“You mustn’t interrupt the cook when she’s making something delicious!!”…
As this time of year once again draws upon us, my friends and I settle into a time-honoured debate: just what is the quintessential Christmas horror film? American titles like Black Christmas, Christmas Evil and Silent Night, Deadly Night invariably spring to mind, but nothing will ever convince me that anyone does Yuletide terror better than us Brits. It is, after all, part of our national heritage- a roaring log fire, a glass of mulled wine, a room bedecked in finest Victoriana, and a tale of the supernatural to chill our spines as the glowing embers warm our hearts. And one title encapsulates all those elements more than any other. Well, almost.
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? Isn’t supernatural, and is definitely not a “ghost story for Christmas” ala Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptations, but fills all the other criteria listed above. Filmed at Shepperton, with locations in the classic Brit horror environs of nearby Middlesex and Berkshire, set in the early 20th century, and starring one of the greatest British ensemble casts ever seen onscreen, it would almost define the classic British horror movie were it not for the presence of its American director and leading lady. Then again, imported stars from across the ocean have been a part of the great traditions of home-grown film production since Hitchcock’s first talkies, to the point where to some, a film doesn’t feel British without at least one in there somewhere (cf The Anniversary, Quatermass II et al)- so maybe it is perfect after all.
In its combination of childlike wonder, black psychosis, nail-biting terror and florid fantasy, the film is exemplary. In terms of photography, atmosphere and pacing, it is equal to, if not superior to, any of Hammer or Amicus’ greatest moments. Then again, we’re talking about British AIP here, the same studio that gave us The Masque of the Red Death- so why shouldn’t we expect a masterpiece? Whoever Slew (or to give it its more user-friendly title, Who Slew) Auntie Roo has admittedly never received the acclaim it deserves, possibly because of its chronological placing at the end of a series of similarly titled, similarly-themed “batty old actress” horrors that include Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, What’s The Matter With Helen and Whatever Happened To Aunt Alice, and also possibly because, straddling as it does two decades, it has its foot placed firmly in the camp of neither- but even one casual viewing should be enough to convince viewers of its power.
Shelley Winters, the American in question, gives almost the performance of her career (I say ‘almost’ because a year later, she would best herself as a tragic alcoholic housewife in another Brit horror classic, Alistair Reid’s Something To Hide) as the friendly, generous, yet sinister and obviously unhinged Rosie Miller, aka Aunt Roo- the former music hall soubrette (of questionable talent and ability) who retired to marry a rich military Englishman and inherited his country pile after his death, subsequently filling it every Christmas with the children of the nearby orphanage, selected by the stern and unforgiving Miss Henley (Rosalie Crutchley). There is a darker motive behind this generosity though- her own child, Katherine, ‘disappeared mysteriously’ in the house many years ago, although the opening sequence, showing the actress singing “Let no man steal your thyme” to some mummified remains in a nursery, infers what really happened, and even this unsolved mystery doesn’t seem to have deterred local copper Inspector Willoughby (Lionel Jeffries, the man responsible for that other paragon of Christmas horror, The Amazing Mr Blunden) from escorting the chosen kids yearly to ‘The Gingerbread House’, as it is colloquially known, for the festivities.
The two children upon whom the story focuses, Christopher and Katie Kunz (Mark Lester and Chloe Franks, the latter in a substantial role for one so small, and one she wouldn’t really equal until The Uncanny several years later) are brother and sister, and have not made many friends among their fellow orphans- or indeed the staff, with the exception of the kind Dr Mason (Pat Heywood, ironically fresh from Mumsy Nanny Sonny And Girly, which takes a whole different perspective on childhood and innocence). Christopher, who displays an untapped, frightening intelligence for one so young, and thus a slight frustrated psychosis, is described as a fantasist and ‘an inveterate liar’- which basically means his imagination stretches beyond the confines of his class and upbringing. The much younger Katie is shy and unable to make many decisions without her brother’s say-so, getting tarred with the same brush as a result- which is why, despite their hopes, neither are selected for the Christmas bash at Forrest Grange. Not that this deters them- they simply stow away in the boot of Jeffries’ jalopy under cover of darkness.
They’re soon caught, of course, by child-hating, sadistic butler Albie (Michael Gothard) and hauled up before Miss Henley and the assembled throng, but Katie’s resemblance to Aunt Roo’s own late daughter means that the batty old dear feels compelled to invite them to stay- and thus we have our plot. It’s unclear whether she’s shown any similarly untoward attention to any of her previous charges, or indeed how long this setup has existed, but it’s been long enough for Albie, maid Clarrie (Judy Cornwell) and lightly sozzled clairvoyant Benton (a fantastic cameo from Ralph Richardson) to set up a nice little fiddle whereby Rosie pays to “contact” her own departed offspring, Cornwell impersonates said child by calling down the dumb-waiter (a device put to much good use later on) and the chaps split the proceeds. Needless to say, Christopher and Katie are made of sterner stuff than previous attendees, which means that Aunt Roo’s plans to ‘adopt’ (ie kidnap) the girl, to which everyone at the orphanage seemingly turns a blind eye (maybe they were over their quota) aren’t going to run as smoothly as she has hoped. Otherwise, one supposes, there wouldn’t be a plot. Yet for a story which could easily be dismissed as ‘unrealistic’ by critics, there is very little expediency on display, and although people wouldn’t take such a casual attitude to childcare in nanny-state Noughties Britain (very little attempt is made to find the missing girl when the festivities draw to a close, and her disappearance is almost shrugged off with a laissez-faire “she’ll probably turn up later” attitude) the events still come across as believable.
Of course, there has to be a fairy-tale element- there are several references to ‘Hansel and Gretel’ throughout (usually ‘heard’ in Christopher’s thoughts- a nicely chilling touch), and even if it isn’t specifically aimed at children (it played as an X feature on original release) it has enough olde-worlde Crimble warmth and light-hearted sequences, including a moving yet deliberately amateur reading of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Tit Willow” with full kiddie chorus, to appeal to a younger contingent. And like Yet beneath the veneer of such charms lurks a genuinely disquieting tale of insanity, with Winters going progressively more bonkers as the film progresses, showing us her full range of cackles, cries, sobs, yells and moans, and switching personalities with nary a flicker depending on who else is in the room. Likewise the plight of the children, their prolonged pursuit by a threatening adult mythologised as a monster, and even the pratfallish, almost comic way in which they affect their escape, draw to mind another, even greater, genre classic, Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955) which as any fan will recognise, featured Winters in a defining early role. Coincidence or homage? Judging by director Harrington’s other work, I’ll go for the latter- but it’s no bad thing, and if anything such allusion only serves to strengthen horror’s lineage.
It should be pointed out, though, that while Winters may have been the star name, even at the peak of her powers she is trounced here by Lester- whose performance continually causes me to remark, as it also does in Night Hair Child and Eyewitness- that it’s a shame his career didn’t continue past childhood. He would have made a great adult performer (as in ‘a performer who is an adult’, not ‘one who performs in adult productions’, just to get things clear), and it’s a shame he chose instead to spend his time hanging out with Michael Jackson and removing corns from people’s big toes. But hey ho, his choice.
Part of the film’s strength lies, as a result of such a performance, in the ambiguity of the protagonists. In other words, who is the REAL nutter- Aunt Roo or Christopher? Yes, she keeps corpses in cots (in not particularly good condition either, eventually leading to the film’s most ‘eeeyuck’ horror moment) and sings to them, while also attempting to kidnap a living child, but ultimately, isn’t her crime simply a manifestation of the need to love and be loved? From flashbacks shown, it doesn’t seem as if her conjurer husband had much time or patience for her (although cynics may suggest that it ‘serves her right’ for being dumb enough to marry into money to begin with), preferring instead to spend time, it is inferred, in an outhouse with his huge collection of guillotines, magic boxes and eerie dolls (which leads to a great “what’s that film I saw” moment of scariness involving Gothard, and Onibaba mask and some moving heads) Furthermore, her life outside of showbiz, a profession to which she obviously wasn’t suited either, seems to have been lonely, particularly in England, (“everyone abandons me”, she yells at one point, “I shall take steps!!”) so can we blame her for wanting company, especially at Christmas, which must have been an even worse time for unattached people then than now? Lest we forget, loneliness killed Michael Gothard (“the most neurotic actor I ever worked with…I didn’t like him at all”, Curtis Harrington would later remark) in 1992 when he took his own life- and even though his character actually comes off rather well here (despite disappearing from the plot too early) you can’t help seeing a touch of that seething misanthropy in him too.
As for Christopher, he may ostensibly be an ‘innocent child’, whose primary motivation is to protect his kid sister, but you can’t help wondering whether his constant jibing that the old biddy wants to “fatten the children up and eat them” (yet more Grimm quotes) is based on genuine delusion rather than fear. “Bloody good fire” he muses to himself as the house burns in the manner of all great trad horror endings, and it’s a testament to the young actor’s obvious skill, delightfully underplayed, that he is able to place such doubts, however tiny or niggling, in our minds. Plus, it’s his insistence that finally persuades Katie to turn on her replacement matriarch, his nocturnal wanderings and expeditions down the dumb waiter shaft that reveal the truth behind Richardson’s fraudulent clairvoyance (and lead to the discovery of the secret nursery in which the deceased Katherine is hidden) and his idea to steal the jewels Katie finds in one of Aunt Roo’s drawers and hide it in his sister’s teddy bear (another reference to Laughton’s masterpiece)- all of which lead to the former actress’s untimely (if not entirely undeserved) demise.
This last has led many observant parties to mention that the film’s title is somewhat misleading: there’s never any question as to whom Auntie Roo’s slayers are, we even get to see them sodding well do it! Thus the movie is rendered devoid of any possible whodunit status that may have been inferred. Still, with camerawork, lighting, acting and dialogue as good as this, (I might even go so far as to posit that if the final spoken lines don’t “get you right there” so to speak, you’ve got severe problems) plus, most important of all, a film that is actually scary in places, we can easily overlook such misdemeanour’s. And it rhymes….
As far as I am aware, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? was a relative box-office success, making AIP a fair amount of money, yet for the reasons alluded to earlier, it has never received recognition as the masterpiece it truly is. But it is out on DVD, (ironically on a double bill with What’s The Matter With Helen) and occasionally gets shown around this time of year, so do yourself a favour- sit down in a nice armchair, dim the lights but leave the fairies turned on (oo er, duckie) open a bottle of port, snaffle a mince pie, allow the wintry beauty of its festive horror to slowly pour over you, and you’ll soon be singing “Tit Willow” at the screen like the rest of us..
Mind you, I still hate bloody kids. Bah humbug…..
DARIUS DREWE “EBENEEZER” SHIMON