One of the most fascinating things about studying cinema and TV is the amount of subgenres your researches will throw up. Your average man in the street (and who cares what he thinks anyway? He probably wears a tracksuit!!) will be largely unfamiliar with terms such as ‘exploitation’ ‘giallo’ ‘WIP’ ‘or ‘quota quickie’, and those of us ‘in the know’ could be forgiven for feeling a sense of slight superiority. But even by those standards, the ‘private universe’ movie is a rare and precious commodity. Off the top of my head, I can think of four made in Britain during the golden era: Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny And Girly and Goodbye Gemini (both 1970) Secret Ceremony (1968) and Our Mother’s House, which is not only by far the best of the three, but also the one most will have seen, as, unlike the others, it has at least been shown (infrequently) on terrestrial television in the UK.
Based on a novel by Julian Gloag, the film could also be termed a ‘social problem’ movie, and does share similarities with ‘kitchen sink dramas’, but is in truth nothing of the sort. A multi-layered, complex, subtle and beautifully autumnal film dealing with several simultaneous concepts, but most of all with the idea of alternative reality, it’s the kind of work that shows British mainstream cinema (it was distributed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer) at its most daring and experimental. It’s also further proof of the underrated talent of director Jack Clayton, the man who chilled us all with The Innocents (1961), taken from Henry James’ Gothic classic “The Turn Of The Screw”, and would later even manage to redeem the corporate evils of Walt Disney with his atmospheric reading of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).
Whether or not he chose these novels to film or was simply hired by coincidence on each occasion (you know as well as I do how these things happen in the film industry) is irrelevant, but you’d have to be blind to miss the recurrent themes of lost innocence, progression from child to adult, and an unerring belief in the supernatural, in all three. In Our Mother’s House, we approach the subject matter from an ambiguous perspective, as eight recently orphaned children of a supposedly devoutly religious, physically frail mother (whose death is never fully explained or ascribed to any illness, thus allowing yet more scope for imagination and interpretation) choose to, in their words, “carry on like before”, burying her in a self-constructed “tabernacle” in the back garden, sacking nosey home help Mrs Quayle (Yootha Joyce) and constructing a series of elaborate lies for the benefit of their teachers and neighbours.
The idea that Mother’s physical death on Earth would separate her from her offspring is never even mentioned, and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, the second eldest daughter, Diana (Pamela Franklin, further refining her role as a ‘haunted child’ from The Innocents) uses herself as a ‘channel’ through which she and the others communicate with their deceased parent nightly during a specially designated period referred to as ‘Mother Time’. Once a reverent, communal display of respect, this has now transformed since her passing into an eerie, ritualistic series of séances: during one such event, the older children chastise, supposedly at the behest of ‘Mother’, their younger sibling Gerty (Phoebe Nicholls, then still called Sarah, in her first role) for the heinous crime of allowing a stranger to bring her home on his motorcycle, thus potentially exposing the family unit to public scrutiny. The suggested punishment is for the girl to have her long locks forcibly cut off, and the screams that echo around the ghostly shrine as they carry out her bidding are as chilling as anything heard in the bleakest Pete Walker.
It’s moments like this, where Clayton changes the tone- from quaintly charming melodrama to unrelenting fear, from sweetness to trauma- with but one slight tweak, that illustrate his controlled power as a filmmaker. It’s also these elements that help confirm the film’s status as a psychological horror movie, something often disputed by self- appointed cinematic arbiters who would not like to admit to enjoying one. Yet, in a perfect illustration of the difference between society then and now, not one mention is made of the suggestion of paedophilia or perversion on the adult’s part: in a more disturbing reversal, the others refer to their sister, who cannot be older than seven at most, as a “harlot” and lay the blame, not that anything has actually happened, at her door (“You allowed him to touch you!”) The fact that the child told the adult nothing is of no consequence: in the private universe, where he moirés of society are nonexistent, rules must be obeyed or else. However, despite the brutality of the deed, what emerges is an overriding feeling not of malice, but of fraternal love, and the desire to protect one’s nearest and dearest from a real world which is ultimately more threatening.
Eldest daughter Elsa (Margaret Brooks, daughter of screenwriter Jeremy Brooks) assumes the role of guardian, although she vies constantly for power with the equally determined Hubert (Louis Sheldon Williams) and it is this struggle that will prove the undoing of the family unit. Against his sister’s better judgement he has written to the man believed to be their father, Charlie Hook (Dirk Bogarde), and for a while it looks like a good idea, as his entrance (literally, through the door of the rambling Victorian mansion) comes at an opportune moment and saves the group from an interfering schoolteacher (who they seem on the verge of frightening to death with harmonised, monklike chants of “go away”) looking for an ‘abducted’ schoolmate Louie (Parnum Wallace). And it’s this sudden destruction of the previous dynamic that shifts the story to its next level.
Some have complained that Bogarde’s arrival, almost precisely 50 minutes in, changes the timbre of the picture to the point where it becomes almost another film. True, the dreamlike trance of the first half is now tinged with a gritty realism, but every second of the production is so unified by the captivating browns, greys and greens of Clayton’s superb photography, and the drifting textures of Georges Delerue’s evocative soundtrack, that any join is near invisible. The well-chosen suburban London locations (Croydon, Chessington), also used by Clayton to great effect in The Pumpkin Eater, add to this effect, the end result almost the British Horror equivalent of a Ray Davies or Al Stewart lyric, and despite the decaying house looking like it probably hasn’t been cleaned in over a decade, you find yourself strangely drawn to such a place.
Bogarde owns the film from the moment he first sets foot onscreen, and Charlie Hook is one of his most fascinating, perplexing creations. Even though his biological parentage of them is always in question (and later revealed to be practically nonexistent), his joy and contentment at being reunited with his children, and the pleasure he appears to derive from spending time with them, is clearly visible. Yet underneath, we discover him to be exactly the wastrel their mother’s writings had described, a fly-by-night Sarf Lahndahn confidence trickster who wants little more than to defraud them out of their will and their house. We are already aware of the talent the youngest boy, Jiminee (a pre-Oliver! Mark Lester), possesses for forging the signature on Mother’s fortnightly welfare cheque (cashed at the office by Brooks): dastardly Dirky soon has him embezzling her savings book, the resulting cash frittered away on loose women (not something Bogarde would have done in real life, but if anything, further proof of his acting skills) booze and cars.
He also destroys the ‘tabernacle’ and sells off his late wife’s furniture, and reinstates Joyce, who has her own agendas, but it’s impossible to see him as merely a “bad lot”: his own revelations about the children’s “sainted” mother, who in truth rebelled against her own religious upbringing by becoming little more than a common prostitute, seem less like the declamations of a scheming usurer and more those of a saddened, crushed man who, for reasons beknownst only to himself, chose to remain in a relationship with such a woman and give each of her offspring his name. Undeniably, Charlie is not, for want of a better word, “nice”, and indeed, he turns unnecessarily on the children with a display of verbal venom as only the actor at the peak of his powers (following on from similar tour de forces in Victim and Accident) could deliver- yet he is not strictly “a nasty piece of work” either, and although he cares little for anyone except himself, one wonders if it were always this way or if we are witnessing a man at the end of his tether.
Furthermore, his rejection of Franklin (who is becoming a woman, and by now has developed a hopeless crush on the man she believes to be her father), which leads the film to its admittedly predictable but no less effective conclusion, is actually not an aggressive act but an almost noble gesture. During a game of rough-and-tumble in the garden, he recognises her burgeoning feelings for him but clearly refuses to encourage them, even when she catches him in bed with local floozy Edina Ronay, and her love, which she retains long after the others have seen his true colours, is compromised. Admittedly, he could have chosen more tactful words than “Get away from me, you give me the bloody creeps” before throwing her to the floor, but at least his intent remains honourable. Granted, Our Mother’s House isn’t the only film of its kind to deal with the taboo subject of incest (see also I Start Counting and the aforementioned Goodbye Gemini), but it approaches it with a rare non-exploitative dignity. And considering the content of certain films I often champion (some discussed elsewhere on this site) that’s quite a statement.
It’s difficult to know how to convey fully one’s appreciation of a film such as this. It literally does “work on so many levels”. In one standout scene, the children dress as adults in a staged pantomime put on for their runaway houseguest, Louie: again, Franklin’s budding womanhood (something hinted at a year before in The Nanny, and explored fully within a year in her controversial naked romp with Robert Stephens in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie) is alluded to, this time via the usage of mock pillow breasts, but more disturbing is the portrayal of Wallace’s distressed mother by Lester, who has suggested that the errant child should share his bed. Innocent? Almost definitely, yet there exists the suggestion of a potentially hazardous world where the received notions of right and wrong exist only arbitrarily- and if we examine society further, maybe they do. Likewise, our belief that Diana is only imagining her mother’s voice during séances is challenged when, having “consulted” the spirit on the arrivals of both Louie and Charlie into the household, she confesses to Hubert that she “pretended this time”. This implies that on earlier occasions the clairvoyance was not imaginary but very real indeed, something else which carries us across the border from straight drama into chilling horror.
It’s possible that the film’s unwillingness to be pigeonholed has led to the strange place it occupies in the pantheon of British cinema history: well loved by groups of a certain age who bemoan its rarity, not least of all because of Bogarde’s performance (which earned him an Academy award nomination as well as £35,000, a princely sum in those days) yet largely unknown to others. Its lineage is a rich one: structurally and aesthetically it is a descendant of films as diverse as Shadow Of A Doubt, Night Of The Hunter, Spider Baby, Lord Of The Flies and Women Of Twilight, and a precursor to The Whisperers, The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane, The Wild Little Bunch and most obviously The Cement Garden. Like the other ‘private universe’ films mentioned earlier, to which it could be considered a cousin, it bids us enter a world alien yet somehow familiar, although it remains markedly different in tone from the serial-killing theatricality of Girly, and its characters have less interaction with the outside world than in Gemini. Like its director’s Henry James adaptation, it has none of the gore, blood or showiness found even among the most highly-regarded horror films, yet it is among lovers of that genre that it has found its most appreciative audience.
The film may belong to Bogarde, but begins and ends with the children, and their contribution cannot be undermined. Clayton manages to coax flawless performances from all of them, most of whom had never acted before and did little after (Franklin, a scream queen in waiting remains to this day a cult icon, but is mainly retired) A former extra from the school scenes recently posted on IMDB that he was not allowed to see the finished result until much older, and though I oppose censorship, one might surmise that applied to the others too. It may be about childhood, but Our Mother’s House is most definitely NOT a kids’ film, and we can only wonder what effect (ala the stories oft told of Bob Ezrin’s recording of “The Kids”on Lou Reed’s Berlin) the experience may have had on them.
As the end credits roll, and they file in a slow funereal procession to their unknown destination, the ambiguity once again a welcome alternative to any saccharine ending, the overwhelming urge we are left with is to not only make this masterpiece more well-known, but to practically force future generations of so-called ‘film students’ to watch it. In no way is it a “message” film, but it remains an essential lesson in how to make a film. Truly incredible.