Chop, chop 'til he's dead
Chop, chop, sweet Charlotte
Chop off his hand and head..."
In 1927, Charlotte Hollis (Davis), teenage daughter of Louisiana plantation owner Sam Hollis, is on the verge of running away with a married man, John Mayhew (Bruce Dern). Her father is forewarned, however, and in an ugly confrontation he browbeats John into giving up Charlotte. John dumps Charlotte at a party hosted by Sam that night, a heartbroken Charlotte runs away sobbing, and it's all very sad... until John winds up brutally murdered by an unseen assailant wielding a meat cleaver.
Skip forward to 1964. Charlotte is a weird, old lady living in the same old dilapidated Hollis mansion, her only company being her maid and attendant Velma (Agnes Moorehead). No charges were ever brought forth in the Mayhew murder, but everyone assumes Charlotte did it. She is facing imminent eviction, however, as the state of Louisiana has made an eminent domain claim and is preparing to bulldoze her home to build a bridge. Her cousin Miriam Deering (de Havilland), Charlotte's last living relative, flies in from Europe to help Charlotte pack up her house, and simple country doctor Drew (Cotten) is on hand to calm down a perpetually jittery Charlotte. But strange things start happening in the Hollis mansion, the ghost of John Mayhew starts to appear, and Charlotte's grip on sanity grows increasingly shaky.
This film boasts an All-Star Cast which includes all the actors listed above, as well as Mary Astor (in her last film role) as John's widow, Jewel Mayhew, and a young George Kennedy as a construction foreman. It's pretty much a Spiritual Successor to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, an Aldrich-directed film that also starred Davis, but with de Havilland in place of Joan Crawford—see below. De Havilland plays a role that is very, very different from the goody-goody heroines she portrayed in the 1930s and '40s. Meanwhile, the title song afforded 1950s pop superstar Patti Page (of "Tennessee Waltz" and "Doggie in the Window" fame) her last major hit record, right in the middle of The British Invasion.
- Actor Allusion:
- Affably Evil: While Miriam is so cold and steely that it hardly comes as a surprise when she's revealed as a villain, it is a surprise when Dr. Drew is revealed as being her partner in crime. He couldn't be more courtly and charming, even while driving an old lady mad.
- Age-Inappropriate Dress: Charlotte still sometimes wears her old debutante dress.
- Anachronism Stew: Despite the opening party taking place in The Roaring '20s, all the hairstyles are clearly 1960s vintage. There's not a single '20s Bob Haircut in sight.
- And Starring: Mary Astor got an "also starring" credit.
- Artistic Licence – Geography: Many times Miriam and Charlotte talk about "the county commissioner". Louisiana is one of only two states in America (the other being Alaska) that is not divided into counties (it's parishes instead in Louisiana and boroughs in Alaska).
- Artistic License – Law: The plot hinges on Charlotte having to leave her house because it's going to be bulldozed for the building of a new bridge. Charlotte owns the property so she can't be evicted. But while she can be forced to leave because the bridge is necessary to be built, she mentions having nowhere else to go. Legally she should be given some compensation to find a new home. Of course it's possible she's actively refusing this compensation out of stubbornness, or else Miriam is handling all of it behind her back, using Drew's help to prove Charlotte isn't fit to - therefore negotiating even more money for themselves.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing:
- Miriam, who is pretending to help Charlotte move out and is really trying to drive her mad. Jewel Mayhew also counts, given that she murdered her husband.
- Charlotte is an inversion. She appears to be a nasty old axe-murderer, but she's really just sad and lonely.
- Blood-Splattered Wedding Dress: It isn't a wedding dress, actually, but the white dress that Charlotte wears to the fatal 1927 party gets soaked in John's blood.
- Casting Gag:
- Chekhov's Gun:
- There are two large concrete planters sitting on the second-floor balcony of the mansion. And they aren't fixtures, as an angry Charlotte pitches one off the balcony when arguing with the construction foreman. This sets up the climax, when Charlotte pitches the other planter off the balcony and onto the heads of Miriam and Drew.
- Invoked with the gun Miriam keeps on her bedside table. It's left for Charlotte to seemingly shoot Drew, though viewers might question why it was conveniently lying there. Of course Miriam planted it and didn't put real bullets in.
- Dead Man Writing: Jewel Mayhew leaves Wills the reporter with a letter to be opened after her death. Jewel has a stroke and dies after hearing about Miriam and Drew, whereupon Wills opens the letter and finds out that Jewel killed her husband, Miriam saw it, and Miriam's been blackmailing Jewel for years.
- Dead Person Conversation: Late in the film, Charlotte has a conversation with her father's portrait - Calling the Old Man Out for having John murdered (she believes her father to be the killer).
- Death by Irony: While Miriam and Drew engage in a little Evil Gloating about their plan to have Charlotte institutionalized, Drew states that she'll "let out a scream so loud, they'll never let her out!" Then Miriam lets out a blood-curdling scream as they are killed by a falling urn that Charlotte has pushed.
- Death Glare: Miriam gets some epic ones at Charlotte when they are hauling away Drew's "corpse".
- Dies Wide Open: Velma after she tumbles down the stairs, Miriam after she's crushed by the planter.
- Distant Prologue: The opening scenes are set in 1927 with the murder of John Mayhew, before the film jumps to the main narrative in 1964.
- Driven to Madness: Attempted semi-successfully with one part Gaslighting, one part drugs, and one part Faking the Dead with a Staged Shooting.
- Face Framed in Shadow: Charlotte in her meeting with John, as well as being shot from a distance, because Bette Davis couldn't pass for 19.
- Genre Savvy: When Velma hides in Charlotte's room as Miriam is drugging her. Miriam suspects that someone may be hiding, and walks slowly out of the room. Velma remains hidden - and Miriam comes back in at once.
- Gaslighting: What Miriam and Drew are actually doing to Charlotte.
- Gossipy Hens: A crowd of these appear outside Charlotte's house after the climax.
- Green-Eyed Monster: Velma accuses Miriam of being jealous that she always favoured Charlotte over her. She may (or may not) be wrong about the motive, but she is definitely right to mistrust Miriam.
- Hair-Contrast Duo: Competent career woman Miriam has sleek, short hair. Deranged spinster Charlotte has unkempt long hair.
- High-Class Gloves: Miriam is wearing these when she arrives, helping to underline how she's been living the life of an urban sophisticate.
- I'll Kill You!: Charlotte screams "I could kill you!" after John dumps her. Naturally, he's chopped up a few minutes later.
- I Never Said It Was Poison: Velma denies slashing Miriam's dress, whereupon Miriam says she never told anybody about the slashed dress.
- Impoverished Patrician: Jewel Mayhew has a grand house and servant, but no money left due to Miriam blackmailing her for it all these years. Averted with Charlotte however, who is said to still have all her money.
- Ironic Nursery Rhyme: The page quote is of one that gets played over the opening credits - showing that the local children have made it up about Charlotte.
- Irony: Jewel murdered her husband for his plan to elope with Charlotte. She murders him just after he's been forced to break it off with Charlotte.
- Yet another irony is lampshaded by Willis: Jewel dies right after - and possibly even because of - her archenemy Miriam having been killed by Charlotte.
- Jacob Marley Apparel: Drew dresses up as John Mayhew, and then later appears as himself, resurrected, dripping wet and covered in mud.
- Large Ham:
Charlotte (when presented with an unflattering tabloid): How can you TOUCH that piece of FILTH?Charlotte (when told by Miriam that they'll have to vacate the house): You're a VILE, sorry BITCH!
- It's a grand-guignol style Gothic horror film, with severed hands and heads rolling around. Why shouldn't Bette Davis cut loose?
- Agnes Moorehead supplies a fair amount of pork herself.
- Letting Her Hair Down: Played disturbingly, as Charlotte's hair is only down whenever she's having a particularly delusional moment.
- The Lost Lenore: Charlotte is still mourning John 37 years later, calling for him at night, holding the music box he gave her and crying. Her character growth is underlined in the final scene when she leaves the music box behind in the house.
- Murder the Hypotenuse: Jewel murdered her husband John after discovering he was planning to leave her for Charlotte. This is the part of the Reveal: initially we are led to think that Jewel believes that Charlotte killed John. In the end, not only is Jewel obviously aware that it's not the case, but it is implied that even for the affair itself she only really blamed her husband and not Charlotte.
- Old Retainer: Velma the maid, who is deeply attached to Charlotte, is suspicious of Miriam and accuses her of being jealous that she always favoured Charlotte.
- The One That Got Away: Drew refers to Miriam as such. It is implied that, had their scheme been successful, this trope could have been subverted.
- The Ophelia: Charlotte definitely gets shades of this as she's slowly driven mad. In some scenes she runs around in her nightgown with her long hair flapping behind her.
- Power Hair: Miriam has this hairstyle to show how she's a sophisticated PR woman.
- Red Herring: Two cases. It's suspected by Charlotte that her father was the one who murdered John, and once The Reveal happens Miriam becomes a suspect too. It turns out it was Jewel, and Miriam was blackmailing her.
- The Reveal: About 2/3 of the way through the movie reveals that Miriam and Dr. Drew are in cahoots, and are deliberately driving Charlotte insane in order to gain possession of her vast fortune.
- Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Charlotte may only be late fifties, but she is crotchety to everyone.
- Smug Snake: Miriam and Drew's eventual undoing. After it seems their plan has gone off without a hitch and they've driven Charlotte insane, rather than lock her up they serve drinks in the garden, bragging about their scheme. Charlotte overhears and pushes a planter down on them, killing them both.
- Southern Gothic: One of the most famous examples. The setting is a once-grand plantation house that's now fallen into disrepair — and a murder happened there decades ago. Charlotte begins to hallucinate that the place is being haunted by John's ghost.
- Spanner in the Works: Subverted. Although Velma goes to Wills about her suspicions of Miriam, he ultimately doesn't foil the plot. Charlotte saves herself on her own.
- Staged Shooting: Miriam and Drew trick Charlotte into shooting Drew, with a gun loaded with blanks. When Charlotte is confronted with the mud-spattered "ghost" of Drew, she finally snaps completely.
- Title Drop: In addition to the below, Miriam says the title line to Charlotte after she thinks she's seen Drew's corpse walking upstairs.
- Title Theme Tune: Performed as "Chop, Chop, Sweet Charlotte" by a chorus of children over the opening credits, and then again (with less grisly lyrics) during the closing credits. Written by Frank De Vol and Mack David, it won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. It also became a huge hit for Patti Page (with the gentler lyrics, naturally) when she covered it the following year.
- Too Dumb to Live: Velma. When she finds proof that Miriam has been drugging Charlotte, she takes the time to tell the former about how she's going to inform the police about what happened. While standing at the top of the stairs.
- Tragic Keepsake: Charlotte has a music box that John gave her, with the song he wrote for her.
- Triumphant Reprise: The titular song was written for Charlotte by John, and it pops up at various points to be used for horror. At the end when Miriam and Drew have been stopped, and Charlotte proven innocent it plays in its original form — as a tender love song from John to Charlotte.
- The Un-Favourite: Miriam was treated this way when she was adopted by Charlotte's father.