You know how some actors like Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin have an open invitation to host Saturday Night Live whenever they want, simply because they do it so well? The same kind of rule applies here at the Doll House for select talent. So if Dame Shelley Winters made a movie about cooking orphans, you can betcher bottom dollar that it has a place right here.
Quick Plot: Auntie Roo is a wealthy American widow who holds nightly seances in the hopes of contacting her long-lost daughter Katherine. Sometimes they’re successful, although that’s probably more due to Roo’s sadistic butler paying off the medium and maid to fiddle some voices and such. Seemingly, the only real enjoyment Roo finds in life is throwing an annual Christmas party extravaganza with presents and oversized candy canes for the town's ten best-behaved orphans.
On one hand, this is awesome. Wouldn’t you love to have that one night of gluttony in a mansion before returning to the dank depression of your Oliver-ish home, especially if it included a weird cabaret performance by Shelley Winters? Of course, the other 35 orphans get to stay in and eat slightly sweeter gruel for the holidays, something that the bratty young Christopher and his awful little sister Katy are mad as hell about and won’t take anymore.
The pair stow away in the orphanage trunk and sneak into the party, much to the annoyance of their guardians but cheerful acceptance of the wonderfully wonderful Roo.
What a dame. Here she is opening her massive home to a batch of poor and grimy orphans. She’s even kind to the party crashers and goes so far to develop a motherly bond with the Awful Katy, due in part to the Awful Katy’s resemblance to Roo’s dead--I mean, disappeared--daughter.
Did I mention Katy is Awful? For as much as I despised the little blond orphan in Santa With Muscles, Kathy makes her look like more appealing than a Li’l Love Carvel cake.
That’s saying something.
Why is this kid so Awful, you ask? Pretend for a moment that you are a poor orphan struggling to find some kindness in a cold British facility. There’s this great party going on that you weren’t invited to, but your equally Awful older brother has convinced you to sneak in anyway. By the grace of good fortune, the wealthy widow in charge welcomes you, going so far as to give you special alone time and—get this—a brand new oversized (admittedly creepy) teddy bear. How do you repay her? With a polite thank you or a hug, maybe even an elementary art level but well-intentioned crayon portrait, right?
Nope. This little brat sees fit to snub her parentless nose at the generous gift and instead complain about how she really just wants the old oversized teddy bear Auntie Roo already had, you know, the one that belonged to her DEAD DAUGHTER. The adjective ‘ungrateful’ doesn’t begin to capture the utter Awfulness--yes, that capital A is necessary-- of this character.
And yet, I think that’s in part the point. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is a strange film, one that doesn’t want to give us any easy good guys. You would imagine a plucky pair of orphaned siblings would be prime and center to be the underdog heroes of this kind of story, but Christopher and Katy are actively horrid, going so far as to devise a fairly genius Night of the Hunter-like burglary. Auntie Roo herself is a bizarre nut to crack. We like her because a) she’s played by Shelley Winters b) she throws kickass parties c) she’s genuinely sad and more than a tad crazed over the untimely death of her daughter and d) she’s taken advantage of by virtually any child or adult that smells her bank account. There’s something fascinating in how she begins as a figure of sympathy, becomes one more for pity, then falls into the role of witch through the prodding of Christopher and Katy’s self-proclaimed Hansel & Gretel status.
Directed by Curtis Harrington, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? holds a membership card in the Grand Dame Guignol subgenre popularized by one of my personal favorites, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Harrington had previously worked with Winters on What’s the Matter With Helen?, a straighter (except not at all, if you catch my drift) middle-aged movie star thriller along the lines of Baby Jane with Winters playing house with Debbie Reynolds. In an age where so many film critics lament the lack of good roles for actresses over 45, it’s interesting to look at this period of cinema. The memory of it may feel as though these still beautiful, able-bodied 50somethings were being exploited, but Harrington’s films don’t fit that at all. Shelley Winters plays Roo as a woman a few steps over crazy, but her age never seems to add any laughs or be played as grotesque. The same can easily be said for Helen (which is on the flip side of this DVD release). I will defend Baby Jane until the day I feed my own elderly sister her pet bird, but there is something to the argument that it’s best remembered for its shock factor of seeing Bette Davis and Joan Crawford at their worst.
But I tell ya, even the sight of a cake-faced Bette Davis wearing a babydoll dress and killing her way through I've Written a Letter to Daddy is more appealing than the sight of the Awful Katy. Did I mention that I didn't like that kid?
I love when a film is smart enough to build itself with interesting minor characters. Roo’s hateful butler Albie is a wonderfully villainous touch that doesn’t NEED to be in the film, but his presence and characterization simply makes everything a tad more sinister
As The Woman In Black reminded us, there is simply no such thing as too many creepy dolls
I don't know if the flashback to the REAL Katherine's fate was supposed to be funny or sad, but I found it hysterically sad to the point of being funny. Maybe that was a low point considering its intentions, but hey, it was certainly entertaining
You mustn’t disturb the cook when she’s making something delicious
If there wasn’t a séance, then it wasn’t a 1970s genre film
Never trust a British stair bannister
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is an easy recommendation because it’s just so strange. I can't think of another movie that includes Shelley Winters singing in black lace, orphans plotting a heist, mummified children, blackmail, fairy tale overtones, and oh yeah, creepy dolls, just 'cause. When paired with Harrington's What’s the Matter With Helen?, this two-sided disc makes a fine addition to any collection, even if the special features are sadly limited to (an admittedly awesome) trailer.