“Thriller” is certainly the classification most commonly associated with Robert Aldrich’s 1962 film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and it suffices. But to my mind, there is no more fitting a genre assignment for this picture than horror. This story of deranged, former child star, Baby Jane (Bette Davis), and the mental and physical abuse she heaps upon her invalid sister, Blanche (Joan Crawford), is indeed nothing short of horrific. Rarely, in fact, have I come across a more gut-tightening, nerve-racking picture than this in horror, or any other genre for that matter. Perhaps it’s because the scenario of the film is entirely realistic and believable, and because the character on the receiving end of Baby Jane’s torturous mind games is confined to a wheelchair on the upper floor of their home. Then again, Bette Davis acts the hell out of this movie! Her performance alone is a masterpiece in and of itself, never mind the picture as a whole. And for me, Baby Jane, with her anachronistic childish curls and garish makeup, is every bit the iconic horror psycho that Norman Bates was.
Director Robert Aldrich, who of course had helmed the penultimate (and, many argue, final) film noir, Kiss Me Deadly (1955), teamed up on Baby Jane with cinematographer Ernest Haller, whose impressive credits include Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Gone with the Wind (1939)! Aldrich and Haller’s collaborative style here, characterized by high contrast lighting, a tendency to obscure performers behind bars and other such set pieces, and startling harsh angles, created one of the single most overwhelmingly unsettling works to come out of Hollywood. Of course, the terrific screenplay by Lukas Heller and Davis’ unrelenting performance help too!
Now, you really couldn’t ask for a better transfer of Baby Jane than the one you get in this 50th Anniversary Blu-ray edition. The picture is crystal clear with deep blacks and a clear distinction between the darker and lighter onscreen elements, emphasizing the aforementioned high contrast lighting scheme. The transfer is near-flawless (which is to say that I personally saw no obvious debris or damage here, although you might) and reflects the rich grain structure of the source elements beautifully. Lastly, the film is stretched here to 16×9, approximating the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which are only marginally different ratios, of course.
The Blu-ray release of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? comes in a Digibook package with a built-in 36-page booklet. The packaging here is terrific, but I sadly cannot say the same thing for the menus. These things are eyesores, recalling, if I may say so, the navigation bars of many early websites. As such, the menus haven’t been seemlessly integrated into the overall design of the release like they should have been, and look inappropriately outdated (in a distinctly 1990′s sense). Special features (most or all having been pulled from previous releases) include the audio commentary by performers Charles Busch and John Epperson, three documentaries about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, a behind-the-scenes featurette, an excerpt from a 1962 episode of The Andy Williams Show featuring Bette Davis, the theatrical trailer, and the Dan-o-Rama movie mix of the film, which I can best describe as a sort of trailer remix.