I’ve reviewed a few films from that no-frills purveyor of splashy horror American-International Pictures, or AIP. The studio known for putting old studio stars in sometimes sexy, always ridiculous splatterfests enters the “Grand Dame Guignol” market with Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? This Hansel and Gretel-inspired horror film takes Shelley Winters at her flashiest, if that’s even possible, and places her in what, in actuality is a tenderhearted tale of love and loss that asserts the fact that kids aren’t nothing but trouble!
Mrs. Forrest (Winters) is a wealthy, lonely widow whose only joy is inviting a group of local orphans to her house for Christmas. When she meets little Katy (Chloe Franks) the child instantly reminds Mrs. Forrest of her deceased daughter, Katherine (whose decaying body rests upstairs). Desperate to replace Katherine with Katy, Mrs. Forrest kidnaps the little girl. But Katy’s imaginative brother Christopher (Mark Lester), who already believes Mrs. Forrest is a witch trying to fatten his sister up, is committed to saving his sister.
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? comes from the Val Lewton tradition of forming a plot to hold a title; Mrs. Forrest likes the children to call her Auntie Roo (for some reason), though she’s not slain (or “slewed”) till the very end. The question is raised to imply a mystery in her murder when that’s far from the case. Director Curtis Harrington found success with the low budget Night Tide (1961) and previously directed Winters in the similarly titled What’s the Matter With Helen (1971) starring Debbie Reynolds. Unlike other AIP titles, reliant on red asphalt style blood theatrics or heaving bosoms, the story goes for macabre sweetness with a lonely women trying to replace the child she lost – hilariously rendered in flashback falling off a bannister with all the physical fallacies of being thrown. Sure, Mrs. Forrest keeps Katherine’s mummified remains in the nursery, but that’s more a mark of mental disturbance that threatening psychosis.
The “Grand Dame Guignol” series of films dominated the late ’60s and ’70s with its origins in the legendary camp classic, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). After that, Golden Age actresses found a second life portraying larger-than-laugh crazy ladies in question mark-accented titles. Shelley Winters is one of the more obvious choices for this style as her career in the 1970s saw her become a caricature of all past performances. Mrs. Forrest is a gaudy vaudevillian whose better days are behind her, but she’s sympathetic for a large portion of the runtime.
None of the films in the “Grand Dame” genre are necessarily terrifying, but Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? evokes a moody sense of loss and obsession as opposed to genuine scares. Red herrings abound from the minute ten of the best-mannered orphans are selected to visit the woman who lives in “the gingerbread house.” Is she going to kill them? Find one she likes best and keep them? Her obsession with Katy comes off as a new development completely unrelated to her Christmastime follies; she genuinely enjoys the company of children. Her Joker-grinning butler Albie (Michael Gothard) on the other hand… Also, keep an eye out for Ralph Richardson of The Heiress (1949) playing a con-artist/psychic
Hamminess aside, Winters remains sympathetic until the third act when there has to be a reason for the children to turn against her. She offers Katy a new home, and it’s weird that these orphans – who talk about being adopted – don’t jump at the opportunity to become Annie. You could argue the villain is actually Mark Lester’s Christopher, best known as the star of Oliver! (1968). Christopher’s overactive imagination, utilized in a Boy Who Cried Wolf way to the adults who disbelieve him, assumes Mrs. Forrest is like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. Because Mrs. Forrest doesn’t rack up a body count, and her eye falls on Katy, Christopher’s behavior stinks more of sour grapes than genuine fear, which could explain why Winters ramps up the insanity by the end, if only to give Christopher a reason to kill her. Christopher is the one with more blood-lust than anyone; he almost guillotines his sister and robs the woman in the end! Lester is good and Chloe Franks is the perfect embodiment of the porcelain doll as Chloe.
Between Richardson, Albie, and the children I’d say Auntie Roo is justified in killing some people. Had Winters gone full-on nuts Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? could have become another bloody classic. Instead, Curtis Harrington and company take a more subdued approach, telling a tale of a sad woman realizing the good things in life will never come again….oh, and that children suck!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.