It took Hammer Film Productions just three years after the arrival of the so-called “hag horror” movie to submit its own entry to this sub-genre. And when it did, there was no lack of flourish. Mark Fraser revisits a trans-Atlantic curio from the mid-1960s.
Momentarily putting aside any thoughts of misogyny, Silvio Narizzano’s Fanatic (also known as Die! Die! My Darling!) is a fine example of the crazy-old-woman film, boasting both an economically constructed narrative and some bravura acting in what is essentially a cautionary tale about how good intentions can sometimes go horribly awry.
Released in the first quarter of 1965 on the coat tails of Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) – a work which more or less launched full blown hag horror as a legitimate form of entertainment – Narizzano’s movie in many ways resembles its cinematic mentor as it too is about the battle of wills between two females in an oppressively confined environment.
Unlike the Aldrich film, which concerns itself with a pair of aging sisters of similar vintage (Bette Davis and Joan Crawford), Fanatic concentrates on the relationship between the mentally unbalanced Mrs Trefoile (Tallulah Bankhead) and the much younger Patricia Carroll (Stephanie Powers), who is held captive in the former’s slightly ramshackle (and isolated) riverside English manor following what should have been a brief courtesy call.
A religious zealot in the extreme, Mrs Trefoile is as loopy as they come, holding lengthy pre-meal prayer meetings in her lounge with the house staff (Peter Vaughn, Yootha Joyce and Donald Sutherland), talking to her deceased son Stephen (who presumably died in a car crash), eating bland vegetarian meals free of evil condiments and sanctimoniously condemning the local rector (Henry McGee) for remarrying after his first wife’s death.
For reasons known only to herself, the old hag is convinced Patricia is somehow obligated to her given she was briefly engaged to – but never intended to marry – her dead boy.
And by the time the guest figures out just how dangerous her host really is, it is way too late. Held at gunpoint, tied up by muscle-woman housekeeper Anna (Joyce), locked in the attic (where her luggage is systematically destroyed before her eyes) and starved of food, Patricia can only hope that her new fiancé – London television executive Alan Glentower (Maurice Kaufman) – smells a rat and comes to her rescue.
In the meantime, between bouts of mental abusive from her captor, she attempts to escape, but is thwarted by Harry (Vaughn) the leering, double-barrel shotgun-carrying handyman man who, outside of Mrs Trefoile, is the most terrifying character in the picture.
According to one of the extra segments which augment Powerhouse Films Ltd’s Blu-ray release of the film, Fanatic was not only Hammer’s first suspense thriller to be shot in colour, but it was also the initial one to be influenced by the company’s American backers – the New York-based Seven Arts – which had been behind the production (along with Associates & Aldrich) of WEHTBJ?
Given this, it is not surprising there are quite a few similarities between the two works, despite the fact they came from different literary sources – the screenplay for the Aldrich film was written by Lukas Heller and based on a book by Henry Farrell, whereas its English counterpart was scripted by Richard Matheson from the novel Nightmare by Barbara Linington, who wrote it under the pseudonym Anne Blaisdell.
As mentioned above, both films essentially focus on a battle of wills between two women, with one being a viciously sadistic (not to mention unstable) tormentor and the other a ruthlessly manipulated victim.
They are also about insanity – and in particular the mental disposition that comes with not being able to break from the past; a state of mind where nostalgia manifests itself in the shape of a monster. (And, it must be added, the cause of this mania can in part be traced back to the evils of show business, with the case of Mrs Trefoile being perversely tragic as she privately pines for a life which she presumably turned her back on for puritanical reasons.)
Additionally, both movies are essentially comedies, albeit dark ones.
In WEHTBJ?, most of the humour comes via Davis’ Oscar nominated performance as Jane Hudson, the former child starlet who takes great delight in mentally torturing her older, crippled sibling Blanche (Crawford) with neat pranks like serving up the latter’s dead pet bird for lunch. While not as creative, Bankhead’s Mrs Trefoile is nevertheless the same kind of horrifyingly amusing crazy old hag with a twisted soul; a person so tormented and torn apart that she eventually takes it upon herself to sacrifice her guest in order to keep the memory of her late son pure.
Another humourous touch in the Hammer production is the regular inclusion of Wilfred Josephs’ harpsicord riffs, which consistentialy provide aurally ironic counterpoints to the bizarre melodrama unfolding on the screen.
Finally, most of the action in both works takes place in the one isolated setting. With WEHTBJ? it is – with the exception of the all-important final beach scene and a few other moments here and there – the secure confines of a Los Angeles Italian villa; while in Fanatic Patricia is imprisoned in a Hertfordshire country estate, where the bright and sunny rustic setting cannot compensate for the stifling claustrophobia indoors.
The biggest difference between the two, though, is the fact the Aldrich film is in black and white, giving the work a gothic feel, while Arthur Ibbetson’s colour cinematography in Narizzano’s movie, combined with Peter Proud’s decorative set design and Mary Gibson’s wardrobe, makes the whole thing seem a little more baroque.
This contrast in moods is best exemplified in Mrs Trefoile’s cellar, where the kooky old woman keeps her vast collection of old show business gowns, outfits, dresses and memorabilia – and wherein the green, purple and blue hues reflecting off the walls add to the overall extravagance of the location’s colour design. If anything it’s here that Fanatic truly looks like a Hammer production.
Another interesting moment in the Powerhouse extras which come with the Blu-ray is when English writer Jonathan Rigby points out that hag horror did not necessarily arrive with WEHTBJ?, but first appeared in the form of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Billy Wilder’s 1950 Hollywood classic Sunset Blvd.
While there is much validity to this observation, another movie which the origins of this sub-genre could arguably be traced back to is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where it is not clearly explained until the dénouement that the murderous old “Mrs Bates” with the terrifying voice is, in fact, her mentally schizophrenic son Norman (Anthony Perkins).
Although she starts the movie sounding more like a strict school mam than a mentally deranged sociopath, Bankhead ups the histrionic ante as her character slips further into madness – so much so that by the middle of the film she sounds just like a Mrs Bates.
Indeed, one of the film’s most blood curdling moments is when Patricia is first locked in her bedroom and demands to be let out.
At first the young woman is met with silence. Then – from the other side of the door – Mrs Trefoile hisses: “You are not going away. I must save you from your baseless self for Stephen’s sake. I understand you now Patricia – you never intended to remain true to dear Stephen, so I must keep you.”
Like the rest of Bankhead’s performance, these lines are delivered with relish, helping make her one of the sub-genre’s most formidable – and downright dangerous – hags.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed Fanatic (aka Die, Die, My Darling!) on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse Films. Fanatic appears in HAMMER VOLUME ONE: FEAR WARNING! limited edition Blu-ray box set which was released on October 30 2017.
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