Back in the nineteen-twenties in the Deep South of Louisiana, there was a mansion that housed Big Sam Hollis (Victor Buono) and his family, a wealthy clan who he jealously guarded, so when his daughter Charlotte (Bette Davis) was revealed to be courting John Mayhew (Bruce Dern), he went ballistic and called him into his office to give him a piece of his mind and order him away from Charlotte. John refused to budge and the matter was unresolved until the ball held at the mansion that evening which all the locals attended: he was coaxed away from the party to a back room, where he was suddenly, brutally murdered with a cleaver. But was Charlotte responsible?
Interestingly, that was about the only mystery this film retained, aside from one: was Joan Crawford faking when she stopped making this movie due to illness? Director Robert Aldrich certainly believed she was genuine, though he was the one who had to answer to the insurance company, but rumours ever since have abounded that Joan and Bette's career-long ill-feeling had become impossible to resolve. After a debacle at the Oscars the previous year when Davis did not win, but Crawford made damn sure to collect the statuette for actual winner Anne Bancroft, it would appear agreeing to make another film together was a bad idea all round, and so it transpired.
Their previous hit together had been the classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; that had been a huge blockbuster, so you can understand why everyone involved would want to continue that run of success with a follow-up, money talks, after all. But that 1962 gem had spawned a new subgenre of horror where the unkindly-called "hags" were the source of the frights, giving a new lease of life to a bunch of ageing, female stars, attracting a camp appeal for the fans, but perhaps not doing said stars many favours in the long run given the cartoonish exploits they wound up participating in. Take what another director, William Castle, did for Crawford as an example - or a warning.
Castle's stock in trade were gimmicky horror and thriller pictures he relentlessly publicised himself and his biggest hit with Crawford had been Strait Jacket, so although Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte had been adapted from a short story by Baby Jane author Henry Farrell, what the results came across as were closer to Castle than Aldrich, a far more accomplished director, not to mention one with a far wider range. It was odd to see a respected craftsman like Aldrich basically chasing the trash dollar, not that he could not do it well, but that he did it all, and while this was at least as good as anything in the "hag horror" bracket, if not better, it remained a follower rather than a leader as his work on Baby Jane had been. Not that every Aldrich movie was a winner: he turned to this because of a bad experience making a frothy Western comedy, 4 for Texas, the year before.
Sweet Charlotte had more heft than that, especially thanks to a cast of old pros overacting madly to bring an overripe Southern Gothic to lurid life, though perhaps for the full effect they would have been advised to make this one in colour, eschew the black and white atmospherics in favour of a gaudier style. Nevertheless, it was a good-looking film which sobered up the wilder sequences (hand and head chopped off, chair smashed over the head to send victim down the staircase, rolled down an embankment into a swamp, and so forth) though could do little to rein in the more histrionic excesses of the stars. The plot caught up with Davis's Charlotte in the present, where she is living on her late daddy's fortune as a crazy recluse waited on by a scenery-chewing Agnes Moorehead. When the mansion is threatened with demolition, cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland parachuted into Crawford's role) arrives to help, and local doctor Joseph Cotten assists - but how crazy is Charlotte, anyway? The extremes everyone went to were undeniably amusing, but it wasn't half daft. Music by Frank DeVol.
[Eureka have really gone to town on this Blu-ray. Those features in full:
1080p Blu-Ray presentation
LPCM 2.0 Audio
Optional English SDH subtitles
New and exclusive feature length audio commentary by critic Kat Ellinger
Audio commentary by film historian Glenn Erickson
Hush...Hush, Sweet Joan: The Making of Charlotte [22 mins]
Bruce Dern Remembers [13 mins]
Wizard Work [5 mins] an archival behind-the-scenes look at the film, narrated by Joseph Cotten
Trailer & TV spots
PLUS: A collector's booklet featuring a new essay by Lee Gambin, illustrated with archival imagery.]