Movie of the Week: Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972)

Written by David D. Osborn (original screen story)Robert Blees and Jimmy Sangster (screenplay), Gavin Lambert (additional dialogue)
Directed by Curtis Harrington
Starring Shelley Winters, Mark Lester, Chloe Franks, Ralph Richardson, Lionel Jeffries
Released March 15, 1972 (New York City)
RT 91 min.
Home Video Kino Lorber (Blu-ray)
Classic Horrors rating =  6 (out of 10)

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Nearly ¼ of the movies I watched and loved in the 70s were released by American International Pictures, and 2/3 of those were also produced by AIP.   It’s hard now to find how well they did at the box office, but it’s safe to say they weren’t on any top ten lists during the years they were released.  However, they must have been profitable or there wouldn’t have been so many.  One of these is a little gem called Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?

The revelation when I re-watched this movie recently was that it was co-written by “James” Sangster. Yes, that is “Jimmy” Sangster, famous Hammer Films scribe who wrote classics such as The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula.  (His last film for Hammer, Fear in the Night, was released the same year as Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?  He spent most of the rest of his career writing episodes of American television series.)

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is not a bad movie, but it comes at the end of the “older women in peril” sub-genre that began in 1962 with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? so neither is it terribly fresh. Starring former Hollywood starlets who were perhaps past their prime, these movies (also known as Grande Dame Guignol, hagsploitation, hag horror or psycho-biddy movies) featured characters who were dangerous, insane or mentally unstable women of advanced years.

After Bette Davis and Joan Crawford paved the way in Baby Jane, Crawford starred in Strait-Jacket (1964), Davis and Olivia de Havilland starred in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Tallulah Bankhead starred in Die! Die! My Darling (1965), Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon starred in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969) and Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds starred in What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971).

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Here, it’s Shelley Winters as Mrs. Forrest and it’s not clear through most of the movie whether her role is that of the villain or the victim. Yes, she’s obviously a lunatic, but she never tries to harm anyone.  Ultimately, I suppose she’s a victim due to the perception of two children that she is indeed a villain.  In fact, siblings Christopher (Mark Lester) and Katy (Chloe Franks) believe she is a witch and they are living out some type of real life Hansel & Gretel scenario.

All “Auntie Roo” really wants to do is replace her dead daughter with her doppelganger, Katy. Her good intentions rescue the girl from her dreary life at an orphanage, but I must admit she is a little misguided when she separates her from her brother and keeps her locked in a room upstairs.  Katy doesn’t seem to care much; Auntie Roo gives her everything she wants, which is apparently just an old teddy bear.

I remember one jump scare from when I originally saw Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? at the Chief Theater in Enid, Oklahoma. It’s actually just an abrupt transition that begins with a butcher unexpectedly chopping off a turkey’s head.  Yeah, it doesn’t make me jump anymore.  But what I didn’t remember is that the most shocking scene of the entire movie occurs before the opening credits even roll.

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In this scene, the camera slowly pans through a child’s room while Winters sings a lullaby. When the camera stops, we see that she is singing not to her daughter, but to her daughter’s corpse.  While her guilt over her daughter’s death is the purpose for the entire story, I can’t help but believe that this specific scene would make the entire effort more effective if it were placed later in the movie as a twist.

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? perhaps attempts to be more than it is. There’s a subplot in which the staff is stealing from Mrs. Forrest.  And quite a bit of time is spent setting up a “boy who cried wolf” situation for Christopher.  Neither really goes anywhere, which diminishes the focus of the movie.  The first subplot, though, does provide an unintentionally hilarious scene right out of Scooby-Doo with the kids and the butler, Albie, in a shed.

The score by Kenneth V. Jones is too ambitious for a B-movie and is over the top, even for hagsploitation. But it accompanies a couple fairly suspenseful scenes.  In one, Winters acts out a sort of reverse “here’s Johnny” scene from The Shining.  Instead of trying to chop her way into a room with an axe, though, she’s trying to chop her way out.

Critics liked this movie slightly more than audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, with an approval rating of 57% vs. 52%. I, however, am inexplicably more fond of Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? even though it doesn’t carry much weight today.  It’s not horrible, but it’s evidence that childhood memories add a layer of appreciation to even the worst of movies.

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