions.

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It may not be the masterpiece that “Baby Jane” is, but this film stands on its own, for its revolutionary surrealism and its mastery of Gothic tone. A story of guilt and the capacity of human evil, it is sure to warp your mind – and in spite of its sunny Southern climes, it will chill you like the winter wind.

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