Roy Ward Baker, 1968
Starring: Bette Davis, Sheila Hancock, James Cossins, Jack Hedley, Elaine Taylor
“If I could stuff you, I’d put you in that cabinet there with my other beautiful possessions, and that’s love.”
A one-eyed, razor sharp matriarch, Mrs. Taggert, brings her family together every year to celebrate her anniversary with her beloved late husband. She has total control over her three adult sons — the submissive eldest, Henry, who lives at home and is a transvestite, the fearful middle child, Terry, who has a wife and five children, and the charming youngest, Tom, who is the only one his mother seems to like — but two of them are announcing their plans to escape from her. Terry and his family declare their plans to move to Canada, partly because Terry’s wife Karen is desperate to get away, while Tom introduces his (secretly pregnant) fiancee Shirley. Will any of them survive the weekend with mommy dearest?
Based on a play by Bill MacIlwraith and with a script from Hammer’s resident screenwriter, Jimmy Sangster, this is quite a departure from the studio’s first “hag horror” effort with Bette Davis, The Nanny. More of a black comedy or dark melodrama than an outright horror film, this is perhaps Davis’s most enjoyable role as an older actress and she obviously enjoyed every minute of the shoot. Her opening scene says it all: she descends the stairs to musical accompaniment — wearing a matching red eyepatch, dress, and lipstick — but trips at the bottom step and mutters, “bloody hell,” as her first line of dialogue.
Sangster actually re-wrote the script just for Davis to come on board and the studio went as far as replacing the original director — Alvin Rakoff of City on Fire — with Hammer regular Roy Ward Baker when Rakoff and Davis clashed on set. It’s a good thing too, as Davis drips glee and malice in equal measures, making for a dialogue-heavy but absolutely delightful 90 minutes. She chews scenery better than probably anyone but Vincent Price, though she never goes completely off the rails as she did in The Nanny. Of course, I’m a huge Davis fan, so I’m biased; I love her in everything from The Letter (1940) to All About Eve (1950) and original hag horror films What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), as well as later appearances like Death on the Nile (1978) and The Watcher in the Woods (1980).
Part of what makes her so wonderful here is that she doesn’t completely upstage the rest of the cast and this is far more of an effective ensemble piece than The Nanny. Actors from the stage production such as Jack Hedley (in everything from Lawrence of Arabia to New York Ripper), James Cossins (Fawlty Towers), and Sheila Hancock (Night Must Fall) reprised their roles. Cossins is particularly great as the cross-dressing Henry, who provides some much needed comic relief and manages to be deeply sympathetic at the same time. His scene with the lovely Elaine Taylor (Casino Royale, wife of Christopher Plummer) is one of my favorites in the film: after she catches him in the guest bedroom, wearing her lingerie, they have a sweet moment where she attempts to understand his “affliction.” He explains, in one of the film’s many quotable lines, “If I didn’t do what I do, there’s no saying what I might… do. You know what I mean?”
Be forewarned: this is more of a restrained chamber piece than a horror film and if you’re expecting something as off the rails as Fanatic or The Nanny, you’re going to be disappointed. Apparently the film was a commercial failure, I think primarily because audiences just didn’t know what to make of it. It eventually becomes obvious that no one is actually going to be murdered, though Mrs. Taggert torments the women of the house, nearly driving them to violence. She convinces her daughter in law, Karen, that her five children were in a car accident and are in critical care. Later, in another absolutely off the wall scene, Tom convinces Shirley to have sex on his mother’s bed, but she rolls over and finds one of Mrs. Taggert’s glass eyes, provoking so much hysteria that she nearly has a miscarriage. This the point where I would have liked to see things erupt in violence, but instead there’s a subdued, almost more wicked ending where it’s clear that Mrs. Taggert has just had the time of her life and there will never be any clear resolution for her poor family.
The Anniversary is only going to appeal to a very specific audience — probably one who enjoys black comedies and unusual melodramas — and if you’re expecting one of Hammer’s traditional Gothic horror films, that’s the last thing you’re going to get. Personally, I think this attempt at something new is refreshing and Davis is wonderful to behold; her performance makes the film well worth watching. Pick it up on DVD.