A note from Lindsey: I’m well aware that this film falls far out of the usual review range. However, I’ve decided to review it because it was the final film of Bette Davis, one of the most beloved stars of the classic era.
Sam, a widowed old man who lives with his daughter Jenny and her husband, has gotten married on a whim while Jenny and her husband were out of town on vacation.
Upon arriving home from the trip, Jenny finds that her new stepmother has taken over her home, filling the vegetarian family’s kitchen with meat and rearranging many of the rooms in the house. She’s turning their lives into a puddle of complete disarray.
Little do they know, this new stepmother, Miranda, is no ordinary woman. She’s a witch! And, surprise surprise, she has a daughter of her own as well, who is also a witch!
The largest in a series of many “catches” in the situation is that Miranda and her daughter, Priscilla, can’t both inhabit human form at the same time. Miranda’s spirit takes the form of a chain-smoking cat whenever Priscilla takes human form.
Wicked Stepmother is notable for being the final film of the incomparable Bette Davis. It was directed and written by Larry Cohen.
To be completely honest, this film is kind of sad to watch at times. Bette Davis was in ill health while filming it and reportedly became so frustrated with writer/director Cohen that she walked off the set, leaving the role unfinished and the script to be reworked. Cohen later claimed that Bette left the film due to her health alone and that she constructed the “on-set arguments” story so she wouldn’t be rejected from other roles due to her health.
Bette’s health issues aside, though, she still gives a good effort here. She’s fabulously snarky and snide. Her dialogue is often very funny and frank, including many mentions to naughty behavior. A few sneaky jabs to her past are thrown in, too. When her new daughter-in-law speaks of her late mother, photos of Joan Crawford are shown, pointing to the legendary Bette vs. Joan rivalry.
There’s definitely a lot of silliness going on here, and the film plays like the some of the best of the “corny, mid-20th century sci-fi” categorization. Tom Bosley talks into a shoe box filled with tiny people, who are reminiscent of one of my favorite horror-corn films, Attack of the Puppet People.
The film doesn’t quite reach Puppet People levels of greatness, though there are a number of amusingly overacted and sometimes just plain ridiculous scenes to be enjoyed. It never reaches its potential for corny greatness quite fully, possibly due to the last-minute rewrites. The final half-hour or so is particularly hilarious.
The cast aside from Bette is successful in carrying off the film’s exaggerated, cheesy type of comedy. Standouts are Tom Bosley, Colleen Camp (with her appropriate last name) and Barbara Carrera.
If you’re into silly films, you’ll probably side with me in thinking that this is a pretty good piece of ’80s camp. If not, it’s still worth watching because it contains in the final performance of Bette Davis.
Read Cohen’s thoughts on providing Bette with her final film role at Film Comment. A somewhat lengthy but very interesting read.