Crazy Ladies

Observatory

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The postwar years were a golden time for the suspense thriller, climaxing in ‘Psycho’. There was also a slew of wonderful novels from American women, many of whom I’ve discussed in my ‘Invisible Ink’ column. A number of Hammer thrillers with titles like ‘Scream of Fear’ and ‘Nightmare’ were produced, mostly shot around the familiar towers of Bray, and most of the stories have a strange subtext. There’s an obsessive quality that runs through them, from the writings of Robert Bloch and Constance Strong to the Freddie Francis films and dramas like ‘Die, Die My Darling!’ – basically suggesting that women were neurotic and prone to madness.

‘You’re highly strung!’ warns one teacher to her charge Janet in ‘Nightmare’. ‘Hundreds of people are highly strung – it doesn’t mean you’re mad!’ Pretty soon, though, Janet’s convinced that she’ll become as mad as her mother who, says one sensitive relative ‘had to be locked away – in an INSANE ASYLUM!’ Janet sees blood-covered knives wherever she looks.

The idea that madness can be inherited or brought on by a series of shocks surfaces again and again in these films and books. In the conservative 1950s women were homemakers and expected to present the happy face of a marriage. In America, psychiatry was starting to make inroads into ordinary suburban homes. Women especially were starting to examine their mental states, which was reflected in entertainment about psychiatry in books and films like ‘The Three Faces of Eve’ and the rise in prescription drugs.

Pressure to conform made them ‘highly strung’ and liable to start reaching for the kitchen knives. Back in ‘Nightmare’ we find two doctors discussing what should be done with poor Janet. ‘We shouldn’t send her to an asylum, she should go to a sanatorium,’ says one. The other doctor scoffs. ‘You and I know the difference but I don’t suppose Janet does!’ You’d think Janet might have a clue because although she’s meant to be a schoolgirl she looks about 40.

Jennifer Dawson wrote ‘The Ha-Ha’, an exploration of mental illness, because she suffered from schizophrenia, but many other authors simply used madness as a plot device. Soon poor old Janet has gone bonkers and stabbed someone, so she’s whisked off to the funny farm as we see what we’ve suspected all along – her rellies are donning masks and wigs to drive her crackers.

Ethel Lina White was a mistress of suspense in this style, but a superior one. Her best novel is ‘Some Must Watch’, a superbly eerie thriller in which a young carer, Helen, is taken on in a remote household at a time when a serial killer is targeting women in the locality. The book is virtually little more than a description of a mental state, a brilliantly maintained exercise in escalating hysteria as the nine residents who protect Helen from the forces of chaos are stripped away one by one, not murdered but unable to help because of a everyday incidents involving brandy bottle, a broken door handle, sleeping pills or having been called elsewhere. Finally Helen must survive alone.

Anthony Berkeley Cox was one of the few male stars of female psychology who didn’t condescend. In ‘Before The Fact’, we’re told that heroine Lina will discover her husband Johnny is a murderer. Suspense escalates as Lina finds clues to Johnny’s behavior – his gambling, his stealing – and gives him the opportunity to explain his actions. Johnny is so charismatic that he always has a plausible ready excuse, and despite everything still brings light into her life. The tension lies in wanting to know how long it will be before she ceases to be blindsided by him, until the book’s devastating final chapter explains the true nature of victimhood as she allows herself to be murdered. It was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as ‘Suspicion’, with the famous glowing glass of milk but a much weaker script with a happy ending.

Uniquely, in ‘Nightmare’, barmy Janet’s hoaxer is herself driven loopy in a double-bluff of recriminations, jealousies and incipient madness. Luckily, a few decades of female empowerment put an end to the idea of the crazy lady in fiction.

4 comments on “Crazy Ladies”

  1. John says:

    I really enjoyed Nightmare. A very satisfying thriller with an excellent example of the villain getting a taste of her own medicine. Another Sangster written script for Hammer is even more bonkers in its exploration of real vs. genuine madness — Paranoiac w/ Oliver Reed as a Mommy’s boy (or more specifically an “auntie’s boy) and a twisty plot with some grisly surprises in the finale.

    I especially love all the books and movies featuring what I like to call “baddas biddies”: Come and Be Killed and The Party at No. 5 both by Shelley Smith; a slew of books by Ursula Curtiss the highpoint being The Forbidden Garden made into the movie Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? with a bravura performance by Geraldine Page, You’ll Like My Mother by Naomi Hintze; Hush…Hush…Sweet Charlotte; Ladies in Retirement and its remake The Mad Room; What’s the Matter with Helen?; Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, etc. etc. It really was it’s own kind of thriller subgenre that lasted well into the mid 1970s.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    I wonder if this theme is what turned me against the horror genre. The idea of women being subject to hysteria/madness was not what I was seeing in the community (never mind Old Mrs…. and that weird….) so I rejected the plots as unlikely. Of course that included science fiction and mysteries as well. Thank goodness I grew past those prejudices, but the crazy ladies are still outside my acceptable zone.

  3. admin says:

    Thanks for the biddies, John – I should be able to get a new Invisible Ink column out of these gems!

  4. John says:

    Glad to be of service, Chris! Look forward to reading your essay.

    I think you’d like THE FORBIDDEN GARDEN by Ursula Curtiss. She also wrote the book that became the basis for William Castle’s thriller I SAW WHAT YOU DID about a couple of teenage girls whose prank phone calls get them into deadly trouble.

    Of course, I meant to type “badass biddies” above. [grumble, grumble]

    For anyone interested I’ve reviewed THE PARTY AT NO. 5 by Shelley Smith on my blog. I’ve also written about two other books (not in the “badass biddy” category) by Smith, as well as her co-writing credit for the screenplay of TIGER BAY. Adding a clickable link always gets my comment flagged so I’ll refrain. Those interested in the post just Google the book title and add Pretty Sinister in the search terms. It should come up first.

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