An attempt at translating a classic fairy tale into a (somewhat) modern horror picture, the US/UK coproduction Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? falls considerably short of its ambitions, thanks in part to flat cinematography that robs the piece of necessary atmosphere but thanks mostly to an embarrassing star turn by Shelley Winters. With her bulging eyes, flailing movements, and shrill vocalizations, Winters exudes cartoonishness, and not in a good way. There’s no question an oversized performance might have been suitable, given that Winters’s role is a riff on the witch from the fable of Hansel and Gretel, but even an oversized performance requires discipline and vision to manifest coherently. Instead, Winters delivers such amateurish work that it seems she’s doing a blocking run-through rather than presenting a final rendering. Presumably much blame for this fatal flaw gets shared by director Curtis Harrington, whose approach to horror was never distinguished by good taste. One imagines he was after a degree of camp here, as with his preceding Winters collaboration, What’s the Matter With Helen? (1971), but it all just seems so obvious and tacky.
Set between World Wars in England, the picture concerns Rosie Forrest (Winters), an American former showgirl who is so insane that she keeps the rotting corpse of her dead daughter in the upstairs nursery of her mansion. Every Christmas, Rosie—who also goes by the nickname “Auntie Roo”—opens her home to a group of local orphans, so the movie also introduces viewers to siblings Christopher (Mark Lester) and Katy (Chloe Franks). Through convoluted circumstances, the siblings end up convinced that “Auntie Roo” plans to cook and eat them, as per the Hansel and Gretel story that Christopher recites to Katy one night. Half the picture depicts how the kids develop this belief, and the other half dramatizes various escape attempts once they’re trapped in the mansion with Auntie Roo. Incidental characters adding little to the story include an unscrupulous butler (Michael Gothard) and a drunken medium (Ralph Richardson).
As penned by a gaggle of writers including Hammer Films regular Jimmy Sangster, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?—released in the U.S. with the slightly abbreviated title Who Slew Auntie Roo?—is colorful but uninvolving, despite the mighty efforts of composer Kenneth V. Jones to add suspense. The appalling nature of Winters’s performance is but one of many shortcomings. While the sets are relatively lavish, shooting the whole picture on soundstages with harsh high-key lighting makes everything feel fake and unthreatening. Lester’s work in the second lead is perfunctory, revealing just how much skill director Carol Reed employed to make Lester seem vigorous in Oliver! (1968). And the logistics of the film’s second half are ridiculous—every would-be suspenseful sequence is predicated on someone doing something idiotic, such as overlooking an obvious warning or, on repeated occasions, rushing into danger to retrieve a teddy bear. The movie is quite dull until the final minutes, when the plot turns perverse by mirroring the gruesome conclusion of the Hansel and Gretel story.
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?: FUNKY