Released: 8th September
Seen: 2nd November
In 1962, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis starred in the surprising late career hit What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? which was a touchstone in both of their careers and also inadvertently created a new subgenre known as Hagsploitation, or Grande Dame Guignol. The genre itself revolved around older female actresses playing characters who used to be glamorous stars but have turned into mentally unstable recluses who occasionally do a little bit of murder.
While the genre itself was somewhat problematic, it also gave work to some legends like Shelley Winters, Geraldine Page and Olivia de Havilland. It’s also a genre that kind of went away for a while after the early 70s (The last real Hagsploitation film being gifted with the amazing name Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?) and is one of the genres most in need of a revival. Torn Hearts might not be the best way to make that revival happen, but it certainly shows off why this genre was so popular.
Torn Hearts follows a country music duo, Jordan Wilder (Abby Quinn) and Leigh Blackhouse (Alexxis Lemire) who are trying to make it in the industry but keep being relegated to pub gigs with a minimal audience and pay. When the two of them end up being denied a chance to go on a massive tour they decide they need something to make them more marketable in some way and so they decide to go and meet a legend in the country music scene, Harper Dutch (Katey Sagal) who has been in hiding ever since the death of her sister and performing partner Hope. Once Jordan and Leigh get a meeting with Harper, they manage to convince her to record a song with them, and that’s when things start going wrong and the extent of Harper’s problems makes itself apparent.
Right off the bat, it must be said that Torn Hearts in general isn’t exactly great. It’s incredibly slow to start with and unfortunately, Jordan and Leigh just aren’t interesting enough as characters. They come off as just generally irritating throughout with nothing but a thirst for fame driving them. Sometimes a drive that simple can be good enough to make the character with that thirst actually interesting – but they aren’t, it’s a little hard to care about either of them and it doesn’t help that both characters are just kind of dumb. Dumb to the point where someone literally needs to be shooting at them before they realise that there’s something wrong.
It’s also not helped that the actual story is kind of bland and basic, throwing out a few ideas that might’ve been fun to explore but never fully going there. Torn Hearts is clearly trying on some level to explore the idea of sexism in the music industry and how the industry can pit women against each other, break apart friendships and ignore talent in search of the next great look and while there are times when it is able to make that work, most of the time it just means that two characters who were meant to be friends end up constantly arguing with each other in a way that’s not fun to watch.
Do you know what is fun to watch though? Katey Sagal who absolutely kills in this twisted Baby Jane-esque role that she’s been handed. She might not have much to work with but oh god does she make sure she does everything possible with it. She’s so compelling that any time she’s not in the frame of Torn Hearts, you might as well not bother watching because the only thing worth the time here is Katey. It’s a dark twisted performance that comes complete with a wild twang and the kind of murder eyes you only get by putting up with Al Bundy’s shenanigans for a decade. It’s the kind of performance that will make you wonder why Katey hasn’t been begged to do more horror villainess work over the years because she really can just make it look effortless.
Now granted, nothing about what Katey’s doing is subtle. Indeed, the idea of subtlety dies pretty early on in Torn Hearts in favour of just being as blunt and obvious as possible which in turn removed most of the potential terror and replaces it with the sound of the audience going “Why aren’t you both running out of this house right now?” but sometimes you don’t want subtle, sometimes you want an icon delivering a performance with all the gusto she can muster and command attention every time she deigns to grace the camera with her presence and that’s what makes for something that’s at least interesting to watch.
Sadly though Torn Hearts can’t really rely on Katey all the time, it tries to go without her for as long as possible by only bringing her to the screen around the start of the second act but that means the audience has about half an hour of nothing to sit through. Even once she’s there she almost gets pushed to the side as this wicked influence that comes between the two main characters, which would be fine if the main characters were interesting but they’re really not. It’s not on the actresses, they’re working with what they have and if there was something better for them to do there’s no doubt they could do it but it’s almost like the creative process stopped at “Katey Sagal will save us” and didn’t put anything around that to really make the whole film work.
In a way, Torn Hearts is the bare minimum one can get from the Grande Dame Guignol genre. A gifted actress getting a chance to show off, have some fun playing a crazy killer while strutting around a beautifully decorated house and wearing elaborate outfits. If Torn Hearts had a better script and leaned into its idea a little more, this could been a great campy delight (something that it was clearly heading for considering the film contains a strange acapella musical number and Peg Bundy running about with a pink shotgun!) but instead what we have is a fantastic performance surrounded by a below-average thriller that only barely rises to the level of good in the final 20 minutes when everything’s going completely crazy. Other than that one performance, there’s no praises worth singing about over here.