There has never been a time anywhere in the history of commercial cinema that was terribly easy on aging women, but for a stretch of the 1960s it was perhaps slightly easier. For that decade bore witness to the brief flowering of the dubious genre of "hagsploitation" in which famous actresses in their 50s and 60s played psychotic crazy people. It wasn't the most dignified way to wrap up a career, but it was a living, and it's easy to see how it might even come across as somewhat flattering. The explicit texts of these films might have demanded women of a certain age to stand in as emblems of the terror that the young feel for the old, parading around as living proof that the older you get, the more freakish and ungodly and unreliably demented. But there existence also validated the timeless fame of the women at the center of the plot: it was the spectacle of seeing a genuine living icon playing a psycho that was the draw, not just watching some random nutty old lady, and however backhanded, it was a compliment to the stars' fame and presence and status in the annals of film history.

Hagsploitation has its obvious origination in a film that was itself hopping on a bandwagon: for it's unlikely that 1962's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? would exist without Psycho having paved the way. Its structure echoes the earlier film (mostly at the end; there's no mid-movie twist like in Hitchcock's picture), it uses black and white cinematography to much the same ends - cost-saving but also creating a particular mood of chiaroscuro nastiness that turns relatively normal-looking everyday settings into something visually obscene - and of course, there's the whole crazy psycho deal...

Baby Jane Hudson, in 1917, was a child vaudeville star (played in this era by Julie Allred); and she was an epically spoiled one, humiliating her mother (Anne Barton), manipulating her father (Dave Willock), the subject of all her sickly-sweet, psychoanalytically suggestive ballads about little girls loving daddies, and above all else, being horribly, pointlessly cruel to her sister Blanche (Gina Gillespie), whose drained, haggard expression speaks volumes about how much shit she has to eat every single day. In 1935, the tables have turned: Blanche is now a huge success in the movies, and Jane is a pathetic has-been. But the words of their mother have made Blanche kinder to her sibling than she ever received; despite how in-demand she is, she'll only star in a movie if another vehicle can be arranged for the spectacularly untalented Jane to shoot at the same time. This all comes to an end when Blanche has her legs mangled in a car accident.

Everybody automatically assumes that the jealous, alcoholic Jane was responsible, but there was apparently not enough evidence to convict, because we finally arrive in 1962 to find the Hudson sisters living together in the grand old Hollywood house purchased at the height of Blanche's stardom. Here Jane (Betty Davis) begrudgingly tends to her crippled sister, while Blanche (Joan Crawford) lives in hopeless isolation, always nervous about her resentful, drunken caregiver's short temper and capacity for meanness. The film properly begins (after an enormously long pre-credits sequence, especially for '62) with Blanche's old movies having found new life on TV; this is enough to put Jane over the deep end entirely, and her latent hatred of Blanche's bigger fame, success, and talent begins to boil over into constant emotional abuse and torture of a most colorful, inventive sort. And while she's busy driving off the maid Elvira (Maidie Norman) and the inquisitive neighbor (Anna Lee), Jane sets about her own career restoration: not by having her shitty movies sold to TV, but by reviving the old Baby Jane character for the stage once more.

There's a little - or a whole damn lot - of Sunset Blvd. in there, but at his most aggressively caustic, even Billy Wilder couldn't come up with a human gargoyle as captivatingly monstrous as Jane Hudson. It's a pretty terrific film in most ways, but there's really no point in denying that this is Bette Davis's movie: the gimmick of casting two real-life rivals who hated each other with the purity and longevity of the hate between her and Joan Crawford makes for a terrific ad campaign in '62, and remains palpable half a century later in the undisguised loathing that passes between the two women, but we can't ever pretend that this was a balanced match between the actors. Lukas Heller's screenplay hands the film to the Jane character on a silver platter, Robert Aldrich's framing consistently cedes all the power to Jane without hesitation, and Davis's performance is a hurricane of raging madness, violence and histrionic bitterness that Crawford's steely ire can't compete with at all. And I really do like Crawford, generally and in this film. But she gets blown out of the water.

Just look at the way they're introduced: we meet Blanche first, watching herself (in the form of the 1934 Crawford vehicle Sadie McKee), and Crawford's luminous face with that particular glow that only leading ladies in '30s movies from Hollywood ever attained cuts to the weathered Crawford of 28 years later, with crow's feet and tired hair and a wonderfully pleasant, sweet look of contentment on her face, a delicate expression of aging humanity recognising the fact that it's aged with satisfied resignation. A bit later, we meet Jane: Aldrich has Davis saunter into a medium close-up, and there's nothing pleasant, sweet, or delicate about her. Overlit to blast her skin out white (even in black-and-white, you pretty consistently get the impression that Jane's skin is bone white and clammy), Davis is wearing an amount of make-up that goes beyond jokes about Kabuki theater or death masks: she is a freakish terror of puffy blobs of flesh-substance, with lips cut out hard from her face and black rings around her eyes that look like the pits of hell. Blanche, her first shot tells us, is a weary human; Jane, in contrast, is introduced like a blast from the id, the most terrifying nightmare image of an ancient crone made up of nothing but rotted, fermenting malice. Davis was never afraid to make herself look ugly when the role called for it, but her enthusiastic readiness to bury herself in the total monstrousness of Jane is above and beyond everything else in her career. It's an impressive explosion of the very concept of a "star turn", and so potent as an image that absolutely nothing else in the film can pull focus from it; and that's before Davis even opens her mouth to speak her hateful words in a sarcastic, acidic bark. All the attempts to claim the line "But y'are Blanche! Y'are in that chair!" as some kind of iconic moment in screen camp have not succeeded, to my mind, in diluting the sheer horror of it, spat out by Davis with no desire to do anything but keep regurgitating an ancient malice that has long since ceased to feed off of anything but its own momentum.

For this is, after all, a horror film: an astonishingly direct one for the era (when horror was left mostly to the B-movie producers) and the relative level of prestige of the production (it was produced by Seven Arts, which occupied about the same place in the marketplace as Lionsgate today, though at a much higher level of respectability). It is every awful, vile thing anyone ever thought about growing old compressed into one package and blasted out on the strength of Davis's raging performance, Aldrich's fantastic staging, Ernest Haller's hard, high-contrast cinematography, with its tendency to make suburban California look like a pit of toxic shadows at night, and Frank DeVol's twitchy, nervous score, mixing '60s junk pop, Gothic swells, and increasingly deranged orchestrations of "I've Written a Letter to Daddy", Baby Jane's signature number.

There are some genuinely great moments of pre-'68 horror here: when Jane's desperation turns to murder, Aldrich gets around the censors by staging one particularly horrible moment offscreen, staying tightly on Crawford's face as she watches Jane cave someone's skull in with a hammer, and letting her whimpering, bug-eyed fear make the moment land with more force than any amount of gore might. He also lingers on moments to let the weirdness and creepiness and just-not-rightness of those moments bubble up to the top; in one notable moment, he lets us watch as Jane re-enacts one of her routines, Davis allowing herself to seem pathetic and lost in childishness for far too long to be comfortable, before the moment is punctuated by her scream of terror as she catches sight of herself in a mirror. We've already had plenty of time to be thoroughly unnerved by the moment; the scream is a jolt that helps it to hit harder.

Now, all those lingering moments do come at a price: one of the chief flaws of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is that, at 134 minutes, it is unconscionably long for such such a grubby shocker of a horror film, even one that feigns as much psychological depth as this. And that's the other chief flaw, actually: the psychology is just a feint, there to make Baby Jane? seem like a classier thriller than the reality. And by no means do I mind that it's not classy; I mind only that it's attempt to distract from that fact work so clumsily. And I particularly mind the film's twist ending, emphatically played by the actors but entirely unpersuasive on the level of narrative cohesion: Blanche's entire character makes a little bit less sense in light of the climactic revelations, and it's hard to take any psychological thriller seriously when it contradicts its own psychology.

Nitpicks! What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a classic for a reason: it's gorgeously atmospheric in both the visuals and the soundtrack, and it's a marathon of high-impact Grand Dame acting. The film came out in the moment when "film history" was really beginning to find its footing as a discipline, and in some ways, this is one of the great first moments in film nostalgia: it counts on its audience knowing the actors' work and being suitably terrified by their transformation from leading ladies to aggressors in a bleak psychological battle; it is scariest not just because Jane is a terror, but because Bette Davis is the one bringing her to that point, and the gulf between Bette Davis then and Bette Davis now (the "now" of '62, at least) is as shocking as poached rat for lunch. And that place where adoration of film icons' past shifts into bewilderment at film icons' present is where Baby Jane goes from being just a routine psycho shocker to a blunt force attack on the audience. It's a solid film on its own merits: the more you know about Davis and Crawford, their feud, and their past work, the more it becomes actively great. I understand that American horror cinema in the '60s wasn't so terribly great that calling something "one of the absolute best American horror films of the '60s" really means anything, but the film deserves that praise regardless.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1962
-How did Stanley Kubrick ever make a movie of Lolita?
-The only two "true" Cinerama narrative features in that technology's history are made at MGM, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won (the latter does not premiere in the U.S. till 1963)
-Gregory Peck headlines both the deeply earnest To Kill a Mockingbird and the violent shocker Cape Fear for Universal; he is stately and taciturn in both

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1962
-Agnès Varda is the first (and only) woman to join the French New Wave boys' club, with Cléo from 5 to 7
-The Keeper of Promises is the first (and only) Brazilian film to win the Palme d'Or
-Albert "Cubby" Broccoli produces Dr. No, the first (and most certainly not only) big-screen adventure of British superspy James Bond