Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?: Psycho biddy, qu’est-ce que c’est?

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? directed by Curtis HarringtonWhoever Slew Auntie Roo? directed by Curtis Harrington

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? directed by Curtis HarringtonEver since the Brothers Grimm recorded the fairy tale forever known afterward as “Hansel and Gretel,” way back in 1812, its story has been well known to successive generations. We have heard the story since childhood: how the two poor children are lured into the witch’s gingerbread house and trapped therein, only to be fed all kinds of goodies by the evil witch to fatten them up, and of how the two kids ultimately turn the tables on the evil crone, stealing her treasure and burning her alive in her own oven. Flash forward around 160 years, and the world was given what is in essence a modern-day retelling of this classic tale, in the British film Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? A horror story that manages to keep a fairly light tone throughout, never really rising to the level of shocks that one might hope for and expect, the film yet manages to please, largely by dint of its talented players and a compact script. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? originally appeared in 1971 and was released by AIP in the U.S. under the shortened title Who Slew Auntie Roo?, a title that I prefer because it rolls off the tongue a lot more easily. Whatever you choose to call it, though, the film just manages to please.

In it, the viewer is introduced to a very unusual character: Rosie Forrest (the great Shelley Winters), the widow of a famous British magician who now lives in a beautiful, ornate mansion called Forrest Grange with her two servants, Clarine (Judy Cornwell) and Albie (Michael Gothard, whom most will recall as the assassin Locque in the 1981 James Bond outing For Your Eyes Only), in what we can only assume to be the 1920s. We see almost immediately that things are not quite right with Mrs. Forrest, as she is crooning a lullaby to a child in a nursery … a child who we can’t help but notice is a desiccated corpse! We also soon learn that Rosie has never gotten over the death of her daughter Katharine several years back, and so keeps her withered remains in the nursery as a dear reminder. Rosie is also fond of holding seances with a phony medium named Mr. Barton (the great British actor Sir Ralph Richardson), in an effort to speak to Katharine; the two servants assist Barton in making it seem that the deceased daughter is actually speaking to her mother from the Great Beyond. To the outside world, though, Rosie is a dear sweet lady, especially since, ever Christmas, she holds a festive sleepover party for the 10 best-behaved children from the local orphanage. (The kids at the orphanage refer to Forrest Grange as “The Gingerbread House,” and to Mrs. Forrest as “Auntie Roo.”)

But this year, there are destined to be 12 children in attendance, as brother and sister Christopher (Mark Lester, whom most will remember best from 1968’s Oliver!) and Katy (Chloe Franks, as adorable a child actor as you’ve ever seen) Coombs have managed to crash the party, as well. Rosie takes an instant fancy to little Katy, since she not only resembles her deceased, blonde daughter, but shares a similar name with her, as well. Long story short, after all the other children have left, Rosie manages to keep Katy behind, to hold on to her indefinitely. And so Christopher – who already knows that the woman whom the world sees as a benefactress is actually a warped personality, and perhaps even a witch, having spied on her and her mummified daughter earlier on – must return to The Gingerbread House to rescue his younger sister…

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? directed by Curtis HarringtonWhoever Slew Auntie Roo? is one of the latter entries in the classic 1960s/early ‘70s cycle of pictures known as Psycho Biddy Films, also known as Grande Dame Guignol, Hagsploitation, Hag Horror and, as my buddy Rob calls them, Aging Gargoyle Films. In these pictures, formerly glamorous actresses, now a bit up in years, portray women teetering on the brink of insanity … or, in many cases, way over that edge. The genre was kick-started in 1962 with the seminal What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, featuring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; other, later examples that I had previously seen include Strait-Jacket (’64, with Crawford), Dead Ringer (’64, with Davis), Lady in a Cage (’64, with Olivia de Havilland), Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (’64, obviously a great year for psycho biddies, with Davis, de Havilland and Agnes Moorehead), The Night Walker (’65, with Barbara Stanwyck), Die! Die! My Darling! (’65, with Tallulah Bankhead), I Saw What You Did (’65, with Crawford), Berserk (’67, Crawford again), What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (’69, with Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon), and What’s the Matter With Helen? (’71, with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters).

…Auntie Roo is a film that I had not previously seen, and I was thus very happy to finally catch up with it. Like …Helen, this film was directed by Curtis Harrington – also previously responsible for such horror thrillers as Night Tide (’63) and Queen of Blood (’66) – and features Shelley going bonkers in a very entertaining manner. Indeed, Ms. Winters’ very entertaining portrayal here of the wackadoodle Mrs. Forrest is pretty much the film’s primary selling point, even though one can’t help but sense that had she really been allowed to tear into the part, the film could have been a lot scarier than it is. Indeed, there is a definite dearth of shocks and even suspense in the film; one gets the feeling that the filmmakers purposefully kept things light, because had they wanted, this could have been a genuine chiller. Only a handful of scenes manage to chill the (adult) viewer or engender suspense: that initial view of Katharine’s corpse; Christopher’s ascent by dumbwaiter to spy on the secret nursery where Rosie communes with her dead daughter; the sight of Auntie Roo, arms upraised, standing in the doorway, as the children attempt an escape.

Jimmy Sangster, who cowrote the screenplay for the film, keeps matters very much tongue in cheek, and that is a bit surprising, as he had previously been responsible for so many hard-core horror films for Hammer Studios. Thus, this is a film that can very safely be watched with your favorite 8-year-old, the hardest scene to watch, perhaps, being the one in which the skull of Katharine’s skeleton crumbles to dust. For the most part, this is very much a fairy tale brought to life and updated by 100-plus years or so.

The proceedings lag a bit in the film’s first half, only really coming to life once the two kids begin to explore Forrest Grange and become trapped therein, but even that first half is kept entertaining by dint of some sumptuous period décor and Shelley’s always-interesting presence. The great actress was 51 when she essayed this role, a good 20 years beyond her pinup girl years (viewers who have only seen Shelley’s later work might be a bit surprised to learn that she was indeed a blonde sexpot in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s) but still looking pretty darn good; the character that she is portraying here, it seems to me, might be a good decade older. Winters makes us feel for the pitiful Rosie, whose grief over her daughter’s death has driven her to madness, although we never quite feel that sorry for her, even when she meets her Waterloo at the hands of the children. She is abetted here by a terrific roster of acting talent, including not only Richardson and Gothard, but such English mainstays as Lionel Jeffries, playing the kindly Inspector Willoughby, and Hugh Griffith as Mr. Harrison, the butcher. Young Mark Lester manages to deliver another very appealing performance in his central role as Christopher, whose cat-and-mouse game with the demented Roo lies very much at the heart of this film. The 13-year-old actor manages to convey a lot of emotion with just his eyes, and as it turns out, he makes his character more than a match for the wily Roo. And kudos for Chloe Franks, who is not only pretty and cute as a little bug’s ear, but very believable as little Katy; many of this kid’s facial expressions are just priceless! So yes, the film, overall, is an entertaining one, well mounted and professionally made, but yet, still far short of greatness. It is campy and silly in parts, and never rises to the heights of delirious insanity that one might have hoped for, but still, it manages to succeed as a respectable entry in the Grand Dame Guignol genre.

Oh … one final word on this curious film genre. Of all the bygone movie categories from the past that have faded into oblivion, it seems to me that the Hagsploitation genre would be one of the most interesting to resurrect today. I mean, who wouldn’t plop down good money at the box office to see such sex symbols of yesteryear as Raquel Welch, Ann-Margret, Faye Dunaway, Diana Rigg, Pam Grier, Helen Mirren, Michelle Pfeiffer, Isabella Rossellini, Kathleen Turner and even Meryl Streep be driven to the brink and then right over? Hollywood, let’s make this happen! But while I am waiting for that day to come, there are some other films in this most entertaining genre still to be seen by me for the first time. They include no fewer than three directed by Curtis Harrington: Games (’68, with Simone Signoret), the TV movie How Awful About Allan (‘70, with Julie Harris and Joan Hackett), and The Killing Kind (’73, with Ann Sothern and Ruth Roman). In addition, there are such goodies out there as The Mad Room (again, with Shelley Winters), Savage Intruder (’70, with Miriam Hopkins and Gale Sondergaard), Tam-Lin (’70, with Ava Gardner), The Naked Zoo (’70, with Rita Hayworth), The Night God Screamed (’71, starring the most gorgeous actress in Hollywood history, sez me: Jeanne Crain), Dear, Dead Delilah (’72, with Agnes Moorehead), the TV movie Scream, Pretty Peggy (’73, with Bette Davis), Persecution (’74, with Lana Turner), and the belated entries Evil Spirits (’90, with the formidable quartet of Karen Black, Virginia Mayo, Yvette Vickers and Martine Beswick!) and Mother (’95, with Diane Ladd and Olympia Dukakis). I guess those should keep me busy for a while…

And, oh … my personal thanks to my Film Guru, Rob, for supplying me with this list of great films to seek out and explore…


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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5 comments

  1. Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-far better run, run, run, run, run, run, run away!

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Finally, Kat…one of my goofy headlines that you seem to approve of! :)

  2. I wonder if the studio chose to take it easy on the chills and gore because it involves children. (It was 1971, after all.) Anyway, it sounds fun. I was reading your list of women actors you’d love to watch chewing the scenery as evil biddies and I actually cackled. So, mission accomplished, Sandy.

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