Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? - A Silent Fright, Holy Fright Christmassy Review
Director: Curtis Harrington
Starring: Shelley Winters, Mark Lester, Chloe Franks, Sir. Ralph Richardson
Written by: David O. Osborn, Robert Blees, Jimmy Sangster, Gavin Lambert
Produced by: Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson
Cinematography by: Desmond Dickinson
Original Score by: Kenneth V. Jones
A bereaved Mother and widow holds an annual Christmas dinner for local orphans, but when one of the children reminds her of her departed daughter, she can’t bring herself to let her go.
What an absolute gem of a Christmas horror film! I had never heard of this spooky film until my favourite feminist horror podcast 'Good Mourning Nancy' covered it as part of their Christmas horror season, and I’m so glad I checked it out because I really enjoyed it. A brilliant retelling of 'Hansel and Gretal' through the lens of the Grand Dame Guignol trope/genre (older, hag-like women in Hollywood as the antagonists), it’s ghoulish, fun, and, of course, Christmassy.
Produced by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff, the men responsible for the B-movies of the 1960s and 1970s, including some of my favourite Vincent Price and Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, the film tells the tale of grief-stricken and deranged but genuinely altruistic hostess Auntie Roo (Shelley Winters), who opens her enormous house to the local orphanage every year so the children can experience Christmas as it should be. All is not what it seems, however. The film opens with richly saturated (classic B-movie stuff), slow moving shots of creepy old china dolls and a maternal voice singing a lullaby. This is a horror film so we know this isn’t going to be a wholesome reveal. As the shot pans to the right, we see the beautiful Shelley Winters all dressed up in a maroon evening dress, rocking a cradle. The director cuts to an angelic sleeping child with long blonde hair and back to Winters, who whispers ‘shush’ as she leaves. With Winters leaving the shot, the camera moves in on the ‘sleeping child’ to reveal it's actually the skeletal remains of the child! Evidently Auntie Roo has lost her marbles and hasn’t dealt with her daughter’s death in a healthy way whatsoever.
After the opening credits, we’re introduced to a room surrounded by creepy children’s toys. Poor Auntie Roo wants to contact her daughter in the afterlife however it’s pretty clear from the beginning that the medium and Auntie Roo’s seemingly faithful butler aren’t doing this to help her, but to swindle money from her. I instantly felt sorry for Auntie Roo because I hate people who pose as genuine mediums and take advantage of poor, grieving people. It’s disgusting. The pain on Shelley Winters’ face as the voice of her supposed ghostly daughter fades away is heartbreaking. From this moment, we can see that she is maternal and warm, and what her motivations are for bringing the orphans to her home every year: she misses her daughter and wants to fill her home with the laughter of children, whom she seems to genuinely care for.
We then meet our protagonists – orphans Christopher (Mark Lester, whom you’ll recognize from the 1968 adaptation ‘Oliver!’) and Katy (Chloe Franks). The pair are not liked in the orphanage and have previously tried to run away. Christopher has a talent for telling stories, which the orphanage looks down upon and considers lies, and poor Katy is shy and friendless. The siblings have only each other. When the head of the orphanage announces the list of children deemed worthy to visit Mrs Forest’s (Auntie Roo’s) home for Christmas this year, Christopher and Katy are unsurprisingly left out. Intelligent and cunning, though, Christopher and Katy stow away in the trunk of the carriage and are welcomed by Auntie Roo along with the rest of the children, much to the dismay of the orphanage staff. While Katy is enamored with Auntie Roo, the clever Christopher senses something is amiss. No matter how fun the night is, Christopher stays on his guard. His love for his sister is clear and it’s very sweet.
As the siblings fall asleep, Christopher tells Katy the story of Hansel and Gretal, and the rest of the film pans out mostly from Christopher’s point of view as if his storytelling is continuing in real life – he and Katy are Hansel and Gretal, and Auntie Roo is the mean old witch who is going to cook and eat them. A terrifying thought for anyone, but especially children, for whom fairytales are very real.
Auntie Roo eventually kidnaps Katy, without the knowledge of the orphanage because she looks like her late daughter, who, it is revealed, died from falling off the banister and crushing her skull. Auntie Roo dotes on Katy and, as a young orphan, Katy is unable to see the sinister elements of Auntie Roo. To her eyes, she’s perfect, but we know better. We have seen Auntie Roo’s unhinged behaviour and we later discover that no-one in the village knows what happened to her daughter, let alone that she died and her body is still in the nursery. Auntie Roo knows she’ll be suspected, but the British sensibility surrounding the taboo of death and missing children means she’ll not be interrogated properly for fear of upsetting her, and she uses this to her advantage in one brilliant scene where a policeman leaves her sobbing, which turns into hysterical laughter once he leaves.
The brave Christopher, however, worms his way into the house and into Auntie Roo’s trust. Unbeknownst to Auntie Roo, Christopher stuffs the teddy bear that once belonged to Katherine with expensive jewels which he will use to provide for him and Katy. When he becomes convinced that Auntie Roo is going to cook and eat them – she is obsessively preparing the fire for a meal - Christopher attempts to flee with Katy. He is cornered by Auntie Roo and brandishes a knife at her, before being locked in a pantry. When they manage to escape, they lock Auntie Roo in the pantry and set fire to it! Auntie Roo, like the witch in Hansel and Gretal, is trapped and cooked alive in the flames. What makes the ending bittersweet, however, is that when Christopher and Katy leave, a man pulls up with a plump pig for dinner. While the adults in the audience know Auntie Roo wasn’t going to eat them – Katy argues the point too – Christopher confidently proclaims that she would have eventually. As the house burns down, Christopher and Katy are driven back to the orphanage, jewel-filled teddy in hand.
‘Whoever Slew Auntie Roo’ is a surprisingly creepy B-movie (I have failed to mention a genuinely scary fake skeleton gag and Katy’s near miss with a real guillotine) with much deeper character development than I was expecting. I was pleasantly surprised and I would definitely recommend this fun and spooky Christmassy horror film to anyone who is a fan of the likes of William Castle and Roger Corman.
- Victoria Brown