Well, we are officially past the halfway mark in our 31 Days of Horror series, which puts us in the 1970s! Today we’re talking about another film that belongs to one of my favorite sub-genres: Hag Horror. The movie in question is 1972’s Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, and it’s quite the humdinger.
It’s a modern-day take on the tale of Hansel and Gretel, and Shelley Winters stars as the titular Auntie Roo. Man, poor Shelley Winters. Despite a colorful, decades-long career and numerous Oscar nominations/wins, she never seems to get to play somebody whom you actually like. To me, Winters will forever be the frumpy sad-sack, Alice Tripp, getting kinda-sorta-deservingly drowned by Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun. Terrible, I know, but the lady does odious, second-string broads pretty darn well. She plays a kooky weirdo yet again in Auntie Roo, although I will say that she’s much more palatable than usual here.
Something I found very interesting about the role of Rosie Forrest (aka Auntie Roo) in this movie is that she doesn’t quite fit the typical mold for Hag Horror. Yes, Ms. Winters is a formerly glamorous starlet who has been relegated to the Hollywood B Team for the unthinkable crime of aging (although she’s still not very old here, just a bit less physically fabulous), BUT the categorization of the “hags” in these films usually tilts one of two ways: A. The Predatory Older Woman, or B. The Older Woman in Peril. Sometimes, both categories will be filled in the same movie (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte), but such an occurrence is rare. Anyway, in Auntie Roo, the character of Mrs. Forrest does not really fall in either camp. She never actually intends the children any harm–they just THINK she does. Granted, she has some severe mental hangups about the death of her daughter that she absolutely needs to seek therapy for. But as far as being a Predatory Older Woman…I don’t think so.
Alas, I’m getting ahead of myself again. Synopsis time!
Every year, the widowed Mrs. Rosie Forrest hosts a lavish, lovely Christmas party at her mansion for a select group of neighborhood orphans. This particular year, a sweet and sandy-haired brother and sister (Christopher and Katy Coombs) tag along to the party, despite not being selected by their chilly headmistress to attend. Mrs. Forrest, however, is delighted by their courtly manners and innocent presence. She urges them to stay, and to call her “Auntie Roo”. She even ends up taking a particular shine to Katy, who reminds her of her own deceased daughter (also named Katharine).
As the story unfolds, we learn that the late Katharine Forrest died in a heart wrenching accident while sliding down the bannister–an accident from which Auntie Roo has never recovered. We also learn that Roo regularly “communicates” with Katharine in the form of seances, as well as singing lullabies to her daughter’s decayed corpse every night in the nursery. Eesh. There is even a scene towards the end of the movie where Roo lovingly strokes the powdery, skeletal face, only to have it disintegrate into ash between her fingers. Talk about being scarred for life.
The central conflict of the movie is that Roo (a little too tenaciously, I’ll admit) wants to adopt the orphaned Katy and keep her at the mansion as a replacement for the daughter she lost. Unfortunately for Roo, Katy’s brother Christopher is part of the deal, and he is wise to her kidnap-flavored plans (and all the creepy, corpse-related moments he has witnessed while spying on her). He and Katy manage to escape Forrest Grange unharmed, but (*spoiler alert, as indicated by the movie’s title*) the same cannot be said for Auntie Roo.
The main problem with conflating this movie with Hansel and Gretel is that a direct comparison is rather misleading. In this story, Roo is an extremely sympathetic character overall. Her actions are misinterpreted by the children (Christopher, especially), therefore they see her as a force of evil when she is really not. Unlike in the original Hansel and Gretel tale, Roo isn’t a crazy, malevolent witch who wants to snatch up wayward children in order to eat them for supper. She genuinely loves kids. She is sad, she is unbearably lonely, she is perhaps mentally unstable…but never ill-intentioned. It’s a pretty tragic story when you get right down to it, and one that may even have a darker ending than the original fairy tale.
I think I would give this one a solid B grade. Shelley Winters’ theatrics can be a little much at times, but on the whole it’s an interesting spin on a classic story, with decent scares and legitimate suspense. You can find Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? available to stream on Amazon Video–give it a chance and let me know what you think!
Tomorrow, Charles will continue our exploration of the ’70s with a review on 1975’s Deep Red. Be sure to come back to check it out, along with the rest of this month’s reviews for 31 Days of Horror!!