Auntie Rues

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Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, a 1972 British horror film (the U.S. title has a snappier flow: Who Slew Auntie Roo?), starts right off with a shock scene: the camera pans across eerie rows of staring dolls, stacked on shelves as if waiting to pounce on their next victim, before it comes to rest on a woman singing a lullaby to a child in a cot. That looks innocent enough, right? Though being that the singing woman is Shelley Winters (in a blood-red dress, at that), those mental mutterings that all is Not Quite Right should start rumbling in our heads. And all is not. As Winters leaves the room, the camera prowls round the cot to focus on the child within—only we see not a child but a dried-up corpse in little-girl clothes. Zoom!; Shock!; Eeek! Cut to opening credits.

Not one for the kiddies, folks. This film’s just getting started and already it’s in high gear. You’ve been warned.

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Auntie Roo’s director, Curtis Harrington, had just worked with Shelley on 1971’s What’s the Matter With Helen, a kind of Gothic 1930s musical as imagined by Mario Bava; and Auntie Roo is an even more unhinged follow-up but without Debbie Reynolds to provide ballast. This time it’s all Shelley, going crazy, crazy, crazy throughout. No let-up; basically a 90-minute mad scene. I loved it. Shelley as the title auntie has lost her marbles because her only child died years ago in a horrible accident, and now she attends (fake) séances trying to communicate with her lost little one. And she’s not shy about it. “Katherine, I need to talk to you!” she hollers during one sitting. Her character is all need, and Shelley grasps that concept for dear life, playing Need as if she were Tantalus begging for water. My impression is that Harrington didn’t so much direct Shelley as pile up the sandbags and duck behind. Whose idea was it to dress her in a black cape and then have her screech and flap her arms like Dracula taking off for bat flight? But the moment works, it’s inspired. The film is bat-shit loony, and Shelley dives into its looniness like it’s the last film that will ever be made and she needs to make it count. Good for Shelley.

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As you may guess by now, I love Shelley Winters. Anything this dame does is OK by me. It’s not that I think she’s Katherine Cornell. I recently wrote about her stupendously all-out performance in Bloody Mama, and I’ll stand by what I wrote there. She’s as loud and brassy as a Sousaphone, and she’ll slam at you with enough power to play 76 of them. Or was that trombones? No matter. I’ve no doubt she could play them both. But I love her. Because she loves what she’s doing. Shelley loved to act and she wants you to know that and she wants you to know that being an actor was just the greatest damn thing ever. I’ve read both of her autobiographies; and her joy in acting, in being with other actors, in creating characters and performing them, just floods off the page like hot scents from a bakery on a cold day. And it comes across onscreen. Who gives this kind of full-blooded commitment to a role today? No movie patron paying his shekels to see this film would have been disappointed; Shelley gives her all and then some. In a scene where she’s chopping potatoes, she goes at it with a meat cleaver. Literally. Whack!; and that potato knows it’s been chopped. That’s how Shelley plays things. No holds barred.

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In the vast and varied land occupied by the horror-film genre, Auntie Roo is tucked into that demented corner known as the psycho-biddy movie—in which aging female stars, to paraphrase Norman Bates, are required to go a little mad sometimes. As with Helen, its story is a period piece, here taking place in 1920s Britain and centering on Auntie Roo, AKA Mrs. Forrest, an American ex-vaudeville star who married a British magician and then retired with him to a big house in the English countryside. Now she’s a wealthy widow, and, having lost her own daughter, throws annual Christmas parties as a treat for kids from a local orphanage. She really is a nice lady. Maybe a screw or two loose (there is that literal skeleton in the attic…), but her heart’s in the right place. And she’s kind to the children who come for the Yuletide feast, giving them toys, plenty of food, and genuine warmth and cheer.

Only this time two strange little orphans, a brother and sister named Christopher and Katy (Mark Lester, from Oliver!, and Chloe Franks) stow away in the boot of the orphan establishment’s car to attend Auntie Roo’s fête, even though the asylum’s stern, cold-hearted director (Rosalie Crutchley) had earlier forbade them to come. Being that she’s a generous old darling, Auntie Roo doesn’t mind, but welcomes her two unexpected guests. Indeed, she takes such a shine to Katy, who resembles her dead daughter, that she hides the little girl after the rest of the children leave, intending to keep her as a substitute offspring. But Christopher, who prefers to keep his sister ALL TO HIMSELF (his fraternal devotion sending out a creepy Siegmund/Sieglinde vibe), sneaks back to the house to retrieve her. That’s when he gets it into his nut that Auntie is the real witch from Hansel and Gretel, plotting to fatten up the children and eat them. And then the fun and games begin.

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Much of your reaction to the film will depend on what you think of the lead youngsters in it; and I don’t think I’ve ever seen two more utterly unappealing child actors than Lester and Franks in this movie. Lester, who looks about 13 here, was a good-looking boy, but he projects no pluck or likability; he’s a sullen princeling who can’t be bothered to wave to the masses. (Per the Cult Oddities blog, Lester had by this time lost interest in acting and couldn’t stay focused on his role.) The palely ethereal Franks, who was about six years old, at least is a game tryer; she’s got a ditzy, Disney-princess air that nicely contrasts with Winters’s ham-on-rye flamboyance. Her waifishly slack-mouthed, goggly-eyed charm, like a Keane painting that’s dripped out of its frame and come to life, seems calculated to soften the hearts of the most resistant adults, though I can’t say it did mine. Frankly (no pun intended) I found her droning, sinus-clogged line readings, plus her inability to pwonounce her Rs, maddening. Maybe the pwoducers thought Franks’s (or rather, Fwanks’s) R-less articulation cute; its effect on me was to set off my inner King Hewod.

However, the very unattractiveness of the juvenile pair fits in with the film’s horror twist: it’s the seemingly threatened small fry who turn out to be the monsters. I really did come to sympathize with crazy old Auntie. Yes, I know, she croons to a mummy; and she does kidnap the adenoidal Katy, but I fault her there not for criminal action but bad taste (the other asylum kids were far cuter). Auntie really tries to be nice to those two nasty tykes, offering them presents and whipping up a feast for kings (and Katy really does like living with Auntie). Yet Christopher (or Cwistapha, as Fwanks verbalizes it) thinks it’s all part of a fiendish plan to garnish them with watercress. The kid is the flaming psychopath here, not poor, deluded Auntie; he spies on her, steals her jewels, and then traps her in a pantry he sets ablaze. “Bloody good fire,” he remarks blandly to his sister while behind him the house goes up like rotten tinder struck by lightning. What were the filmmakers thinking? Is this supposed to be cute? Or is the film intended to be subversive in its view of dweadful children who menace loopy adults?

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Still, the film’s gingerbread-house-of-horrors plot is campy fun, as the kids race through the mansion’s garishly upscale Grand Guignol décor, winding in and out of hidden rooms, trap doors, and coiling corridors. Yet on the whole the film is more camp than frights. As a director, Harrington doesn’t go for moody suggestion, but uses shock tactics to keep the story moving, progressing by jolts rather than by crafted suspense. Red herrings are shoved in haphazardly, such as the two kids playing with Auntie’s late husband’s magician tricks, only to realize that the guillotine is real (Shock!), but then no more comes of the device (to add another paraphrase, one from Chekov: don’t put a loaded guillotine on stage if it’s not going to chop off a head). The fake-psychic subplot is barely there; the great and beautiful Ralph Richardson, as the conniving clairvoyant with a taste for fine brandy, wafts in and out of the film as if he were one of his own contrived ghosts. But his performance is echt Richardson, a delight in itself: as is his wont, he seems to have dropped in from some private realm of the imagination, looked around a bit, and then airily carried on like Wordsworth gazing on daffodils. I think this marvelous actor must have had a direct line to the Muses—he really does seem to hear the mermaids singing. And I’m sure they sing back to him.

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But mermaids and guillotines and demonic domiciles are ancillary to why I’m watching. It’s Shelley front and center. Whatever the movie’s flaws, your interest won’t lag; if a dull spot ever threatens, Shelley comes roaring round the corner, eyes bulging, voice cackling, full-throttle Method let loose like a mastodon stampede. By Jove, she even performs a Gilbert and Sullivan number, kicking up a stout leg as she warbles a tune about a dickie-bird’s sorrows. That’s one to tell the grandchildren, when they cluster at your knees and beg for an amazing story. Come All Hallows Eve, with the Jack-o-lanterns alight and the apples bobbing and the pumpkin-spice latte bubbling on the hob, I recommend adding a bit of unadulterated Shelley to the mix. To insert my last paraphrase, bloody good show.

Happy Halloween.

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SUPER BONUS CLIP! Shelley performs the “Tit-Willow” song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado. When prompted, make sure you join in the chorus!

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5 Comments

  1. A little late in getting to this Halloween post! This is a film I recall wanting to see when it was initially released, but never got around to it until it came as part of a DVD double-feature with “The Mephisto Waltz.” By then I was too old to appreciate the minor chills that might have come with seeing this and being a youngster myself. Happily, Winters’ loopy performance is a fair compensation.
    I saw this very close on the heels of “The Mad Room” and i was left wondering if Winters came with her own wigs. Her hair is a curly bubble in both.

    Like you, I find her energy infectious, even when my heart goes out for any director foolish enough to think they were going to get anything resembling a nuanced performance from her at this stage.

    What mars the film for me and leaves it at “Once is enough, thank you” status, are the children. Like you, I find them to be an unappealing duo, and indeed all signs hint toward little “Oliver” being intentionally unlikable pair, but the perhaps clever twist the kids actually being the monsters makes for a weird viewing experience (I was put in the position of wishing harm on two little kids).
    I had a similar experience with Bette Davis’ “The Nanny”- the little boy in that was so unsympathetic, all my sympathies shifted to Davis and my energies on wishing something bad to happen to the child.
    i have to say I really like your unapologetic appreciation of latter-career Shelly Winters. Maybe there’s a write-up about “Cleopatra Jones” in your future!
    Thanks for another splendid article on a forgotten movie!

    Reply
    • Hi Ken,
      I agree with so many of your excellent points here. I also don’t find the film scary; its frights do seem geared for very young audiences, who probably won’t appreciate its camp aspects. I recall also when watching The Nanny finding the little boy unlikable and hoping he’d get his just desserts. There’s a peculiar dynamic in these horror films in how the kids are equally, if not more so, horrifying than the supposed villains. I wonder if there’s a not so hidden distaste on the filmmakers’ parts on dealing with child actors and their little egos (as well as with the monstrous egos of their mothers), which then comes out in these depictions. Whenever I watch Night of the Hunter, an excellent film about children terrorized by a psychopath, I’m always a little put off by the two unappealing kids who are supposed to be the victims. On the other hand, it’s a bit refreshing not to be given unreal saccharine portraits of the little darlings!

      I’m pretty sure Shelly wears a wig in this film (it looks just too blonde and curly to be natural). It’s hard to know sometimes how much of her late-career performances are deliberate camp as opposed to undisciplined madness; but I gather she could be difficult to work with (according to the Ed Sikov biography of Peter Sellers, Shelly didn’t know her lines when she filmed her scenes in Lolita, apparently using each take as an opportunity to learn them). Still, I get a kick out of her; I think she’s as much fun as Tallulah. I haven’t seen The Mad Room or Cleopatra Jones yet, but I must definitely check them out. As always, thanks for your insightful comments!

      Reply
  2. i know what you mean about not always knowing if Shelley Winters was in on the camp-factor of her performances. When I would watch her on TV talks shows during this time, her talkative, slightly befuddles appearances always seemed like they were self-aware performances (like Charles Grodin’s grumpy act, or Burt Reynolds’ egoism). From her books she comes across as too smart.
    However, people like Debbie Reynolds practically come out and just say she was nuts…so who knows?.
    She’s certainly interesting, I’ll grant you that!

    Reply
    • Shelly does come across as smart and self-aware in her books, though she did have the advantage of reflection when coming to write them (I’ve heard of some of her talkshow appearances, which sound pretty wild). It’s hard to tell with celebrities sometimes how much is real loss of self-control and how much is a put-on. It seems to indicate a hidden contempt for audiences on the star’s part, a kind of give-em-what-they-expect attitude. I’ve just read something on Oliver Reed, and it seems that part of his outrageous behavior came from such an impulse, that he felt that people wanted him to behave wildly and so he decided not to disappoint them. The other part, though, seems to be an assumption on the celebrity’s part that, due to his fame and/or money, he can get way with behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated in anyone else. A comment on so much structural inequality built in our society, perhaps?

      Reply
  3. Such an astute observation on the curious attraction/revulsion element of celebrity culture!

    Reply

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