Whatever Happened to Pearl?: The Role of Hag Cinema

“You mean, all this time, we could have been friends?”

Hollywood is terrified of old women. They are traditionally a site of great horror to studio executives and cinemas alike. As though every female love interest is born with a terrible curse, so terrible that the film must end before they succumb to it. That’s why people begin screaming if they meet a woman over the age of 35. At least, that’s the sexist presumption hag cinema operates from. While male actors are allowed to grow old, actresses must traditionally be categorized as either love interest or mother/grandmother/support. A love interest can be complex while still being sexualized, to an extent. The grandmother must be completely un-sexualized, even if they are a sinister character or are the older version of the love interest. Having any sort of blur between these categories is rare in Hollywood, Western cinema as a whole, and if it is present, it’s treated as a source of comedy, or more likely, horror. Fearing that blur led to a subgenre in horror, known today as hag cinema or psycho-biddy cinema.

“The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops…But isn’t superstition still rampant among us?”

I prefer the term ‘hag’, and that’s because it connects to a larger history. If you’ve read my article on Häxan (1922), a silent hyper-stylized film about the history witchcraft, then hag cinema should be familiar. Hags appear in some of the earliest films, from George Méliès’ The Witch (1906) to Walt Disney’s Snow White (1937). Yet, their appearance in these projects came from a broader anxiety of old women, one which extend far beyond film. Fear is like a parasite; it feeds off the culture it inhabits. You can chart broad cultural anxiety by going decade by decade through media, and not just horror media. Femme fatales, for instance, became prevalent in the 1940s because of the changing social roles of women, and their place in the workforce during the war. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), as another example, is ultimately about fear of foreign and political invaders, people taking your lives and jobs. That brings me to the term ‘hag’, as like those other types, that fear is dependent on the culture using it.

Traditional Catholic witches are sex obsessed. They are your typical Bride of Dracula femme fatal, someone who preys on men. Protestant witches, more the Salem type in the 17th century, are old women. The Protestant were largely focused on family and children, which requires sex, and so their fears were less sex-focused and more about evil women perverting a family. So, infertile women, jealous old biddies, and child murderers became far more common under the Protestant model. When Hollywood introduced witch movies, we saw a blend of these models, and suddenly women were transforming from seducers into jealous hags, much like the Evil Stepmother in Snow White. The greatest horror Hollywood could imagine was a woman who was both old and sexual, Protestant and Catholic.

Hag cinema is the direct result of this combination, and the fear of going back and forth, as films like Häxan discuss but also perpetuate. This representation proves two somewhat contradictory things. First, fears are constantly changing and developing with current events, often leading to said current events, creating this whole snake eats own tail dynamic. Each hag film is unique, and time specific, which is how they resonate with their contemporary audience. Second, those fears fundamentally come from older ideas, and thus, despite their complexity, are not all that unique or complex. A new witch film might appear unique and time specific, but ultimately, it’s related to this broader representation. Even if you are unaware of these older films and texts, they are directly impacting the way you define ‘so-called’ modern fear. Horror cinema is an exaggerated stage for this discussion, examining what appears to be unique but is actually connected to an established conversation. Subgenres like hag cinema therefore detail how the very impulse of those fears unites the audience thematically, socially, and historically.

The modern definition of hag cinema is a film with two antagonists: the older woman and the concept of aging. It’s not just that there’s an evil old woman, it’s that this evilness is the direct result of aging, which almost always makes them violently jealous of young women. The assumption is that getting old is the worst thing that could happen to a woman, and it warps her both physically and mentally. If that sounds insulting, it is. Hag cinema is extraordinarily dismissive and gendered, as though sex cannot develop beyond that youthful classification. A hag film is also any film where the older woman’s sexuality is a source of uncomfortable horror, both to the audience and other characters.

It’s crucial to note that treatment like this is not reserved to hag cinema, it happens to any women who don’t fit the young love interest classification, or people who don’t fit a traditional model. Consider how many films with plus size or fat women which argue that any attraction to said women is a source of comedy, shock, or straight up horror. I can only think of a few films with fat leads where this awful treatment is not the case, and they have all come out in the last five years or so. Again, this is some serious sexism which has real world consequences, but today I am focusing on hag cinema, and I mention an issue like fatphobia because it illustrates how this conversation extends past the hag subgenre. I also want to make it clear; the majority of hag films are created by male directors and writers discussing women. It’s not so much women being afraid of aging as men being afraid of aging or aged women. That’s evident even in the production of some of the most famous hag films, even films which trouble the hag subgenre.

“I’ve written a letter to Daddy. His address his Heaven above.”
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane ?

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) is one of my favourite films, and I learned about it through its insane production history. The film gained a recent resurgence following the 2017 miniseries Feud, which tactfully examines how the production scandals incidentally mirror the film’s tragedy. Baby Jane is about two old sisters who live together and hate together. Jane is a former child star, known as ‘Baby Jane Hudson’, who toured across the US, performing, and selling her specialty doll line. Blanche is a former film star who was left wheelchair bound after a car accident she blames Jane for. The two are stuck in Blanche’s mansion, which she wants to sell. Jane has spent years ‘caring’ for Blanche while going insane. She continues to infantilize herself, jealous that Blanche was able to have a career as an adult, while she could not. She dresses up as Baby Jane everyday, wearing exaggerated white makeup and a wig with curls, reminiscent of Shirley Temple. She also performs her old routines in the living room and tries to hire a pianist for a comeback show, which further exacerbates her madness.

Spoilers, Blanche is near death after being tied up and starved upstairs, and Jane has committed a murder that the authorities have tracked back to her. Jane takes Blanche to the beach while running away, and completely reverts to this child role, not really understanding what’s happening, even waltzing her routine on the beach as the authorities arrive. One of the big tragedies of the film, and there are a few, is that Blanche confesses in these final moments that she was trying to kill Jane years ago, not the other way around. Jane was drunk, and Blanche was frustrated with her constant pestering for roles and embarrassed by her behaviour that night at a party, and so she tried to hit her with the car while Jane was opening the mansion gate. Jane escaped, and was too drunk to remember, but the car’s impact on the gate left Blanche severely injured. She’s been lying to everyone and Jane ever since, trying to appear like a victim, as she does for most of the film. This beach confession leads to the most famous line in the film, as hearing this, Jane replies, “you mean, all this time we could have been friends?”. The women’s hatred towards one other comes from themselves, as we don’t see anyone actively encouraging their hatred. It’s implied that their father began this rivalry, but we don’t see that, and so the tragedy is that the two did this to themselves. Their misery was a choice because they opposed and compared themselves rather than helping one another.

“You Weren’t Ugly Then. I Made You That Way.”

The production faced a similar outcome but with different circumstances. Baby Jane stars two Hollywood greats: Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, the latter of which was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, which led to a further scandal. I won’t recount the drama here, go watch the miniseries if you are interested, it’s excellent. Suffice to say, Crawford and Davis were pitted against one another repeatedly by the studio because their scandal sold papers, but more importantly, because united, the two would be more powerful than they could handle. Had Crawford and Davis supported one another, the studio wouldn’t have been able to manipulate them because each was already a fierce presence in Hollywood. They would have been unstoppable together, making the tragedy, as Jane famously states, “all this time we could have been friends”. Unlike Jane and Blanche, however, Crawford and Davis were never given the opportunity to choose otherwise, as their feud was largely orchestrated. Baby Jane was a massive success, and it went on to inspire multiple hag films which tried to capitalize off the fame, to varying degrees of success. They either tried to recreate the plot or hire Crawford or Davis to play similar characters, like in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Hag cinema owes a lot to Baby Jane, and that’s apparent even today with Pearl (2022), which is heavily focused on Baby Jane, and ties its earlier film, X (2022),to hag cinema by doing so. More on that shortly.

You’ll notice I’ve tied most of this discussion to Western cinema, but hag films are international. It’s just that international filmmakers handle them slightly different. Take House or Hausu (1977), the renowned Japanese horror film by director Nobuhiko Obayashi. It’s an insane film in all the best ways. A girl gets eaten by a piano, the effects are unforgettable, and there’s a witch who siphons her niece’s youth to grow young. I mention House because of its labels, which it uses in an abstract way, versus a modern American film like Pearl which uses labels, but only does so through recognizable films. The characters in House have names like Gorgeous, Melody, Kung Fu and those are their defining characteristics. That’s all you really need to know about them, and it’s announced in this immediate and outright way. These names/labels are not referencing a specific movie, just the tropes often associated with horror movies, particularly American. You already know what is going to happen to these characters based on their name, especially Mac, whose main characteristic is that she is constantly hungry and fat shamed. It’s pretty awful, but the film is gesturing to what is already happening in Western cinema. It’s up to viewer which films or stories they find in House, because it’s referencing an entire genre. Pearl takes a different approach with a somewhat similar intention. It references two films in particular: Baby Jane and The Wizard of Oz (1939). By tethering its narrative to these films, Pearl asks the audience to play along with those specific movies without thinking further into the genre. When you do, there are some troubling things happening in its version of hag cinema, but whether those are conscious or not is up for debate.

“My name is Jane Hudson. Maybe you remember me? I’m Baby Jane Hudson.”

Baby Jane is arguably the biggest reference source in Pearl, but one less known that Oz. Pearl takes place in 1918, and Baby Jane in the 1960s, and so Pearl takes place while Baby Jane is popular (roughly 1917), long before the events of that hag film. There are a few outright references to Baby Jane, particularly the bird in the cage. Blanche has a bird in her room, and Jane eventually kills it and serves it to her on a tray. We do see some pretty disgusting meals in Pearl, like the maggot filled pig and moldy sides at the dinner table. Not to mention the bodies fed to Pearl’s alligator. However, the bird does not die in Pearl, although as I was chatting with a friend of mine, she assumed that it would. Given that it does in Baby Jane, you assume that it will, to the extent where you can just assume she does after the events of the film. Even if you haven’t seen Baby Jane, you assume the bird is going to die at some point. Then it doesn’t. So how is Pearl referencing Baby Jane, a film that is relativity un-popular now, and why?

Pearl and Jane are eerily similar, even though Pearl doesn’t infantilize herself to the same extent. Both are obsessed with stardom and cannot handle when that industry rejects their affection. They love the stage, so how could the stage not love them? Each film features multiple dance scenes, as Jane dances in front of her mirror, acting out her old routine, while Pearl imagines what her dance could be when she is a star. The backup dancers, the costumes, effects, the applause. The difference between Pearl and Jane is that Jane is mourning what she had and cannot move beyond whereas Pearl is mourning the fantasy she must move beyond. Another way Pearl references Baby Jane is through its sequel status. Pearl is a prequel to X, which also came out this year, and features Mia Goth in the titular role. They’ve recently announced that a third film, based in the 80s, will likewise follow the events of X. Before I go further, I should mention that I turned off X about midway through. The only reason I watched it was because I wanted to see Pearl, based solely on the trailer. I didn’t enjoy X at all, but in all honesty, I am not big on that kind of slasher film. I have zero desire to watch a film like Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), which X makes repeated references to. I understand what these films are doing, and I appreciate the attention in them, but I find them frustrating and gross.

More importantly, however, I found X’s portrayal of old women and aging reductive, and I suppose part of was an intentional reduction. Again, that’s up for debate. It’s one of the most obvious examples of hag cinema I have ever encountered, and it really just sticks to that definition rather than complicating it in anyway, which Baby Jane and more modern hag films often do. Compare it with a film like Baby Jane, as Pearl asks you to with its repeated references. Baby Jane was marketed as a hag film, but it’s about the tragedy of those classifications, something that got lost in the drama of marketing. Jane is mourning, mourning for her old self. It has little to do with her aging, and when it does, that aging is handled in a profound way. Jane is not simply reduced to being old, there’s so much else going on. Take the scene where she is singing in the mirror and takes a step forward into the light and sees her face. At a glance, her following outburst seems to be a reaction to seeing her face, and looking old, but it’s not just that. Her outburst is because her fantasy life isn’t compatible with her current, because it was tied to being a child, not even an adult. Now, when she tells people that she is Baby Jane, no one takes her serious. Simply put, she is not incapacitated because of aging, she’s been rejected by the larger systems at play, all the way back when society shuttered her in adulthood. Baby Jane got too old, and no one knew how to develop that persona for adulthood. Jane can still do the routine, it’s the world that refused to watch it.

“We’re looking for something else. Younger and more blonde.”

Pearl in X is obsessed with being old, she is that Protestant witch, which figures given her mother (as shown in Pearl) is German. You can boil her characterization in X to being sad and old, being jealous, and being a murderer, which technically can also be said of Jane, but it’s less nuanced here and only becomes nuanced with the later sequel/prequel Pearl. But even then, Pearl and Baby Jane have different character arcs, as Pearl gives up her fantasy of being on stage, whereas Jane fully embraces it in her final dance on the beach. The X factor spoken of in Pearl becomes the porn industry, rated X, and we see a bit of that ‘dirty’ transformation happening in Baby Jane. One of the inciting causes for Jane’s chaos is that Blanche’s old movies are now playing on TV, and she has a sudden popularity resurgence. What was reserved for the theatre screen is now viewed at home, which sort of diminishes the cinema factor.

We are still having this conversation in the film world; about why you should visit cinemas when the same movies are available at home, sometimes released at the exact same time. The issue in Baby Jane is that something old and inaccessible is suddenly accessible and widespread, which becomes a commentary on Blanche and Jane’s fame. Blanche is forever young in film, whereas Jane cannot stay a child. Blanche now has fans everywhere, again, whereas Jane’s fame is never going to return because it was contingent on being live. Coming to see her on stage, buying a doll, calling out a song request. That level of interaction was never present in Blanche’s film career, and so Jane is determined to keep these new fans away so that interaction can never happen, like her refusing to introduce the neighbours to her. Many critics of Blanche and Jane’s time argued that showing old films on TV made them a lesser art form, because they were reduced to this small screen casual living room environment. Compare that to the way characters describe porn in X, as this emerging media that anyone can make, and anyone can watch at home.

X deals with the porn industry, which like Blanche’s movies on TV, is a shakeup for Hollywood. Pearl’s attack on the filmmakers suggests that the old (much like Jane) is jealous of this new branch of stardom. However, Pearl’s jealousy is sex obsessed, whereas Jane’s is not. Pearl has two sex scenes in Pearl, along with a brief black and white porno shown for a few seconds. Out of those sex scenes, one is with a Scarecrow, and it’s the only one shown. Pearl’s sex appeal isn’t the focus in Pearl, certainly not to the same extent as it is in X. Why is that? There are repeated scenes in X of Pearl trying and failing to seduce people, and then attacking. The prequel argues that Pearl attacks when she realizes someone is afraid of her. When she is young, people are afraid of her strange behaviour. When she is old, people write off that strange behaviour as dementia, so rather than being afraid of that, they are afraid of her appearance and sexuality. That’s not something she can control, as it’s not her fault that people view her as old. People being afraid when she was young was her fault, because she was off stabbing geese and people. She was in control then, not anymore.

“Someone with the X-Factor”

The appearance of Mia Goth’s other character in X, Maxine, amplifies that lack of control, as unlike Gorgeous’ Aunt in House, Pearl cannot replace her young counterpart, and instead, Maxine must destroy this older version of herself to escape. But still, Pearl in X is obsessed with her aging body, and that is treated as the film’s monster. Not just her actions, her body. That’s clear in the fact that it’s not an old woman playing Pearl, it’s Mia Goth in old age makeup. It’s as though the film is telling us that the worst and most monstrous thing is an old woman, something that requires hours of makeup to transform into, and is so frightening, they dare not have an actual old woman on set. By having the same actress play both roles, we get mirroring, but also this horror. Look what Maxine will become, what Pearl faded into. Is that insulting? Yes. Pearl definitely fixes some of the issues in X, just by expanding on Pearl’s character, as we don’t really know anything about her in X other than her being a jealous murderer. That brings me to the second film repeatedly referenced in Pearl.

The Wizard of Oz is one of the most well-known references a film can make. Everyone knows the basic story, the character types, the costumes. Much like Frankenstein, however, this is largely a cinematic legacy, as even though Oz is based on a series of books, most people are only familiar with the film version, and so that is the one often represented in media. Pearl is an adaptation of Oz, with Pearl playing a murderous version of Dorothy, possibly transforming into one of the evil witches at the end. Keep in mind, Pearl dies in X by being run over, specifically having her head squished, which resembles the Witch of East’s death, as she is also squished to death by some girl who steals something from her (her dream in this case). Pearl has brown hair that she keeps in two braids, and she is often shown in overalls (like Dorothy’s dress) and on a bike. Maxine also wears overalls in X, implying that Dorothy is a metaphor for aging, where the young Dorothy must destroy the old one to succeed, as both Pearl and Maxine are shown through Dorothy allusions. That would also mean that Dorothys always transform into witches once they get old, never Glinda, because they have already murdered a witch, whereas Glinda doesn’t, and is adored for it. Pearl kills her Mother, Maxine kills Pearl, so this third incoming film will likely see Maxine being killed by a younger version of herself.

We see multiple Oz characters in Pearl, as her mother is the Wicked Witch of the West, as she melts to death, despite Pearl throwing a pot of water on her. Toto is now a vicious alligator, helping Pearl by eating her victims and hiding the evidence. Then there’s the Scarecrow; her father and the literal scarecrow she has sex in a field with. There are a few uncomfortable scenes where Pearl asks if her father is still in there, if he can see what she is doing and understands it. Both he and the literal scarecrow are missing a brain to Pearl, because neither can interact back to her, and are just helpless to whatever she does. The Tin Man is the Projectionist, who works with machines and is missing a heart, according to Pearl when he becomes afraid of her. She doesn’t kill him with an axe, which would have been a cool opportunity. The axe is reserved for Glinda, the Good Witch, also known as Mitsy, Pearl’s sister-in-law who gets everything she wants and is the perfect blonde casting agents are looking for. Finally, the Cowardly Lion is played by Howard, Pearl’s husband who she calls a coward in multiple scenes for going to war and leaving her. He arrives at the end of the movie, so we don’t know what happens between Pearl and X, as he is in X, maiming alongside his wife. So, what happened here? How did he forgive Pearl for murdering his sister? Or is he so afraid of Pearl that he stays to control her, like her Mother did? I think something else is happening here, given that he represents courage.

“It’s not about what I want anymore…it’s about making the best of what I have.”

Upon returning home from war, Howard finds his in-laws severely decomposed around a moldy dinner table, before running into Pearl. In my favourite moment of the film, we get this still shot of Pearl laughing and then crying as the credits roll. Pearl explains in the film that her need to be on stage is related to her need to be loved, hence the “I Wanna Be Loved by You” Monroe song found in the film and trailer. That relates to Hollywood and violence, given Monroe’s legacy in media, but also Pearl’s just overwhelming need to be adored constantly. In fact, she blames her current murder spree on her mother’s unloving nature, when in fact her mother is purposefully isolating her because she knows what she is capable of and sees her better than anyone. With the return of Howard, Pearl hopes that love will return and substitute the rejection she faced at her audition. This apparently works, at least for a time, as she and Howard are still married and together in X. It’s possible that war changed Howard, as like Pearl, he has killed people, and is brave enough to face what Pearl is. Perhaps that takes some liquid courage, as the Lion receives in Oz, but he is the only one who gains what he was missing in the film. None of Dorothy’s other companions survive, in fact, they are killed because of what they were missing. The lack of heart and mind. Howard alone gains that missing quality, despite his and Pearl’s relationship going unexplained in X.

Pearl’s ending might seem a little strange given her sudden decision to abandon the stage and live as her mother instructed, but it’s the same ending as Oz. Both Dorothy and Pearl learn that “there’s no place like home”, and that takes on a desolate quality for Pearl. Whereas Dorothy was able to escape her mundane life and troubles through fantasy, and then chooses to go back, Pearl’s imagined life never exists, and she has no choice about it. Each see behind the curtain and are surprised there’s just a man behind all the fantasy and glam, but their reactions differ. Dorothy accepts it, threatens him, and gets her way. Pearl has a full meltdown and has to be dragged out of her audition. Dorothy gets a hot balloon trip home, and Pearl gets a pity ride home from Mitsy, guilty that she got the part instead.

There is a seedy underbelly to the term fantasy, hence the change found between Pearl and X. The ending of Pearl signals the end of her dream, and what that leaves her with. We get that comparison early on in Pearl, after the Projectionist shows her a porn film he got from France, which she finds interesting, but doesn’t compare her dreams to it. She does in X, implying that some change has happened, mainly because she got old, and her sex appeal diminished. Pearl is not about aging, it’s about giving up and compromise, which feels more immediate to its potential target audience. Both X and Pearl ask how we see ourselves while changing the factors of that conversation. Pearl knows she is not a good person in Pearl, and she has given up trying to hide that in X. I definitely prefer Pearl as a film, but I think the two combined make an interesting conversation. I am not sure X in anyway dismantles the sexism of hag cinema, it possibly intensifies it, but at least Pearl complicates this dynamic. X is not meant to be realistic, and Pearl argues in Pearl that she is not interested in reality to begin with. So, the movement from X to Pearl is a movement from one film subgenre to another, from acclaimed thriller/hag film to slaughter porn, as both porn and slaughter play a crucial role in the film, which director Ti West is consciously working through.

“Must be one goddamn fucked up horror picture.”

It is interesting to see how modern filmmakers approach technicolour with the impulse to redefine its characteristics through extreme and graphic horror, which isn’t even found in Baby Jane or other hag films. House is graphic, but so stylized and extreme that the horror is never ‘real’. Even Death Becomes Her (1992) includes graphic scenes, but always with humour. Pearl goes further by arguing that these hags have always had extreme horror to them, but it was never shown, almost like director West is showing us behind the curtain to what these earlier hag films censored, given the decade they were released. There was horror on the set of Baby Jane, which played into the content, and Oz, where it didn’t. Judy Garland was routinely starved and drugged while making that film, Margaret Hamilton as the Witch of the West received third-degree burns from the green makeup, and Buddy Ebsen was covered with toxic aluminum paint before being replaced with Jack Haley, but none of that horror is found in Oz, unless you believe the Munchkin hanging theory. Baby Jane features the opposite, as it has some respect for its characters and a willingness to talk about and complicate horror, but the production and reception encouraged infighting.

By adding horror to the content, unlike a film like Oz, Pearl suggests that hag horror is about outsiders. Outsiders like Pearl, but also Jane and Blanche, kicked out of these systems, abandoned to become critically acclaimed hags. It’s not just that these films are self-aware about hag cinema, the hags themselves are becoming self-aware of these classifications, and so what follows, is how they handle these imposed roles, with varying degrees of success. Jane and Blanche discover the truth too late, and the horror is already done. Pearl discovers the truth while young and can never move beyond it, isolating herself at the farm, feeding on passersby.