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Monday, August 24, 2015

Bay of the Living Dead: Billy Clift Has Bette Davis Eyes

Posted By on Mon, Aug 24, 2015 at 2:00 PM

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Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead,  a twice-a-month column about the horror genre.

Robert Aldrich’s Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1965) remains one of the best known and beloved titles in the Bette Davis filmography. 

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte was the follow-up to Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), the surprise box office smash in which real-life rivals and bitter enemies Davis and Joan Crawford co-starred as two mad sisters. Both former movie stars, they lived in total isolation in a decaying Hollywood mansion, where Jane (Davis) retreated into a disturbing fantasy world. Creepy and campy, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? titillated moviegoers who were no doubt well-aware of the enmity between the two legendary ladies — was there a grain of truth to the scenes in which a maniacally insane Davis tormented a wheelchair-bound Crawford?

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte was meant to reunite the two stars and their director in the hope that box office magic would be repeated. Though Crawford posed for some publicity stills with Davis early during Charlotte's production, she was ultimately replaced by Olivia de Havilland — another of Hollywood’s legendary ladies. The diva-esque Crawford proved to be more than Aldrich and company could deal with.

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a tale of madness and murder set on a Gothic Southern plantation. Davis and de Havilland chewed the scenery as every bizarre plot twist was revealed. Agnes Moorehead, then enjoying enormous popularity for her role as Endora on the supernatural sitcom Bewitched, scored an Oscar nomination for her grandiose, over-the-top performance as Davis’ housekeeper — one of seven Academy nominations bestowed upon the film. 

click to enlarge Bette Davis in the Original Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte - 20TH CENTURY FOX
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  • Bette Davis in the Original Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte
The film now stands as a delightfully morbid campy chiller which sometimes tugs at viewers’ heartstrings — Davis is spot-on as a desperately lonely and tragic woman who might not be as mad as she appears. 

It’s the kind of movie that gay men adore. So naturally a gay man has decided to remake, or re-imagine it. Billy Clift is now putting the finishing touches on Hush Up Sweet Charlotte, his homage to the original. This new film, which stars local drag icons Matthew Martin and Heklina, will premiere at the Castro Theater on October 28. 

This is the second time Clift has ventured into Bette Davis territory: the filmmaker's wild and crazy Baby Jane (2010) which also co-stars Martin and Heklina, is now available on DVD. Both films were shot in San Francisco.   

Clift tells SF Weekly that he was an L.A. kid who grew up loving the movies. He was the personal hair and make-up artist for Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery during the last 15 years of Montgomery’s life. He was deeply affected by Montgomery’s early death from cancer, which made him realize what he really wanted to do with his life: be a filmmaker.

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“When I first screened Baby Jane in Chicago I remember someone asked me why I made it,” Clift said. “I didn’t think anything of it, why shouldn’t I make it?"

It turns out that Clift's Gothic homages had an unexpected inspiration, in addition to the Bette Davis classics he was paying tribute to. "A great inspiration was The Brady Bunch Movie,"  he said. "We don’t want a remake of these characters. We want to revisit, with a nod and a wink, and care about them.”

Clift said that viewers familiar with the original Charlotte screenplay will notice definite changes in his own script. “Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, to me, was not a perfect film like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” he said. “It stumbles. Still the same great acting, but it has a lot of holes. But the story is amazing.”

Clift said that he gave many of the characters in his Charlotte a backstory that wasn’t in the original. He also pays homage to the original film’s fallen co-star. “I thought it was real fun to have a Joan Crawford character first coming to the house to help Charlotte, but then her identical twin sister kidnaps her and locks her in the closet until the end,” he said.

We wondered how Clift is able to do what amounts to scene-for-scene remakes of classic and iconic films. How does he circumvent copyright laws?

“I use the Parody Law, the same thing Saturday Night Live uses,” he explained. “I had a bunch of lawyers look at it for Hush Up Sweet Charlotte.”

Clift says that he adores working with Matthew Martin and Heklina. “I do know that I will be doing another film with Matthew,” he said. “Heklina is a wonderful talent and really works well on film. He’s much more subtle in some of the things he does than you think. And that face is just hilarious!”

Clift tells us that he’s already considering doing an homage to another Davis thriller, 1964’s Dead Ringers. He’s currently in pre-production on a biopic about Montgomery Clift, the gorgeous (and gay) 1950s movie hunk who drank himself to death.    

As promised last time, here are a few more scary titles now available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory. 

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Race With the Devil (1975) is a wildly fun thrill ride about two couples on vacation who accidentally stumble upon a Satanic cult conducting a ritual murder. They spend the rest of the film fleeing for their lives, the cult in hot pursuit.

More of an action/adventure film with horror/supernatural overtones, Race With the Devil is a classic B-movie which becomes surprisingly unnerving as the travelers gradually realize that being paranoid doesn't necessarily mean they're imagining things. 

No one is who they appear to be. Not the friendly couple the frightened foursome go out to dinner with at a trailer park, nor the creepy gas station attendant, certainly not the "kindly" sheriff who's a little too friendly. Frequent co-stars Peter Fonda and Warren Oates give strong performances as the two husbands, while Loretta Swit (M*A*S*H) and Lara Parker (Dark Shadows) spend most of the film screaming for help while waiting to be rescued — the thinly written ladies' roles are surprisingly sexist for a film made during the peak years of the women's lib movement.

Race With the Devil remains a guilty pleasure regardless. Scream Factory's Blu-ray features an on-camera interview with Fonda and a commentary track from Parker, plus the film's theatrical trailer. The disc is co-billed with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, another Peter Fonda action flick which has no connection to the horror genre. 
click to enlarge Blu Ray Box Cover - SCREAM FACTORY
  • Scream Factory
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B movies don't get much cheesier than Squirm (1976), a no-budget indie that was distributed by drive-in movie kings American International Pictures. This dandy sci-fi chiller is about millions of very hungry worms converging upon a small Georgia town after a lightning storm.

Forgotten actor R.A. Dow achieves cinema immorality after his face is eaten by the worms. Like Freddy and Jason the following decade, Dow refuses to die, becoming more and more maniacal each time the worms get him. This is wonderfully priceless stuff, and yes, the film is actually scary!

Scream Factory's Blu Ray includes interviews with director Jeff Lieberman and star Don Scardino, plus Squirm's original theatrical trailer.     



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