(1971) Directed by Curtis Harrington; Written by Robert Blees and Jimmy Sangster; Original screen story by David D. Osborn; Starring: Shelley Winters, Mark Lester, Chloe Franks, Ralph Richardson, Lionel Jeffries and Michael Gothard; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“Isn’t it a shame there isn’t a way to make time stand still, keeping the children the way they are tonight, preserving their wonderful years, pure and perfect, before the ugliness and evil of the world crushes them. Don’t you think?” – Rosie “Roo” Forrest (Shelley Winters)
I’d like to extend a big thanks to Gill Jacob from RealWeegieMidgetReviews and Erica D. from Poppity Talks Classic Film for inviting me to join the Shelley Winters Blogathon, a multi-blogger extravaganza celebrating the work of this one-of-a-kind actress. Since this is Horror Month, I chose to get in the spirit with one of Winters’ more macabre offerings, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?* belongs to a peculiar sub-genre (typically classified by a few derogatory terms, which I will not repeat here) showcasing high-profile middle-aged actresses in sinister situations.** Starting with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962, and continuing roughly through the following decade, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and actresses of a similar caliber revived their waning careers in roles that were often less than complimentary. Director Curtis Harrington collaborated with Shelley Winters*** on two such projects in 1971 (both coincidentally presenting the audience with a question), Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and What’s the Matter with Helen?
* Fun Fact #1: The original title of the film was Christmas at Grandma’s, followed by the working title, The Gingerbread House.
** Side Note: In the interest of equity and fair play, why didn’t we see a horror sub-genre focusing on male midlife crisis? The world may never know.
*** Fun Fact #2: Harrington reportedly wanted Bette Davis for the lead role, but Davis turned it down after concerns that it would further typecast her in films similar to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
The film begins on a twisted note, with Rosie “Roo” Forrest (Shelley Winters) singing to a child in a bed (the song gives us a lot of information about her perception of the men in her life). Our perspective abruptly changes to reveal that she’s singing to a desiccated corpse. In the following scene, we witness a séance, where she attempts to communicate with her deceased daughter. The story jumps to an orphanage, led by the stern Mrs. Henley (Rosalie Crutchley, probably best known for her role as Mrs. Dudley in The Haunting). Every year, ten kids are chosen to spend the Christmas holiday with Auntie Roo in her mansion,* while the unruly kids tend to get the short end of the stick. Not pleased with the second prospect, Christopher and Katy Coombs (Mark Lester and Chloe Franks) stow away in the trunk of the vehicle transporting the lucky kids to the holiday celebration.
* Fun Fact #3: According to the Blu-ray commentary, the Shepperton Studios office building conveniently stood in for Auntie Roo’s stately home.
Depending on the actress, Auntie Roo could have been a one-note, two-dimensional monster, but Winters brings depth and pathos to the role, as someone who’s at once unhinged and sympathetic. She conveys profound sadness when asked about her daughter, unable to bring herself to say that the child died (we witness the fatal accident, told in flashback). Instead, she skirts the painful subject. The Blu-ray commentary by David Del Valle and Nathaniel Bell describes her performance as “over the top,” but I think they’re missing the point. As a self-dramatist who thrives on adulation, basking in the spotlight is endemic to her character. She now lives vicariously through the children she hosts in her Christmas celebration, regressing to what she deems a happier time of her life. She subjects them to her one-woman pageants, in a desperate attempt to regain the attention she’s lost. Except for her deceased husband, who presumably left by natural means, all the males in Auntie Roo’s life take advantage of her. Mr. Benton (Ralph Richardson) earns her trust with his fake medium act. He conspires with her butler Albie (Michael Gothard) to maintain the illusion that the daughter is still around, albeit on some ethereal plane. Albie later blackmails her when he learns that she’s holding Katy (as a substitute for her daughter). Perhaps scorned by the interest Roo takes in his younger sister, and not him, Christopher finds a way to thwart the matriarch’s plans.
The film contains many references to the story of Hansel and Gretel, which in turn forms the basis of Christopher’s delusion. He convinces his sister that Auntie Roo is the incarnation of the witch from the fairy tale, who intends to fatten them up to be cooked and eaten like a Christmas goose. He plans to undermine Roo, but not without taking the witch’s treasure – a drawer full of jewels. Mark Lester (Oliver) is coldly convincing as the morally ambiguous Christopher. Along with his sister Katy, played by Chloe Franks (Tales from the Crypt, The House that Dripped Blood), the two children form a dyad against the rest of the world. Christopher is immune to Roo’s dubious charms, but his sister is easily swayed. Katy’s only crime is that she covets the teddy bear that once belonged to Auntie Roo’s deceased daughter. Otherwise, compared to Christopher, she’s eager to please. Together, they accomplish what she likely wouldn’t have attempted on her own. A couple of shots late in the film, showing an impish expression on Christopher’s face, imply an alternate interpretation of his motivations. Instead of being delusional, he might be using the fairy tale as an excuse to perpetrate terrible acts.
The not-too-subtle trailer suggests that Roo is the villain of the story, and from the children’s perspective, that may be so, but her character is to be pitied, not reviled. We can’t overlook the fact that she holds the children against their will, but her actions are not the actions of a sane person. As a result, we’re not left with a clear protagonist or antagonist in Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? For all its allusions to Hansel and Gretel, Harrington and crew present the material in a relatively straightforward manner when a more dreamlike approach might have benefited the production. Instead of a subjective lens, we’re left to evaluate the actions of Roo and the children from an objective view. Even if the film doesn’t quite work as a psychological thriller, it certainly merits a look for Winters’ off-kilter performance and as a refutation of childhood innocence.