Friday, December 11, 2015

"Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?" (A 25 Days of Shitmas Post) from Ryne Barber of

In the ‘70s, Shelley Winters was busy playing all kinds of deranged older women. What’s the Matter with Helen? is probably the most well-known, but she also starred in another question-marked movie directed by Curtis Harrington set around the Christmas season: Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? The film hasn’t really become a staple of the Christmas horror genre like Black Christmas or Silent Night, Deadly Night, and that’s in part because Auntie Roo is a much slower film, but it’s also only marginally a Christmas film. Still, it has enough to warrant Shitmas coverage, and I’m excited to do so.

Winters stars as the titular Auntie Roo, a rich spinster living alone after the death of her daughter Katharine. During the Christmas season, she accepts orphans into her home for a large Christmas party, providing presents to the children and feeding them a nice Christmas turkey. On her off days, she tries to contact the spirit of Katharine using a medium. And unfortunately for little orphans Christopher (Mark Lester) and Katy (Chloe Franks), Auntie Roo hasn’t been able to move on from her grief of losing Katharine after she fell off a stair banister to her death - she keeps the body in a coffin, pulling it out and rocking it to sleep at night.

The basic premise has shades of Hansel and Gretel - a story that keeps coming up within the movie - as well as the usual films that women like Winters and Bette Davis were starring in at the time. Harrington had some previous experience with mad-women movies prior, and he’s good at imitating. But it’s Winters who goes to great lengths to make Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? a fun watch, because she’s as hammy as can be playing the distraught and seriously disturbed Auntie Roo.

It’s interesting that Harrington decides to reveal Auntie Roo’s madness right away with a Psycho-esque shot of Katharine dead in a coffin; in a way, it defeats the purpose of following her from the perspective of the orphans later on and sets up some dramatic irony that feels deflated. Still, that knowledge that Auntie Roo isn’t as right in the head as her good deeds make her seem set up some interesting events later on, especially when Katy takes a strong liking to her and Katharine’s old teddy bear.

While Auntie Roo often suffers from its relatively slow plotting - not much happens until about the halfway point, when Katy and Christopher find themselves kidnapped by Auntie Roo - its strongest moments often occur because of the multiple readings behind the meaning of the film. Harrington clearly wants the audience to feel somewhat sorry for Auntie Roo; she has kidnapped children and hidden the accidental death of her daughter from the police, but she’s also suffering from some intense psychological distress because everyone takes advantage of her wealth. Her need for affection and attention is understandable, and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? attempts to capitalize on her pathetic personality.

At the same time, it’s hard to feel sorry for her when she’s so absolutely full of spite with Christopher, forcing him to gather wood for her over and over again. Her treatment of Katy is so different from how she acts around Christopher that it shows how much Auntie Roo has receded into fantasy.

The ending drifts directly into Hansel and Gretel’s conclusion. Fearing the worst, Christopher burns Auntie Roo in her kitchen, thinking that she’s going to cook and eat them for dinner like the witch in the story. It’s a violent and primal act, surprising because the act isn’t really necessary. It paints Christopher as a killer, and therein lies the differing viewpoints on this film’s finale: is it Christopher or Auntie Roo in the wrong?

There’s no good answer to this, and that dark theme permeates throughout Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? despite its cheesy execution. It’s not a remarkably Christmasy movie, nor is it one of the best examples of this type of mad-old-lady horror; but it is an intriguing story all the same that puts the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale to good use.

- Ryne Barber /

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