What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? ★★★★½

The ultimate screen bitch and screen victim come together in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, a horror film of the grotesque that revived the careers of two formidable American icons.

Davis is a mentally-disabled former child star caring for her invalid sister (Crawford), who became a movie star as an adult until a mysterious car accident left her paralysed. They now reside together in a crumbling old mansion in Beverley Hills. When a TV network starts replaying Crawford's old movies, Davis's seething jealousy is reignited, and she subjects Crawford to a series of deprivational abuses - including starvation - while desperately trying to salvage her own pathetic career as an entertainer.

Director Robert Aldrich pays close attention to Davis' sagging face, which looks like a lumpy patchwork of moth-eaten flesh held together with pins. Shot in black and white, the lighting is arranged to bring out every powdered wrinkle and shadow. Wearing about ten layers of white foundation, the closeups of Bette Davis are too close; it's as if a demented 200-year-old drag queen is glaring down at us, screaming irrationally, about to claw our eyes out. Everybody in this movie is sad, even Crawford, the saintly victim trapped upstairs, who looks like a garish, contoured shadow of her former self.

Victor Buono appears as a miserable overweight homosexual with a fish-wife mother who answers Davis' personal ad looking for a musician. He goes to Davis' house fronting as a well-bred Englishman, and they sit for a civilised cup of tea and politely deceive one another while Crawford dehydrates upstairs. Later Davis stands before a mirror wearing a lacy dress and screeches out the song, 'I've Written a Letter to Daddy', while Buono chokes down his discomfort. He knows she's sick, but she's offered to pay him a ridiculous amount of money, so he takes advantage of her. He does to Davis what she is doing to Crawford, albeit in a less violent way. They are two drunk frauds in hopeless situations with very little to live for. Buono is fat and repulsive, smothered by his shrew of a mother, and age has turned Davis into a withered crone who wears her impending death on her face, but who talks and throws violent fits like a 9-year-old girl. That's the kind of horror Aldrich evokes with Baby Jane.

'You know we have rats in the cellar?' Davis says to Crawford at one point, before slumping out of the room to hide in the hallway. Crawford wheels tenuously toward the tray of silverware, lifts the lid, looks down at the dead rat laid out on a bed of lettuce, screams and throws the tray off the table. David starts cackling and can't seem to stop. Crawford hears the mocking laughter and cries. Unable to call anyone, she starts spinning her wheelchair in circles. From the ceiling we watch her go mad as her sister's demented cackles are heard from the hall. It's so overwrought, so grotesque and suggestive, that it's difficult to know whether to laugh or feel disturbed. What's nice about the movie is that it allows you to do both. Ageing is frightening: the idea of wanting a future at an age where there is none is a cruel and inevitable part of life. There's a certain horror in watching ourselves erode over the course of our lives. It's a real horror that is at the very heart of Baby Jane.