Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?

And who cares? I’m not sure I do.
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1972
Director: 
Curtis Harrington
Starring: 
Shelley Winters, Ralph Richardson, Mark Lester, Chloe Franks
The Setup: 
Modern take on the Hansel and Gretel story… that no one wanted a modern take on.
Discussion: 

It is a universal truth that if you have two movies on one disc, one of them is going to suck crusty granny asscrack. Such is the case here. On the same DVD as What’s the Matter With Helen? This disc pairs two movies that have questions as titles, star Shelley Winters, and are directed by Curtis Harrington, who also did one of my sick favorites, The Killing Kind. Of all his work that I’ve seen, this one is the worst.

Things begin promisingly with a pan of a room filled with creepy dolls, then settling on a shot of Shelley Winters, looking like a doll. It’s an idea, sure, but it’s an idea taken directly from Harrington’s previous film, What’s blah blah blah Helen, the other one on this disc. During this time Shelley sings a folk ballad about how it is the lot of women to lose their beauty and get tossed aside in favor of the Heidi Klums of our world. Turns out she’s singing this song to her daughter, and then it turns out that her daughter is a desiccated old corpse! [Insert shriek here]. Then we have this horrendously long title sequence with this ludicrously over the top overture that comes straight from a 40s Dracula movie or whatever. The rest of the movie seems influenced by those overwrought [and dull, IMHO] Hammer films. Ugh.

So then Ralph Richardson arrives and gives Shelley a séance where they supposedly contact her dead daughter. Richardson brings a desperately-needed dash of acting talent to the piece [Shelley is estimable, just not HERE], as a man desperate for a drink. His gasp of joy when offered a drink is a hoot, as is his ridiculous reasoning as to why he must accept two bottles of cognac for the greater good at the end of the movie. Maybe I should investigate me some more Ralph.

So then we switch into the Dickens vibe. It would seem that this movie takes place in England, where Shelley is an American actress [former actress] who lives in this house carefully made up to look like a gingerbread house. We move to an orphanage, where Christopher and Katy are brother and sister orphans who haven’t spoken to anyone, and who have fantasies of “witches and ogres and giants.” Part of this is probably because Christopher is played by Mark Lester, who gets second billing, who was fairly fresh off the title role in Oliver!. I guess he should worry about getting typecast, though the sense is that he’s doing this movie because he has found the options for young moppet orphans somewhat limited. I think they movie should have gone all-out in the shameless department and have him ask for more of something.

Anyway, this movie takes place in a more naïve world in which orphanages allow ten of their children to go spend the night with a strange woman in a strange house. This would be Shelley’s annual Christmas party. Christopher and Katy are not invited, but sneak along, are soon discovered [by the butler fellow who likes to terrorize kids for fun], and invited to join the festivities.

Once the little dears have visions of hairy plums dancing in their heads, Shelly decides that she MUST have another séance. Little brats Christopher and Katy are sneaking around the house, and Christopher discovers that the butler and Ralph are tricking stupid Shelley with the old “talking down the dumbwaiter” trick. But Shelley’s buying it, and at a crucial moment when she thinks she’s contacted her daughter, Katy appears. This leads Shelley, of course, to think that Katy is her daughter, and wish to adopt/kidnap her. Her daughter, by the way, was killed in a tragic sliding-down-the-banister accident.

Somewhere in here Christopher has told the story of Hansel and Gretel, and keeps telling it at various times for all the dumbfucks who are too dense to get that this movie is a sort of retelling. Ugh. So Shelley sees the kids and wants to “fatten them up,” and other stupid elements. There’s also a whole lot of bullshit with Katy and a stupid teddy bear, which I can’t even be bothered to go into. The upshot is that Shelley locks Katie in a secret room upstairs. She tries to send Christopher home, but the intrepid little monster sneaks back and tries to find his sister. This is at about the one hour mark, and this is also where things get really drawn-out and tedious.

The kids are locked up. They escape. Christopher gets free. He’s locked up again. Blah blah blah, it just goes on and on. Somewhere in here the butler demands money from Shelley or he’ll tell the police that she’s kidnapped a girl, which causes Shelley, in a really dumb reaction shot, to glance to her left to demonstrate “nefarious plotting.” The butler also cruelly tells her that she’s a dupe for their ruse during the seances, and his evil glee is one of the few beacons of dull interest. But he’s soon gone.

SPOILERS > > >
So Shelley sets about making a giant feast, which Christopher is convinced that will consist of him and little Katy. After a lot of back and forth struggle they lock Shelly in a burning pantry—oh my God!, just like in Hansel and Gretel! The fact that you KNOW that this is how this shit is going to end does NOT provide a great deal of impetus to make it to the end.

There are a few thematic points of interest. One is that little Katy is only too happy to dump her brother if it means a fun playroom stocked with toys. The other is that the adults clearly couldn’t care less what becomes of the little tykes, most notable when Ralph Richardson shows up again, delivering a hilarious scene in which he leaves little Christopher in the hands of the witch for the aforementioned bottles of cognac.

At the very end the kids—you guessed it—trap Shelley in the burning house. The thing is, then the butcher arrives with the suckling pig for her roast, meaning that the kids could have been wrong all along. I would have loved it if this interpretation could have been followed through, but Shelley chasing them with a cleaver and the whole kidnapping angle mean that she is not wholly innocent, which would have gone a long way toward redeeming the entire movie. There is a funny moment when Katy turns to Christopher as the house next to them burns and informs her that they could have killed Shelley by mistake, to which Christopher replies “Huh. Bloody good fire.” I think the movie should have ended right there, but unfortunately there’s one more unnecessary scene. Ah well, promise squandered. It’s nothing new.

Should you watch it: 

It’s not a total waste of time. Only a partial waste of time.

RELATED FILMS:
WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? Is the other movie on this disc, by the same director and also with Shelly Winters. I would watch that one and skip this one.
THE KILLING KIND is another movie by the same director, and also features severe Mommy issues, but is really good and creepy.