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