From Minnie and Roman Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to Grandpa Chapman in Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), American horror has a troubling track record in how it depicts aging. Often used as a means of creating a sense of otherness, age is portrayed consistently as being horrific and fraught with evil undercurrents. Culturally, this makes sense. It is not at all surprising that as society has created new means by which to stave off the appearance of aging, the preponderance of elderly, villainous characters in film has increased. And certainly the fact that most of these villains are elderly females is not coincidental.
And so it was with great interest that I recently watched the cult classic Homebodies (1974). Revolving around the plight of a group of senior citizens who are displaced from their homes in the name of gentrification, the film’s portrayal of its elderly characters reflects the “evil elderly” construct while simultaneously inverting its more problematic elements, specifically that age is something to be feared. In the scene above, the tyrannical land developer meets his demise courtesy of the ingenuity of Mattie, the ringleader of the group. With a dark humor sensibility (the gang deals with Mr. Crawford’s foot not being encased in the cement by simply chopping it off), this scene is vital in positioning the elderly killers as both threatening and deserving of our sympathy.
Mattie’s trajectory forces the audience to examine where the line between eccentricity and psychosis lies. Our initial introduction to the character, complete with the musical markers to suggest danger, is designed to alert audiences that Mattie may not be as she appears. Her actions, that of pushing a squeaky shopping cart and munching on prunes as she observes the world around her, draws us in because the behavior is exactly that which we expect from the elderly. This age group, especially women, is viewed as non-threatening because they are perceived to lack power in every sense of the word-economically, sexually, politically, and physically. The film underscores this point by continually highlighting the physical fragility of the murderers as well as their desperation at not having the financial resources with which to fight their evictions. And yet, despite her spearheading horrific crimes, the film ultimately asks us to identify with Mattie, a point well made by the song “Sassafras Sunday” that accompanies the credits.
Presenting elderly characters as evil isn’t inherently problematic. In fact, in some situations, it is downright transgressive since allowing a person past a certain age his/her own agency isn’t the accepted norm. Consider the case of Claire in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969). After having her life up-ended by her frivolous husband, Claire turns to a life of crime as a means of keeping her own home. Similarly, in Drag Me to Hell (2009), Mrs. Ganush is prompted into acting on her evil inclinations after having been harshly rejected for a loan, money that was needed to ensure her standard of living. The fact that these films have elderly women fighting to stay in their homes and to retain their autonomy is not accidental. Their monstrosity comes from a desire to stay independent and flies in the face of the cultural construct that portrays aging as synonymous with being put out to pasture.
The intersection between youth and age in Homebodies is especially pointed. For instance, Miss Pollack, whose dismissive and cold treatment of the elderly residents inspire ire in both the audience and the killers, is presented as a symbol of youth and beauty. The brutality of her death showcases, however, that with this youth and beauty comes a sense of invincibility that leads to reckless behavior. By failing to take the senior citizens seriously, Miss Pollack ultimately contributes to her own death. The camera work in this scene is especially interesting as it is the aged body of the killer who is positioned powerfully over the body of Miss Pollack.
It is not accidental that the villains in Disney films often take the shape of elderly women whose monstrosity in reflected in their appearance and stands in stark contrast to their younger, traditionally beautiful rivals. And yet, these villains are always in complete control of their power. The suggestion seems to be that their power is magnified once their beauty disappears. American horror co-opts that idea and uses the aged body as a means of creating a sense of repulsion. Wrinkled, sagging skin and liver spots are frequently highlighted through close-up camera shots and imply that this is a monstrosity which ultimately awaits us all. And yet, Homebodies presents that inevitability as a potential source of power. The bodies of our ragtag group of murderers may be failing (indeed we are treated to many shots of bodies in various stages of decay), but their ability to manipulate the expectations of those around them as to what this decay means in terms of their individual power is significantly heightened.
Ultimately, Homebodies asks us to identify with the murderers and, in doing so, to reject societal conventions about what it means to grow older in a youth- obsessed culture.