This article is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Hagsploitation. Psycho-biddy. Grand dame Guignol. Whatever you want to call it, this sub-genre, centering on deranged old women, is a force to be reckoned with. These films were born out of an era when Hollywood had a bunch of middle-aged, former stars and nothing to do with them. As Hollywood shifted from the old era to the new in the 1960s, the actresses that had dazzled in the Classical era as romantic leads and heroines were now a little too old for producers to know how to market them. Naturally, schlock and exploitation came in to save the day, and thank God it did. A new trend took over in which aging stars started appearing in horror movies, portraying women who were dangerous, damaged, and, to put it bluntly, batshit fucking insane.
We’re continuing our 31 Days of Horror Lists with some of the most delectably maniacal grand dames ever captured on film. Keep reading to find out the Boo Crew’s — AKA Chris Coffel, Valerie Ettenhofer, Kieran Fisher, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Jacob Trussell, and yours truly —favorite batty old broads.
10. Dead Alive (1992)
One person’s hag is another person’s mother-in-law, but when it comes to movies, the hags in question are more than just mean, ugly, old women — they’re typically mean, ugly, old women who just might tear you a new asshole using supernatural powers and witchery. Peter Jackson‘s Dead Alive doesn’t feature a witch, but our protagonist’s overbearing and cruel mother is every bit a hag. It only gets worse once she’s zombified, begins eating human flesh, and then grows into an enormously grotesque monstrosity. The result is gloriously bloody and gory mayhem as a young man is forced to confront his mother, the giant undead hag. (Rob Hunter)
9. Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Thrown into production following the unexpected success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte is the film that truly kicked off the hagsploitation craze by doing what this genre does best: taking a concept that’s already been done, tweaking it slightly, and dialing it up to 11. The initial plan was to bring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford back for Charlotte, another film about one older woman psychologically tormenting and manipulating the other. After production had already started, Crawford became convinced Davis was turning the crew against her and was enraged. Crawford was eventually replaced by Olivia de Havilland, who starred opposite Davis as two cousins whose relationship is… rocky, to say the least. This delectable descent into madness can’t quite match Baby Jane, but it’s still a glorious Grand Dame thriller worth seeking out. (Anna Swanson)
8. Hereditary (2018)
One of my favorite creative choices in Hereditary is also one of its most polarizing; the film’s witchiness and occult elements are on full display throughout the movie, long before the central characters seem to acknowledge them. Garbled words carved into walls, severed bird heads, that really freaky diorama of grandma trying to nurse Toni Collette’s character’s baby: Ari Aster put it all in there, and we’re just waiting for the central family to open their eyes to the horror. In terms of pure hag content, we’ve got a three-tiered story. Late Grandma Ellen (Kathleen Chalfant) haunts the screen in culty photo albums and reports of a desecrated grave, while Ann Dowd shows up as a woman who pretends to be normal but is clearly not since she’s played by the always-intimidating and great Ann Dowd. Meanwhile, Collette gives a traumatizingly great performance as a character who transforms from worried mother to grief-consumed shell of a woman to, well, something much more grotesque. Hereditary doesn’t dwell so much on the aging woman aspect hagsploitation is known for, but it delivers a one-two punch with a more-than-sufficient dose of home-bound horror and an expertly executed descent into madness. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
7. Night Watch (1973)
I can’t think of a word that I would be less inclined to apply to Elizabeth Taylor than “hag” and yet, here we are. Her turn as an unhinged grand dame came in 1973’s Night Watch, in which Taylor stars as the mentally unstable Ellen Wheeler, a woman whose world comes apart when she believes she witnesses a murder in a deserted house across the courtyard from her own. The film is batshit and beautifully messy — think Rear Window with a dose of vodka and Valium. Night Watch has a number of tricks up its sleeve and this twisting plot is made all the better by a gloriously over the top performance from the Old Hollywood legend and Queen of Camp herself. (Anna Swanson)
6. Hagazussa (2018)
I mean, come on: “Hag” is even in the title. Hagazussa has, operatively speaking, a very fucking good “traditional” hag in the gnarled form of Albrun’s mother, played by an unforgettably terrifying Claudia Martini. After her mother falls ill with the plague, young Albrun watches her mom transform overnight into a stranger; a wheezing, pestilent, predatory husk who, even after a violent death, stalks Albrun into adulthood. And the apple doesn’t fall far. It is Albrun’s haggish tendencies that are the cause of her outsider status within her village: she lives in seclusion, spends too much time in the woods, and tells people her infant daughter has no father. The kind of trauma-bred activities that lead communities to brand outsider women as witches… with no horrific outcomes, to be sure. Albrun’s only crime was being very into skulls. And goats. And magic mushrooms. (Meg Shields)