Everyone remembers 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a camp classic, but that movie—which starred Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and kick-started the “psycho-biddy” horror subgenre—was also nominated for five Oscars. In 1972, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? didn’t rake in the same acclaim, but it’s nearly as ghoulishly entertaining, elevated by Shelley Winters’ daffy performance.
Rainn Wilson’s First Fandoms: Star Trek And D&D
Released the same year as another notable later-career Winters turn (pro-tip: save The Poseidon Adventure for your New Year’s Eve party), Auntie Roo was actually the second psycho-biddy movie Winters made with director Curtis Harrington; they’d teamed up on What’s the Matter With Helen? the year prior. That film gave Winters a co-star on equal footing in Debbie Reynolds, but Auntie Roo is the Winters show through and through. The two-time Oscar winner has no trouble commanding the spotlight, knowing when to chomp the scenery but also finding the vulnerability in her oversized character.
Auntie Roo’s backstory alone would be too much for some actors to believably pull off, but Winters has no problem making you believe she’s a rich American—once a glamorous theater star, still fond of gowns and tiaras—living alone in a mansion in the English countryside, circa the 1920s, who opens her home once a year to local orphans for a Christmas party. Other pertinent details: she had a young daughter who died in a tragic accident some years prior, which she blames herself for, and her late husband was a famous magician (we don’t learn much more about him, which feels like an avenue that could have been further explored… though we do get to see the room of spooky props he left behind). Also, she’s put a lot of faith into a shifty medium who comes over to conduct fake séances and collect a hefty fee—which he secretly splits with the servants, including a butler who hates his job almost as much as he hates Auntie Roo.
It is a lot, but Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? has more to add to its kitschy Gothic melodrama scene-setting once the kids arrive, including siblings who crash the party because the orphanage has deemed them not well-behaved enough for the outing. Christopher (Mark Lester, a familiar child star after playing the title character in 1968’s Oliver!) and Katy (Chloe Franks) soon ingratiate themselves with their hostess, and are allowed to indulge in the Christmas Eve-into-Christmas Day overnight bacchanal of food, presents, and watching Auntie Roo perform ditties from her stage routine. Christopher in particular is obsessed with fairy tales, especially “Hansel and Gretel,” and the film is unsubtle about underlining the parallels, including the gingerbread detail on Auntie Roo’s home, her obsession with “fattening up” the children, and having Christopher both recite the story to help Katy get to sleep and run it through his mind in voice-over at opportune moments. Katy, meanwhile, bears a striking resemblance to Auntie Roo’s much-mourned little girl.
We know something’s off with Auntie Roo from the film’s opening scene, which shows us—with a shrieking assist from the soundtrack, so we know how awful it is—that she’s removed her daughter’s disintegrating corpse from her coffin so that she can sing it nightly lullabies. And there’s no denying Auntie Roo makes some choices as the plot progresses that speak to her own disintegrating mental state. But there’s also an oddly unsympathetic quality to Christopher and Katy; we don’t learn anything about their lives before the orphanage, but we see that Christopher has scrappy street-smarts that can’t quite overcome his fantastical belief that Auntie Roo is literally the witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” and Katy has clearly learned that whining and pouting are the quickest ways to get what she wants. That’s not to say you’ll wish ill upon these kiddos, exactly—but it might make you wonder if Auntie Roo’s inevitable punishment (the fairy-tale thing is a dead giveaway as to her fate… as is the movie’s own title) feels overly harsh for her crimes.
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is streaming free with ads on Pluto TV.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.