Curtis Harrington, 1971
Starring: Shelley Winters, Mark Lester, Chloe Franks, Ralph Richardson, Lionel Jeffries
A wealthy widow, Mrs. Forrest, holds a Christmas party every year for children at a local orphanage. She showers them with presents, treats, and a feast and, for all appearances, is kind and loving. But Mrs. Forrest has a dark secret — her daughter, Katherine, is dead, though Mrs. Forrest, who prefers to be called Auntie Roo, sings to her every night and believes her spirit is still living. She hires a fake psychic who holds regular seances to allow Mrs. Forrest to communicate with Katherine; really, the servants help him continue this ruse with knocking and voice from the other room.
An orphaned brother and sister, Christopher and Kathy, are not permitted to go to the Christmas party because of Christopher’s behavior, so they sneak in. Mrs. Forrest welcomes them with open arms, particularly because Kathy resembles her dead daughter so closely. During the party, Kathy goes missing, though Christopher knows that Mrs. Forrest is holding her captive. When no one will believe him, Christopher sneaks back to her house, determined to free Kathy, because he is convinced Mrs. Forrest is a witch who is going to fatten them up and eat them.
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo is part of the “psycho-biddy” horror subgenre along with other films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice, and What’s the Matter with Helen (also starring Shelley Winters). Hammer director/scribe Jimmy Sangster co-wrote the script. Somewhat like the Christmas segment of anthology film Tales from the Crypt, there is a nice Christmas backdrop that gives the film more visual appeal and an enhances the fantasy aspect. Sangster and his co-writers based this on “Hansel and Gretel,” emphasizing this connection with voice-over narration of lines from the story.
Director Curtis Harrington has an interesting horror history. He began under Roger Corman and made Night Tide with Dennis Hopper — the tale of whether a melancholy woman is a mermaid or not — and went on to make Queen of Blood. He and Shelley Winters made two back to back horror films, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and the similarly themed, if slightly inferior What’s the Matter with Helen?
Shelley Winters is both over the top and terrifying and keeps the film from descending into boredom. She’s incredibly hammy — almost akin to a female Vincent Price in her two films with Harrington and Jaws’ rip-off Tentacles — but is convincingly able to portray madness and sheer dementedness. She also has a dance number where she attempts to reenact her glory days a performer and another great scenes where she hacks her way out of the kitchen pantry with a meat cleaver. The two children — Mark Lester (Oliver) and and Chloe Franks (The House That Dripped Blood, Tales from the Crypt) — also give good performances, particularly Lester as Christopher. There are also a number of good performances from other adult actors, including Ralph Richardson (Tales from the Crypt), Lionel Jeffries (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), Michael Gothard (The Devils), and the always enjoyable Hugh Griffith (How to Steal a Million, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Abominable Dr. Phibes).
There is some lovely production design and a lot of nice, fairytale qualities, but I think Harrington could have emphasized these elements a lot further (his first film, Night Tide, certainly does). Instead of wondering whether or not Auntie Roo is a witch, we know she is a lonely, deluded old woman desperate for a child to love. Her obsession with her fantasy life — that her daughter is still alive — consumes her, just as Christopher’s obsession with a world of witches and the occult transfixes him. There are strange parallels between the two. Both have suffered loss, the death of a family members, and both are determined to believe in the supernatural world. It’s a shame that more couldn’t be done with these two characters and their shared fantasy worlds. One of the film’s strongest elements is its ambiguity. It is unclear whether Auntie Roo is really evil or not. Christopher is certainly a menace and his obvious delight at the fire at the film’s conclusion is troubling.
There’s plenty of black comedy in this British film from a subset of American International Pictures, who were producing a number of horror films in the early ‘70s, several of which with Vincent Price. It comes recommended to fans of these AIP films and will delight anyone who likes demented fairytales. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is available on a double-feature DVD from Midnite Movies along with What’s the Matter with Helen?