12/15/09

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971): Winters’ Yuletide Celebration

I attended the obligatory work Christmas party this past weekend, and like many of you might feel about your own work related holiday parties, I wondered why I went. There’s nothing like sharing a meal and exchanging gifts with people who you only see at work 364 days out of the year. I guess I can be thankful that my Christmas party didn’t end up with me being kidnapped and kept in the attic. Instead, I just had to suffer through painful two hours of small talk. In a way, I could have gone for the whole captive in the attic thing. All of this has been the long way around to brings me to today’s holiday horror,1971's Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? starring Shelly Winters.

Auntie Roo (Shelly Winters) seems like a kindly old widow to everyone in the community, and each year, she invites the 10 kindest, most well behaved children from the local orphanage to her house for a Christmas party. Two children that don’t qualify, Christopher (Mark Lester) and Katy (Chloe Franks), sneak into the party anyway. They’re invited to stay when Auntie Roo notices Katy looks like her daughter who tragically died. The same daughter that Roo has been trying to contact via a medium. The daughter that she still sings to sleep every night. The daughter whose corpse lies lifeless hidden in Aunt Roo's attic. Now Auntie Roo wants Katy to be her new daughter, and no one will believe Christopher that his sister is in great danger. When Christopher is taken captive too, be becomes convinced that Roo intends to eat them both for Christmas dinner, and taking a cue from Hansel and Gretel, the brother and sister go to great lengths to escape their fate.

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? belongs in the great tradition of questioning films that started back with 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Unfortunately, where that great film contained excellent performances from Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Whoever Slew only boasts Shelly Winters going so far over the top that I thought she might bring an arm wrestling subplot in anytime. Yet if it wasn’t for Miss Winters, this flick would have been pretty dull. I got only a modicum of enjoyment from it, but at least it was a different kind of Christmas horror. Actually it's more of a Christmas thriller. There’s no killer Santas (or Santa killing), but using Christmas as a backdrop to the fairy tale takeoff works pretty well. The whole thing is saved by Jimmy Sangster, a veteran of the Hammer horror productions, who drops an enjoyable EC comics style twist into the last few minutes.

This film seems a bit different than the Poe films or Motorcycle movies that dominated American International Pictures slate around the same time as this film. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? was made by an arm of AIP, American International Productions, which also made the films Witchfinder General, Frogs, and The Oblong Box. When the film was brought to distribution in the United States it was given the shortened, singsongy title Who Slew Auntie Roo? Director Curtis Harrington was big into inquisitive movies at the time and same year he would make What’s the Matter with Helen? also starring Shelley Winters. He would go on to direct the 1974 TV film Killer Bees, the supernatural film Ruby (1977). Harrington was surely a competent director, and the film has some as well shot moments thanks to cinematographer Desmond Dickinson (Trog, Tower of Evil). Still it retains the same flat, low budget style that viewers of AIP pictures have become accustomed to with the Corman Poe films, and it never shows off any kind of cinematic flourishes to set it apart.

What really saved the film from being rather plain are the three main performances. There’s not much to say about Shelley Winters than I’ve already said. Her performance is spectacularly over the top, and watching her sing and dance while wearing a cross between funeral garb and a flapper is quite amusing. Surprisingly, the best actors in the film prove to be the two children. Mark Lester perfectly captured the mischievous nature of Christopher, and Chloe Franks did the same with the innocence of his sister Katy. Lester would go on to get the lead role in the 1971 version of Black Beauty, and he worked six more years before fading from the screen. He does have a part coming up though as King Harold II in the 2010 production of the historical epic 1066. Miss Franks would continue to work for many years as well though mostly in television. She also has a connection with another Christmas horror with her role as Joan Collins’ daughter in the “All Through the House” segment of the 1972 Tales from the Crypt film.

All in all, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is an average film that only piqued my interest due to its Christmas connection. Unfortunately the holiday themes are far overshadowed with the Hansel and Gretel story. If you’ve made your way though most of the Christmas horrors and are looking for something off the beaten path, then it’s not a bad film to watch, but I wouldn’t rush out to see it. There are far better Holiday horrors, and in the end, it’s not even that interesting to find out the answer to the titular question.

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