Villains (2019)

It can’t have come to this, can it? Kyra Sedgwick isn’t old enough to play a psychobiddy. Right?  Our eternally youthful Madam Sedgwick is a respectable 54 last year.  How old was Bette Davis when Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was released in 1962? According to Wikipedia she was born in 1908, so … 54.

Well, shit.

Villains is a 2019 comedy thriller about spacy, star-crossed stick-up artists Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), whose getaway car runs out of gas at the worst possible moment. Happening upon a house, they break in with no real plan before realizing that they can siphon the gas in the car in the house’s garage, get back to their alleged vehicle, and then be on their way to Florida, where Mickey has designs on selling seashells down by the seashore. They stumble across something in the basement (I’ll come back to that in a minute), and before they can get out with their hides intact, homeowners George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Sedgwick) come home with their infant, Ethan. Although the younger couple start from a position of power—they have a gun, after all—their elders quickly get the upper hand and before you know it, Mickey and Julia are handcuffed to a pole in the basement while George and Gloria try to decide what to do with them. 

All of the film’s marketing, such as it is, really hypes up the something in the house, and that was what originally drew me to the flick. Here’s Hulu’s synopsis: “A pair of amateur criminals break into a suburban home and stumble upon a dark secret that two sadistic homeowners will do anything to keep from getting out” (emphasis mine). IMDb’s description is virtually identical, but the reveal of what’s in the basement comes very early in the film’s runtime, less than halfway through Act I, and is the reason that the rest of the plot exists. If you want to check this one out with absolutely no spoilers, then turn around now and come back later (or don’t; it’s still a free country*). Here’s what’s in the basement:

A little girl named Sweetiepie (Blake Baumgartner). 

And the “dark secret”? Gloria and George could never have children. Ethan’s just a doll (we learn this later but long after Gloria says, in roundabout religious language, that either she or George is infertile) that Gloria got from her mother before the latter died of cancer in the former’s childhood. George kidnapped Sweetiepie as a replacement for the child that Gloria could never have, but it didn’t work out, and so instead of just killing her they’ve locked her up in the basement. Which is obviously messed up, but I was expecting a twist that was less Room and more in the vein of Fright Night, or at the very least something in the ballpark of Apt Pupil

That having been said, this is a fun little romp. I’m forever saying that there are far too few thrillers set during the daylight hours, and if we’re all being honest here, many of those which do exist look cheap. Not so here, as dual neophyte directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, who are also each credited as co-writer, craft a dynamically shot feature with an eye for depth of field and a couple of fascinating framing choices and shots that I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever seen before. Monroe is clearly having a lot of fun here, and it’s nice to see her getting to have a good time and let loose after great-but-understated performances in The Guest and It Follows. I know Donovan only from Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (I have a soft spot) and somewhere in the neighborhood of 786 commercials for Burn Notice during my final semester of grad school while watching Criminal Minds in syndication for six hours a day. While his is the weakest performance of the leading quartet, it’s only because George and Gloria are characters on the more exaggerated end of the scale, having a wholesome folksiness that lacks the edge of malice that the character requires, and Donovan doesn’t get to showcase the range that his screen partner does. There’s a fun bit toward the beginning when he attempts to ingratiate himself with Mickey and Jules, without success, and it’s fun, but each scene thereafter is a variation on delivery. I was surprised by Skarsgård here as well, as I know him almost solely from Hemlock Grove, in which he rose to the level of the material (not very high) and the IT films, in which he was fantastic. He’s magnetic here in a way that I haven’t seen before, as a man who isn’t terribly book smart, or street smart, but is charming and has a certain brightness about him that surfaces when it’s needed most. 

Sedgwick is great here, hamming it up with an erotic dance and over-the-top seduction in one scene, then doing a perversely quick spin to sympathetic as she cuts the skin of her hands to shreds grasping at the porcelain shards of Ethan’s shattered head, then to threatening, then maternal. I saw Singles when I was sixteen and absolutely fell in love with Sedgwick, and even further back than that, for some reason, every time I watched Amazing Stories when I was a kid, it was always the episode where she sends food down that well in the desert. That scene in Singles when she delivers the monologue about garage door openers is peak cinema to me. Unlike other films in the psychobiddy genre, the camp here is undeniably intentional, and although this hurts the film a little on the whole, it also gives Sedgwick the opportunity to play things a little broadly and to the cheap seats in some scenes as she babbles about her past and Ethan, and to bring everything around her into sharp focus when she reminisces about her childhood and George’s courtship of her. 

Standout scenes include a painful tongue stud removal, the repetition of the “carwash,” which is a unique and sweet act of intimacy in which Jules waves her hair back and forth over Mickey’s face like an automated car wash mop, a reverse laundry chute escape, and Gloria pantomiming. Check it out. Or don’t; again, I’m not your boss.  It’s on Hulu.

*Void where prohibited, and your mileage will vary.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Psycho Granny (2019)

Between the releases of Greta & Ma in recent months, it seems as if the psychobiddy genre might be making a quiet comeback in American movie theaters. It’s arguable, though, that the genre has been alive & well on our television sets for decades even without this theatrical-release revival, thanks to the melodramatic schlock regularly churned out on the Lifetime network. While the trope of once-respectable grande dames losing their minds & becoming crazed killers used to function as late-career revivals for aging stars as high on the food chain as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Olivia de Havilland, it’s since trickled down into made-for-cable schlock on Lifetime for sorta half-famous stars from long-forgotten soap operas & B-pictures. Few Lifetime Original Movies are as blatant about their participation in this hagsploitation tradition as Psycho Granny, which sidesteps the usual Lifetime method of hiding its exploitation cinema intentions behind titles like Wife, Mother, Murderer, by essentially just naming itself after the top Google result for “psycho biddy synonym.” Originally pitched under alternate titles like Lineage of Lies & Granny’s Home, Psycho Granny’s shamelessly honest moniker is a decisive affirmation that Lifetime has been keeping this sleazy tradition alive even in the decades when major studios have been slacking. And, just to drive the point home, it was aired as a double feature with another Lifetime Original titled Killer Grandma.

Just because Lifetime makes psychobiddy cheapies the most often doesn’t mean they make them best, though. At least, I don’t think you’ll find anything in Psycho Granny that wasn’t done to greater delight in Greta or Ma. Instead of world-class acting giants like Isabelle Huppert & Octavia Spencer slumming it in delirious genre trash unworthy of their talents, we’re treated to a typifying performance from Robin Riker, most “famous” for starring in the (badass, but underseen) creature feature relic Alligator nearly 40 year ago. Psycho Granny opens with its best scene, a camp tableau in which Riker toasts/berates the dead bodies of her “family” members arranged about the dining room table, all recently poisoned by her traditional, grandmotherly turkey dinner. The rest of the picture is standard Lifetime Movie fare: a trashy, low-energy thriller in which Riker’s delusional “grandmother” character elbows her way into a young, pregnant couple’s lives – convincing them that she’s actually family and not a sociopathic killer. Like in Ma, she scrapbooks relics from her crimes in a menacing tone. Like in Greta, the humor and the horror of the scenario derive from the moments when she drops her helpless-old-woman facade to reveal the monster underneath – usually in Gollum/Sméagol-style arguments with herself in the rearview mirror of her car. The effect of these common touches just comes across a little dulled here, as if they were business as usual for the Lifetime Original Movie format, not wild, delirious transgressions from actors who should know better.

Psycho Granny is mildly fun & incredibly sleazy in the way all Lifetime movies are. There are some delightfully absurdist details in Riker’s behavior (including a weird fixation on her newest granddaughter-victim’s toilet flushing habits) and an occasional line like “I would kill for a glass of Pinot right now!” that stand out as primo Lifetime fodder. The move also hits its most ideal strides once Riker starts killing again in the third act – disposing of her victims in specifically grandmotherly ways: strangling busybodies with the hanging tennis ball chord in the garage and bashing skulls in with whistling teapots. Where the movie really shines, though, is in having Riker’s “No more wire hangers!” trigger be Millennials sending too much time on their phones. The film is obsessed with young husbands & mothers being distracted from quality family time by “burying their faces in their phones,” so that when Riker chastises their smartphone addictions, she’s playing directly into the generational resentments of Lifetime’s aging, judgmental audience. It’s a detail that recalls not only the wire-hangers trigger from Mommie Dearest, but also the wearing-white-after-Labor-Day kill from Serial Mom and the chicken-beheading mania of (possibly the greatest psychobiddy of all time) Strait-Jacket, which I mean as the highest compliment. The film never threatens to match the heightened fever-pitch camp of those pinnacles of the genre, but it does help connect the dots between traditional psychobiddy tropes and the usual goings-on of the Lifetime network.

The only inkling I had that Psycho Granny may have achieved more than the usual Lifetime standard is that it was directed by Rebekah McKendry, co-host of the excellent Blumhouse horror podcast Shock Waves. McKendry promoted the film as a “darkly comedic thriller” on her own social media, and the opening turkey dinner tableau hints at that subversive impulse. For the most part, though, it’s a fairly standard Lifetime movie about an aging, smartphone-hating woman who’s gone headfirst off the deep end. Which is to say that it’s a three-star campy pleasure in the age-old psychobiddy tradition.

-Brandon Ledet

Ma (2019)

One of the more unexpected pop culture joys of 2019 has been the mainstream revival of the psychobiddy genre. What started as a dual career rejuvenator for Old Hollywood legends Bette Davis & Joan Crawford in the camp classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? stuck around for much of the 60s & 70s for other aged-out-of-leading-roles actresses like Shelly Winters, Debbie Reynolds, Tallulah Bankhead, and Olivia de Havilland in lesser drive-in marquee filler. Coined as the “psychobiddy” thriller or the “Grand Damme” horror or, most crudely, “hagsploitation,” the post-Baby Jane tradition of actresses Hollywood deemed too old to be fuckable reviving their careers in dirt-cheap genre work far below their skill level has given us some of the greatest slices of over-the-top schlock ever seen on the big screen. If nothing else, I’d easily rank the William Castle picture Strait-Jacket, which cast Joan Crawford as an axe-wielding maniac, among the greatest films ever made – full stop. I welcome any signs of a new psycobiddy wave with open arms, then, even if the genre label could be construed as a cruel insult to the actors cast as leads under that umbrella. 2019 hagsplotation has given us Isabelle Huppert dancing her way through over-the-top cartoon villainy in Greta, Robin Riker tormenting her pregnant granddaughter in the Lifetime movie Psycho Granny, and now Octavia Spencer partying with (and cruelly torturing) teens in the Blumhouse horror Ma. I sincerely hope there’s more to come.

The only thing preventing Ma from fully participating in psychobiddy tradition is the age & status of its star. At less than 50 years old and appearing in Oscar-worthy features as recently as the 2017 Best Picture-winner The Shape of Water, Octavia Spencer should likely be disqualified from being considered in a hagsploitation context. Every other aspect of Ma qualifies her performance and her character arc for the label, though. Like all psychobiddy villains, Ma is a sympathetic sadist who was only driven into violence & madness by a world that was cruel to her in the past. That sympathy does little to soften the severity of her crimes, though, as she veers from menacing threats & light stalking into full-on slasher villain & torture porn tropes as her psychoses worsen. Most importantly, the character is an excellent acting showcase for Octavia Spencer’s full range as a talent who’s too often relegated to one-note supporting roles. She’s given room to run wild here as a full-blown one-woman spectacle, often tearing through every emotion & tone imaginable with a machine gun efficiency: the deep hurt of a wounded animal, the slack-jawed thousand-yard stare of a Norman Bates descendent, the jubilant dancing of an invincible party girl, and the disarming sweetness of a family friend you’ve know your entire life. It’s at first baffling to learn that Tate Taylor, the doofus responsible for The Help, also directed this deliciously over the-top schlock, but it gradually becomes obvious that the goon simply loves to watch Octavia Spencer devour the scenery and it just took him a while to find the proper context for that indulgence – the psychobiddy.

A group of fatally bored teens waste away their youth in a small industrial town by drinking & vaping at the old rock quarry – the exact drab spot where their parents guzzled liquor decades in the past. After allowing the teens to talk her into purchasing their alcohol for them, an unassuming vet tech (Spencer) feigns concern that the kids might be drinking & driving and offers them an enticing alternative to their usual weekend spot: her basement. Gradually, all the teens in the area start partying in Ma’s basement as if it were a hot new nightclub, but Ma herself remains fixated on the few teens from the initial group, inserting herself into their lives outside the bounds of the party. Caught between enjoying the teenage popularity she was never afforded as a bullied outsider in her youth and avenging a mysterious trauma that’s haunted her since high school, Ma fluctuates between a fun party girl and a murderous biddy psychopath with the flip of a switch. She dances The Robot and karate-chops pyramids of beer cans like the party mom these kids ever had. She also stalks the teens she obsesses over the most on social media, eventually attempting to permanently collect them in her basement as tortured captives. The best moments of the film are when these two modes clash, as when she mutters the lyrics to Debbie Deb’s club jam “Look Out Weekend” to herself while maniacally scrapbooking. Spencer is mostly a wonder for being able to alternate between these tones with rapid-fire efficiency, often playing sane & friendly in one beat then zoning out in a lapse moment of murderous meditation the next.

The filmmaking craft in Ma is similarly all over the place, but to more of a frustrating effect. The film opens with the cheap inspo-pop & teen melodrama of a CW series, but also conjures occasional surprises like the drastic split-diopter shots of a classic De Palma thriller. In either instance, neither the visual stylings of Tate Taylor nor the inner lives of Ma’s teenage victims are the draw in this picture. This is purely Octavia Spencer’s show, and she adeptly delivers all the tragedy, fun, and cruelty you could possibly want from this kind of genre trash. She may be a little too young and a little too prestigious to be indulging in a psychobiddy thriller at this point in her career, but the result is so deliciously campy & genuinely upsetting that it would be foolish to complain about the method. Ma is an A+ actor’s showcase in a psychobiddy context, a clear standout in the genre’s (albeit minor) 2019 revival.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #84 of The Swampflix Podcast: Ma (2019) & Classic Psychobiddies

Welcome to Episode #84 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our eighty-fourth episode, Brandon & Britnee compare the latest entry into the psychobiddy canon, Ma (2019), to a couple towering classics in the genre: Strait-Jacket (1964) & The Nanny (1965). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas