Movies: Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971)

A while back, after watching the classic 1962 film What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, I went down something of a rabbit hole about the small but potent “psycho-biddy” subgenre, also known by the delightful name of “hagsploitation.” You can probably guess just from the names what these movies involve, but if you can’t, they’re basically horror films where the antagonist is a demented old woman, specifically one that used to be beautiful and glamorous back in the day, but has since gone completely off the deep end. Other examples would include 1964’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, 1969’s What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice (sensing a theme here?), and 1971’s What’s the Matter With Helen?, which happened to be directed by Curtis Harrington, the same guy who helmed the film we’re talking about today. Harrington, incidentally, also directed the pretty great and sadly underrated 1961 film Night Tide, as well as the 1970 made-for-TV psychological horror film starring Anthony Perkins, How Awful About Allan.

Who Slew Auntie Roo? (known in the UK and on the title screen as Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?) was released in 1971, and stars Shelley Winters as the psycho-biddy in question. Based somewhat on Hansel and Gretel and set around the holidays, Who Slew also totally counts as a Christmas horror movie, which is why I specifically chose to watch it in December. I’ll say right from the outset that it’s not a great movie by any stretch, but it is a lot of campy fun, and features a whole stable’s worth of recognizable British actors, since it was actually a US/UK co-production that was shot at London’s Shepperton Studios.

I don’t think the time period of the story is ever stated explicitly, though it seems to be taking place around the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th, as the whole vibe is very Dickensian, especially because it’s set at Christmas. A bunch of adorable moppets live at an orphanage in whatever picturesque village this is, and every year, the ten best-behaved of them are selected to go to the lavish Christmas party of local widow Rosie Forrest. All the kids jockey to go, because Mrs. Forrest lives in a massive mansion that looks a bit like a gingerbread house, and she always lays out a massive spread of food and buys expensive gifts for all the lucky children.

Mrs. Forrest, by the way, was apparently once quite a well-known stage actress back in her younger days, but she gave up her career to marry a wealthy and world-famous magician, who has since died (or gone to the other side of the mirror, as she puts it), leaving her all his money. The couple had a daughter named Katharine, but she also died in a tragic accident involving the staircase bannister, and Mrs. Forrest has never really gotten over it. Whenever she feels especially lonely and vulnerable, she calls up her favorite medium, Mr. Benton (played by the legendary stage actor Sir Ralph Richardson, who played the Supreme Being in Terry Gilliam’s delightful 1981 fantasy Time Bandits, among many other roles), to do a séance and contact the ghost of the dead little girl. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Forrest, though, Mr. Benton has been faking the spirit communications the whole time with the help of two of the household servants, who take a cut of his fee.

On this particular Christmas, ten of the orphans are selected to go to the party, but troublemaker Christopher (played by Mark Lester of Oliver! and Black Beauty) and his younger sister Katy (played by Chloe Franks of The House That Dripped Blood, Straw Dogs, and Tales from the Crypt) are not among them. Feeling cheated and overlooked, they decide to stow away in the back of the carriage that’s taking the kids to Mrs. Forrest’s house. They get busted not long after arriving by the slightly unhinged butler Albie (played by Michael Gothard of Ken Russell’s The Devils and Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce), who actually threatens to cut out the boy’s tongue and looks as though he’d really enjoy the process.

Mrs. Forrest isn’t upset at all by the two stowaways, though, and figures the more the merrier. Probably contributing to her chill attitude is the very close resemblance of little Katy to Mrs. Forrest’s deceased daughter.

All the children have a fantastic time stuffing themselves with roast turkey and gingerbread, then Mrs. Forrest reads them “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” before sending them all to bed. Christopher, though, is suspicious of Mrs. Forrest’s motives; sure, she seems warm, kind, and generous, but the sharp-eyed and nosy Christopher sees a few odd things around the place, such as a woman in a supply closet pretending to be the voice of a ghost (during one of Mrs. Forrest’s séances), and even more alarmingly, Mrs. Forrest herself done up in mourning clothes, talking to the mummified remains of a little girl that are stashed in a secret nursery room up in the attic.

Mrs. Forrest asks Katy if she’d like to stay with her indefinitely and be her new daughter, and though she doesn’t say it outright, she seems to imply that Katy’s brother Christopher isn’t invited to be part of the package deal. Katy is all about it, though; Mrs. Forrest is sweet to her, gives her a giant teddy bear named William just like one she used to have, gives her all kinds of delicious food, and promises her a comfortable life of love and luxury.

When the staff from the orphanage arrive on what I presume is Boxing Day to collect the children, Katy is nowhere to be found, and Mrs. Forrest claims to have no idea where the little scamp could have gotten off to. Christopher tries to tell the adults that Mrs. Forrest kidnapped his sister, but since Mrs. Forrest is a beloved local figure and Christopher is known to be something of a tearaway who makes up stories, no one believes him. Mrs. Forrest says she’ll absolutely keep an eye out for Katy, no two ways about it, and bids everyone else goodbye.

Later that night, Christopher sneaks out of the orphanage and makes his way back to the mansion, where he finds his sister happily playing in the nursery, and seemingly not terribly concerned about going back to the children’s home, even though Mrs. Forrest is essentially keeping her prisoner. Christopher, because he had recently read Hansel and Gretel to Katy, has become convinced that Mrs. Forrest is a witch who is planning on eating them, and subsequent events only cement this suspicion in his mind, including Mrs. Forrest repeatedly sending Christopher out to get more firewood so that the stove can be extra hot for whatever it is that she’s planning on cooking.

As I mentioned, this isn’t a particularly scary film, but it does have its trashy charms, I have to admit. Shelley Winters is over the top, straddling the line between pitiable has-been and delusional monster, but she never reaches the exalted, horrorific heights of Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the movie that this was clearly inspired by. The holiday setting is effective, though it’s also not even as frightening as any of the versions of A Christmas Carol; I did like the séances and the mummified corpse aspect, however, and there was a good scene in which Christopher and Katy discover a shed containing some of Mr. Forrest’s old magic tricks, including a working guillotine that really should have a safety warning on it or something, for Christ’s sake. Sir Ralph Richardson is also really entertaining as the scamming medium, though I wish he’ been in it a bit more. The child actors are pretty good for this kind of thing, though I do wish the look of the film would have leaned a little more into the fairy tale concept, seeing as how this was based on Hansel and Gretel, but I guess it was supposed to be a more realistic take on the story.

If you’ve seen all the more classic Christmas horrors and are looking for something holiday-specific in a more 70s-TV-movie vibe, then this might just be your cup of wassail. Think of it like a merry mashup of Dickens, the Brothers Grimm, and a low-rent Sunset Boulevard and you’ll probably have a chillingly cheerful time with it.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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