Elderly women have long been central figures in the horror genre. Although the image of the hideous hag has its roots in folklore and fairy tales, the postmenopausal monster emerged as a cinematic icon in the 1960s. Following the success of Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), gothic films in which older actresses – relics of a star system that had long since abandoned them – played violent antagonists enjoyed a moment of mainstream popularity. In the years after Baby Jane’s release, films like Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Strait-Jacket (1964), What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972) portrayed older women as grotesque, deranged, and even murderous. This cycle of films, alternately referred to as “hagsploitation”, “psycho-biddy” and “Grande Dame Guignol”, is defined by its focus on the aging female body as the site of terror. As Peter Shelley explains in his book on the subject,
“Grande Dame Guignol is an amalgamation of two key and seemingly contradictory concepts—the grande dame and Grande Guignol [sic]. A grande dame is defined as an older woman of great dignity and prestige…. ‘Grande Guignol’ is French for ‘big puppet show’ [and refers to] the Grande Guignol theatre company in Paris, founded by Oscar Metenier in 1895 […].” (1)
As Shelley goes on to explain, the plays performed on the stage of the Grand Guignol dealt with sensational themes and macabre imagery. They were known for spectacular visual effects that were illustrated in graphic detail “ripped skin, gouged eyeballs, burning flesh, beheading, mutilation, acid-burning, dismemberment” (Shelley 1). Apparently, performers gauged the success of their work by the number of audience members who passed out or vomited on any given night (Shelley 1).
By fusing these two ostensibly unrelated concepts – a dignified older woman and an excessively violent form of nineteenth-century theatre – the Grande Dame Guignol promises, just by its name alone, a film in which the object of horror is the aged female body.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1964)
In many of these films, postmenopausal women are framed as horrific because, as Erin Harrington notes, they are “abject barren bodies” that refuse to “‘behave’ in a culturally-sanctioned manner or to sit within the social categories that are made available to and that therefore construct the female body” (225). Culturally, women’s bodies have been valued for the ways in which they can be used by men: as sex objects, muses, and mothers. To be feminine is to be fresh and fecund. When women reach old age, when they are no longer fertile or desirable, our culture often deems them useless.
Until comparatively recently, this degradation of older women played out on a large, very public, scale in the Hollywood star system. During the 1950s and 1960s, actors like Cary Grant, James Stewart, Clark Gable, and Gary Cooper, all of whom were major stars in earlier decades, continued to headline movies, often paired with much younger love interests (Shelley 17). Conversely, women of the same age, who had likewise been major stars in the 1930s and 1940s, either vanished from the screen or were relegated to supporting roles. It was in this context that once highly sought-after actresses, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, revived their careers by playing the role of the Grande Dame Guignol.
Davis and Crawford, as well as other performers, including Olivia de Havilland, Tallulah Bankhead, and Shelley Winters, continued to thrive long after they had been cast aside by the Hollywood star system, and they did so largely by playing murderous, demented, or otherwise monstrous hags. In this way, they embodied both aspects of the Grande Dame Guignol: their association with faded Hollywood glamour connecting them to the figure of the grande dame, while their onscreen violence echoed the sadistic spectacles of the Grand Guignol theatre.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Grande Dame Guignol has been an extremely controversial genre. While some critics, like Nancy McVittie and Timothy Shary, maintain that hagsploitation films “other” their subjects by portraying them as monstrous beings, it has also been suggested that these films provide an imaginative space in which older women can take pleasure in subverting or even rejecting, patriarchal expectations surrounding femininity.
In the last few years, the “psycho-biddy” archetype has made a return to the horror genre. These modern reimaginings of the figure are, however, less intimately bound up with the machinations of the Hollywood machine. The contemporary Grande Dame Guignol is often a knowing homage to psycho-biddies of previous decades (as in Ti West’s 2022 film X). Yet, just as often she is a meditation on the fear of aging and the loss of self that may manifest as part of geriatric mental decline. In both the 2014 found-footage film The Taking of Deborah Logan and the 2020 Australian production Relic, older women do not function as monstrous objects of fear, but rather as sympathetic figures who have been rendered uncanny through the ravages of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In these films, the aged female body is not framed as a spectacle, rendered grotesque through its inability to conform to cultural norms of beauty or desirability. Instead, these films explore very real anxieties about the fragility of the aging body and mind. They use supernatural tropes and familiar horror iconography to explore the vulnerabilities that come with old age and to address the fear that as age we might lose ourselves entirely.
Wyvern Hill (2022), written by Keith Temple and directed by Jonathan Zaurin, follows in this tradition, offering a sympathetic yet disturbing portrayal of an elderly woman’s descent into “madness”. Moving away from the sensationalism of the Grande Dame Guignol films of the 1960s and 1970s, Wyvern Hill treats the aging female body as a source of horror, not because it is barren or undesirable, but rather because of the ways in which the protagonist’s physiology, specifically her brain, begins to fail her.
Wyvern Hill tells the story of Beth (Pat Garrett), an elderly woman in the early stages of dementia. When the film opens, Beth’s husband Ken (played by screenwriter Keith Temple) has passed away, a fact that Beth herself has forgotten. She lives alone, surrounded by photos and mementos of a past that has become increasingly inaccessible. In her first lines of onscreen dialogue, Beth speaks to Ken, telling him that she doesn’t remember the street outside their house being so busy. However, the meaningful pause between the words “I don’t remember …” and “the street” suggests that Beth’s memory problems may be more deeply rooted than this one instance of forgetfulness. Indeed, in a later scene, she tells a friend that “I’ve never felt like this before. It’s like I’m losing myself, fading away”. Beyond the dialogue, the horror of Beth’s memory loss is encapsulated in both the profoundly moving performance of lead actress Pat Garrett and the creative camera work that renders Beth’s fragile grip on reality increasingly disturbing. In one spectacularly unsettling sequence, Beth walks into the kitchen and is surprised to find her young neighbours sitting there. While we eventually learn that Beth has lent them some money and they had arranged to meet in order to discuss repayment, the scene allows events to unfold from Beth’s perspective, so that we, as audience members are disconcerted by the unexpected appearance of these young people at her kitchen table. The use of distorting low-angle shots accentuates this sense of unease. Beth’s memory loss appears to grow increasingly pronounced once she moves to an isolated farmhouse with her daughter, Jess (Ellie Jeffreys), and Jess’s boyfriend, Connor (Pete Bird). She gets lost while out for walks, sees visions of her dead husband and of herself as a young woman, and seems to constantly forget details about her life.
Pat Garrett in Wyvern Hill
The tragedy of Beth’s memory loss, her fear that she may be slipping irrevocably into delusion, is not the only horror to be found in Wyvern Hill. Intercut with the old woman’s declining neurological condition is another, seemingly unrelated, narrative, which follows the disappearance of young people from the area and the serial killer who appears to be preying on them. The subplot featuring this initially anonymous killer is introduced early, even before the credit sequence, and seems to signify a tonal shift from the more intimate, sensitive portrayal of Beth’s struggle with dementia. Our first encounter with the killer shows him at work in a darkened room, lit with strange shades of blue and red. He is cutting, drilling, and manipulating flesh, all set to a pounding rock score that immediately recalls the work of Giallo and Italian horror regulars Goblin. In fact, for horror fans, the sequences featuring the killer are filled with tantalizing references to classics of the Giallo and slasher genres. Beyond the Euro-horror aesthetics of the music and lighting (not to mention the POV shots of a black-gloved killer), the film also features allusions to Peeping Tom (1960) and Black Christmas (1974).
The killer at work in Wyvern Hill
Yet, while the serial killer subplot at first seems unrelated to Beth’s memory loss, the two narratives inevitably intersect in the film’s spectacular, unsettling climax. Moreover, connections between Beth and the anonymous monster who stalks her quiet English town are suggested throughout the film. Beth suffers from a deep-seated fear of puppets, a terror that stems from a recurring childhood nightmare in which she was chased by a Mr. Punch puppet. Originating in a popular English puppet show of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Punch is a grotesque, long-nosed little man who regularly beats his wife, Judy, and their child, while also finding himself in various amusing situations. In a similar conflation of dark comedy and gruesome violence, Wyvern Hill’s killer is obsessed with puppets. In an early scene, we learn that he is transforming the corpses of his victims into puppets, drilling wires into their hands and feet to make them dance and replacing their eyes with buttons. As he tells one of his victims before her death, by making these corpses into puppets he is ensuring that “they will be forever dancing”. Thus, the centrality of puppets to both Beth’s childhood trauma and the killer’s desire to preserve his victims in a position of pseudo-merriment suggests that the marionette represents a desire to stop time, to halt the decay that comes to us all.
The killer in Wyvern Hill
It would be an injustice to reveal the precise nature of Beth’s connection to the killer or to give away the incredibly surreal climax of the film. However, it is worth noting that Wyvern Hill is a film that plays with and deconstructs the Grande Dame Guignol trope. Although centering on the experiences of an older woman whose behavior is sometimes strange or disturbing, she is not portrayed as a monster, nor is she reduced to a spectacle of grotesque Otherness. Instead, she is a sympathetic figure whose inability to disentangle fantasy and reality is profoundly moving. Her disorientation and loss of identity encapsulate both the tragedy of degenerative neurological conditions and our own fears of aging. In contrast to many earlier horror films centered on older women, Wyvern Hill does not frame its elderly protagonist as the source of horror, a repulsive figuration of madness and decay. It instead treats her with compassion, showing her as the victim, not the instigator, of the spectacular, almost theatrical, violence that dominates the film’s conclusion.
Pat Garrett in Wyvern Hill
Wyvern Hill is not a perfect film. The dragon motif that appears throughout is not particularly well-integrated and certain narrative threads could have been bound together more tightly. Yet, it is a creative recuperation of the Grande Dame Guignol tradition (perhaps in a very literal sense, considering the central of puppets to the storyline). Like other twenty-first-century horror works centered on elderly women (again, Relic and The Taking of Deborah Logan come to mind), Wyvern Hill explores the horror of aging in a complex, often disturbing manner. While the film can be closely aligned with the hagsploitation genre through its thematic foregrounding of an old woman’s descent into madness and its use of excessive, spectacular violence, Wyvern Hill subverts that genre’s more exploitative tendencies through its sensitive treatment of cognitive decline. In fact, through its creative camerawork and expressionistic style, as well as the incredible performance of lead actress Pat Garrett, Wyvern Hill encourages us to identify with Beth. The monster in this film is not a “psycho-biddy” who embodies the horrors of the barren female body, but a violent killer who exploits the weaknesses of a vulnerable old woman.
Victoria Brown, “Hagsploitation: Degrading or Empowering?” Fright Club NI https://www.thefrightclubni.com/post/hagsploitation-degrading-or-empowering
Erin Harrington, Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror. Routledge, 2018.Peter Shelley, Grande Dame Guignol Cinema. McFarland, 2009.