The Sweet Smell of Rot: FEUD ‘Hagsploitation’ (Recap)

In the sixth episode of Feud, Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) has invented the term “Hagsploitation” (or stolen it, but no matter), and he’s done it on the backs of women. An assistant tells him that his mother finds it “degrading,” and he agrees — it is about degradation. It’s about “some beauty queen of yore… who wouldn’t fuck us,” about dragging her on screen at her worst and punishing her. In a single scene, Warner tells viewers that violence, suppression and exploitation of women is tantamount to his late career success. And it’s killing the likes of Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon).

But films are not always seen as intended. “Hagsploitation” opens with a screening of William Castle’s Strait Jacket and a defeated-looking Joan running through the movie theater’s aisles swinging a bright red axe. At first glance, it’s everything Warner believes these pictures to be: contrived, degrading and punishing to its female star. But Feud makes an important choice — it casts John Waters as Castle.

The significance of Waters isn’t to be overlooked. While Waters is an easy choice to sing the praises of camp and trash, he is also a true Castle fan, having written the foreword to Castle’s own 1976 autobiography, Step Right Up!: I’m Gonne Scare the Pants Off America. His admiration for the master of schlock goes beyond Illusion-O and The Tingler ™, as he paints him as a genre innovator and marketing genius; not just a director or a producer, but an artist with a vision of populist celebration.

On the surface, the casting is just a bit of fun (much like Castle’s films), but serves in a deeper way to bring real clout to the trashiest horror – something Ryan Murphy has been attempting for six seasons with American Horror Story. As much as Feud is about the struggles of Crawford and Davis to be taken seriously, it’s just as much about the horror genre’s parallel struggle. Let it not be forgotten that Castle would go on to produce Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby — a promise that even the campiest, silliest, marginalized and overlooked individuals can make important, transcendent work.

It’s a plight lived by Bob Aldrich (Alfred Molina) as he cobbles together a sequel to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Davis and Crawford, too, who reluctantly agree to the project. The film itself seems like an act of desperation for three people who need something to work for them. Feud could choose to see this as reductive and sad, but its own self-aware brand of camp infuses it with a different quality: delight.

It’s reflected in the stunned and smiling faces of fans of the Strait Jacket audience; in Castle’s absurd, winking introduction to the most “axe murdering” movie of all time. After all, it’s the nature of camp, and that particular brand of trash, that fosters the kind of fandom that has allowed stars like Crawford and Davis to transcend time to become icons of the camp community. It may not be what either ascribed to (and it’s certainly not all they are), but it’s perhaps the closest thing to true love that Feud has to offer.

Along with it comes a welcome resurgence of women’s empowerment, and a pleasant return of the men who want (or are at least willing) to work with it. A table read for Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte? (a mouthful soon to be renamed Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte) brings one of the best scenes of the series thus far: Davis has creative control and can’t shut up about it, Aldrich has written a less than stellar script with a severed head rolling down a staircase, and Crawford is caught up in the sheer amount of ellipses in the screenplay (“could we get a comma or a semicolon?”). It’s good fun, and it’s a rare instance of men and women standing together to get their desserts. They may despise each other’s company, but the end (sticking it to Jack Warner, getting paid and regaining artistic control) justifies the means. Getting to the end? For this bunch, it’s easier said than done.

Aldrich, for his part, is seeing the dissolution of his marriage (or just noticing it for the first time). Harriet (Molly Price) remains the show’s Greek Chorus in her ability to show up and simply speak the truth. In bed (she’s always in bed with Aldrich), she can’t stand his “morose” being anymore (“Bob Aldrich had his biggest success with a woman’s picture”), and he can’t stand it either.

It’s hard not to see Harriett as a metaphor for real women. While Davis and Crawford play the impassioned, larger-than-life camp versions of themselves, Harriett Aldrich represents the rest of us. So, her divorce of Bob is a clear message to men like him and the system they serve; his attitude, his shame and his need for the feud isn’t tolerable in the long run. And so, this manner of making films — exploiting the interior battles of women — is no longer tolerable, either. For Harriett, and for feminist women everywhere, the jig is up.

For Joan, it’s less simple. Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis), fresh off a heart attack but no less dedicated to spreading gossip for the good of morality, arrives at her old friend’s doorstep to deliver the potentially damning news: someone’s shopping a stag picture, and Miss Crawford appears to be the star. One visit to a shady downtown hotel later proves the seller to be Joan’s own brother, Hal LeSueur (Raymond J. Barry).

It’s enough to at least partially motivate the broke Joan to sign on with Davis in Charlotte, despite Mamacita’s misgivings that the stress of working with Davis again “has the potential to ruin [her] life.” Hagsploitation proves popular enough to produce a significant advance — a check that Joan delivers to Hal, now laid up in a hospital bed with appendicitis. It’s here that Feud delivers one of its best confrontations — not between its title characters, but between Joan and her past. “Underneath, you’re rotten trash like me,” Hal growls. He’ll later die in surgery, leaving Joan free to cancel that check. But the lasting implication of those words is not so easily left behind.

At its best, Feud seeks to prove, and admirably so, that trash — as John Waters and William Castle can attest — is hardly the worst thing one can be. In fact, that “sweet smell of rot,” as Joan puts it, when embraced and exalted, can be a little bit liberating. If you let it.

Alex Landers (@1CriticalBitch) is a critic and playwright writing about women, feminism and truly tasteless horror movies. She received her B.A. in cinema studies from the University of Illinois and an M.F.A. in dramatic writing from Florida State University, believing that great filmmaking is always entwined with great criticism. Also a visual artist, Alex spends time working and painting in Chicago and the east coast of Connecticut. You can read her film criticism weekly at onecriticalbitch.com and get to know the full scope of her work at alexandralanders.com.