The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today we're looking at '70s B-horror holiday gem, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, there was an influx of films featuring older women that had once been famous and well-loved slowly but surely sliding into mania as their audiences and the love they provided vanished from their lives. It’s not exactly a unique premise, but it did give the world some interesting B-horror films during the time, starring former glamour girls of the ‘30s and ‘40s in their later careers.
Premiering in 1971, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? isn’t exactly the most well-known of Christmas horror films, but it is one of the originals. Starring Shelley Winters as Roo, an aging actor living in retirement and spending much of her life alone, this is a movie that starts creepy and doesn’t let up until well after the credits roll.
Once known by the stage name of Rosie Forrest, Auntie Roo is known as a lonely widow. She is generous and helpful but harbors a dark secret. The film opens on her singing a gentle lullaby to a crib, surrounded by dolls. Only as the song ends do we see that it is the skeletal remains of her daughter, who died several years prior by accidentally slipping and falling to her death from the top of the stairs. Roo is obsessed with reaching her child through a seance and hires a medium to help her communicate with the dead. It is quickly revealed that the communications she has with her deceased child are faked and that her sole housemaid provides the impressions of her daughter’s voice.
Auntie Roo holds an annual Christmas party for young kids from the local orphanage, at which she happily performs for them. Unfortunately, it is at the party that her loose hold on reality seems to completely slip away. She begins to believe that a young orphan named Katy is serving as a sort of host body for her deceased child. This mania leads to her hiding Katy upstairs and telling everyone she’s gone missing, but that she’ll return her when she turns up. It’s subtle and it isn’t handled the best, but the idea of a deranged woman who lives alone a mansion stealing random orphans to lock them in various bedrooms remains one of the scariest premises for a Christmas-themed horror film. The utter casualness with which the orphanage treats the disappearance of Katy is enough to give chills.
Her butler and the previously mentioned housemaid discover the child locked away, and rather than turn her in, they simply blackmail her and leave. Katy’s brother Christopher sneaks out of the apparently incredibly low-security orphanage and attempts to sneak her out, but is discovered by Roo, who traps him as well. Chris draws parallels between Roo and the witch from Hansel and Gretel and becomes convinced that she intends to devour him and his sister. Indeed, Roo swings into extreme unwellness at this time and brandishes a knife while screaming at Chris. He tries to tell the medium that he’s being held as a captive, but the medium rapidly dismisses him and leaves. At this time, Chris traps Roo in her own house and sets the mansion ablaze.
Although the start of the film pushes Roo as a sympathetic character, mourning her child and going out of her way to entertain orphaned children, she has a mental break that causes her to become malicious and wicked. Her decline happens seemingly between the scenes, and there’s very little discourse around it. Likewise, while Roo is strongly villainized, it’s important to note that this is a woman who suffered a serious, completely unexpected tragedy for which she absolutely blames herself, and is then surrounded by phonies who use her for her money and go to extreme lengths to manipulate her, frequently using her dead child as leverage. The characterization is loose and would benefit from a more sympathetic view of Auntie Roo, but she is still fairly compelling as is.
The horror subgenre referred to as Grande Dame Guignol featured movies like Roo?, alongside other movies like Straight-Jacket, Berserk!, and Die! Die! My Darling. At the time and even into the modern age, women were known to be blacklisted once they passed the age of 40. Classic films such as All About Eve would successfully address the fear of aging and the decline of career many women faced without seeing much influence toward changing that status quo. More recently, documentaries like Searching for Debra Winger went more in-depth on how this affects women. The fact that many great actors were regulated to B horror movies in their later years is problematic for many reasons relevant to people’s lives and how the movie industry views women, but at the same time it gave great later performances from a number of aging actors, ranging from Joan Crawford to Bette Davis to Tallulah Bankhead and, on more than one occasion, to Winters herself. The substance behind the idea of a former glamour girl falling to ruin might be about as shallow as a kiddie pool, but it gave us classics like Sunset Boulevard, and it can’t be entirely dismissed.
If anything, the persistent narrative from Christopher likening himself and Katy to Hansel and Gretel casts a layer of suspicion on him as a reliable narrator. One of the strangest elements of the film is the positioning of Chris as a potential villain in his own right but never acknowledging this in the script. Again and again, his simplification of reality seems to make him roughly as unstable as Roo herself. As the butcher arrives to deliver meat, Katy apprehensively notes, “I thought you said she was going to eat us,” and Chris quickly asserts that she was going to, but later, after she ate the meat being delivered. As the mansion burns, he dispassionately notes, “Bloody good fire,” which is not a particularly sympathetic response from a young man responsible for burning a woman to death in her own home. Tentatively, he did so in order to escape, but it wasn’t actually necessary to kill her. They were already perfectly capable of fleeing without starting the fire. All of these elements, combined with his theft of her jewels earlier in the film, make the conclusion feel a bit off.
As for the cast, many classic cinema fans are aware of Shelley Winters as an over-the-top delight from the beginning of her movie career all the way to its end six decades later. Failing to find anything interesting in the prototypical blonde bombshell roles she was initially offered, Winters instead gravitated toward playing women who were pushed to their edge. She was an expert actor who continued to study and establish herself throughout her lifetime, taking more classes even well after she was established as a great talent. When viewing Roo? in context of the horror canon, it may fail to impress some audiences, but in context of Winters’ career it becomes a lot more interesting, and it’s undeniable that Winters loved her work. She was also well known to support feminist causes, and her interviews were notably fascinating. The fun she has with her role of Auntie Roo is obvious all the way through the film.
Also important is that this film is often paired with What’s the Matter With Helen?, which also starred Winters, alongside Debbie Reynolds. It was Winters who requested that director Curtis Harrington be brought in for Auntie Roo?, and, while the two films are fairly dissimilar in plot, they do share a few elements. Most notably, Winters playing a depraved maniac and having a great time doing it. What’s the Matter With Helen? was in no small part inspired by Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, genre classics that featured and helped to establish the offensively titled “psycho-biddy” trope. Although Harrington’s works under discussion here were blatant references from title to theme, they both did enough work to stand apart on their own that they remain underrated camp classics.
Auntie Roo? might not be the best film of its era, but it’s also not bad and flirts with being actually kind of awesome. The soundtrack is solid, the story is successfully creepy, and, as noted, Winters goes all out in her performance. Though the subgenre might have grown rapidly overplayed during this time period, movies like Auntie Roo? were where women who had aged past 40 were generally relegated, and despite the flaws and the mockery of mental illness in older women most of these films relied upon, there is still something there that continues to draw audiences in all these years later.