Sunday, 28 July 2013

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972)

The vogue for horror movies featuring great female Hollywood stars of advancing years that started with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was almost played out by 1972 when Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? appeared. This late British-made entry  (actually a co-production between American International and Hemdale Productions) in the cycle is not without interest.

In this case the ageing star was Shelley Winters. She was an actress who, even when young, was perfectly happy to accept unglamorous and even grotesque roles. As such she was ideal for a movie of this type. With the rather underrated but talented Curtis Harrington directing the result should have been a wondrously entertaining over-the-top high camp romp. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? does not quite live up to these expectations.

Winters plays Mrs Forrest, generally regarded as an eccentric but warm-hearted American ex-vaudeville star living in England in the 1920s. She is a widow, her husband (a famous stage magician) having passed away a few years earlier. Every Christmas she invites ten children from the local orphanage to spend Christmas night in her large and rather baroque house. This year she finds herself hosting two additional children, a rather strange brother and sister named Christopher and Katy Coombs, who stowed away in the trunk of the car bringing the children to the house.

Mrs Forrest, who insists that the children call her Auntie Roo, takes rather a shine to Katy. This is because Katy reminds her of her own daughter Katherine. So what happened to Katherine, you might ask? As the local police inspector explains to someone who does ask, the child simply vanished some years earlier. In fact the audience already has a fair idea what happened to Katherine. That’s actually the biggest problem with this movie - it gives away too much information too soon. The clue that the movie is a kind of retelling of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale is revealed very early, and the movie’s title is itself an egregious example of telling the audience too much right from the very start. To be fair to Curtis Harrington the title may not have been his fault, it may have been imposed on him by the producers.

Mrs Forrest has been trying to make contact with her departed daughter through the auspices of a rather dotty medium, Mr Benton (Ralph Richardson). Mr Benton is alas rather less than honest and is motivated mostly by the knowledge that Mrs Forrest is extremely wealthy.

It’s soon obvious that Mrs Forrest’s interest in Katy is in the nature of a rather unhealthy obsession, and that Mrs Forrest is a long way from being sane. She decides she wants to adopt Katy and she puts her plan into operation by the rather drastic means of kidnapping the children. Christopher has gained an unfortunate reputation at the orphanage by being rather too imaginative and for having an imagination that tends rather too much towards the dark side for the liking of the orphanage’s director. His vivid imagination soon takes hold of him and he convinces himself (and his sister) that Auntie Roo is a witch and that they are likely to meet the fate that the witch in the fairy tale had in mind for Hansel and Gretel.

The principal interest of the movie (and one that is often overlooked by its detractors) is that the events as they unfold are the result of the interactions of two people who are very much out of touch with reality - Mrs Forrest and Christopher. Unlike Mrs Forrest Christopher is not actually insane but he is only a child and he is a child whose exceptionally vivid imagination leads him to mistake a fairy tale for reality.

Shelley Winters hams it up to the best of her very considerable abilities in that direction. Ralph Richardson is as always a delight as the outwardly kindly but totally unscrupulous medium. There’s a fine supporting cast of reliable British charactor actors.

The temptation with such a horror movie is to make the setting a gloomy gothic house and to make copious use of shadows and darkness. Harrington does quite the opposite in this movie. Mrs Forrest’s house is certainly baroque but it’s anything but gloomy. It looks more like a house from a fairy tale, which of course it is. It looks just like a gingerbread house. Most scenes are brightly lit and everything is colourful and rather jolly-looking. It’s a legitimate approach and Harrington uses it quite skillfully to counterpoint the more grisly scenes.

Even among fans of the Grand Guignol Dames cycle of the 60s Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? has a rather poor reputation. That may well be because they misunderstand the film’s intentions. It doesn’t work as a full-blooded horror film because that’s not what it’s trying to be. It’s the fairy tale element that is the the core of the film, and fairy tales both horrify and delight children. That appears to be the intention here. We’re supposed to be both amused and horrified. The real horror comes from the fact that Christopher really believes that he and his sister have become fairy tale characters, and this belief proves to be every bit as dangerous as Auntie’s Roo’s delusions.

One of Curtis Harrington’s major problems as a director is that he never quite achieved enough success to be in a position to choose his own projects. On his first and best film, Night Tide, he was both writer and director but in most of his later movies he found himself filming someone else’s screenplay, and without enough clout as director to be able to make these movies truly his own. As a result he was never again able to do anything as subtle and quirky as the superb Night Tide. With Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? he comes close to achieving something similar, a story that blurs the lines between dream and reality. Had he had greater creative control the movie may have been more successful.

This movie is paired with Harrington’s 1971 horror flick What’s the Matter with Helen? on a double-sided DVD in MGM’s Midnite Movies series. It’s a good transfer and the modest price is certainly an added inducement.

Despite not being a complete success Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is better than its reputation suggests and it’s definitely worth a look. If you approach it the right way it is rather fun.

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