Aging can be a wearying experience, but if someone’s got a strong sense of optimism (and plenty to drink) then they can make the most out of it. Shelley Winters must have taken a particularly hearty swing of strong sherry, looked Old Age right in the eye, spat into its dried, withered face and capped it off with a big, brassy guffaw. How else can you explain the sweet lunacy on display in WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? (1972)?
Winters was not ancient by the time she starred in the film (she was a smokin’ 51) but she was still what we might refer to as “past her prime” and what Hollywood would consider “no use to us anymore,” at least in the context of placing her in a star vehicle, a horror-thriller in the Grand Guignol tradition where the dames on display are usually more of the screamy and queeny variety. But director Curtis Harrington said to hell with all that noise and cast Winters as the titular Roo, a rotund, rambunctious lady who was sympathetic in her grief and utterly batshit in her insanity.
Picking up the gauntlet thrown down by other divas and demi-godesses of movieland’s past (Joan Crawford in STRAIT-JACKET; Tallulah Bankhead in DIE! DIE! MY DARLING!), Winters jumps into her villainous role with both feet and bites into it with relish. Quite literally too; there’s a bit where she ravenously chomps on an apple that is pure joy. Just why she would want to bite into something that she just jumped in is unclear. But Auntie Roo is just crazy enough to do something like that. She doesn’t even care.
Winters is really something here though. Remember that this is the same actress who played the demure wife/floating corpse from Charles Laughton’s NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1956) and you’ll start to appreciate the transition even more. This is a former leading actress of Hollywood and now she’s running around a mansion in funeral garb and stroking a cleaver with such wicked glee that it’s enough to make your pants split.
You see, Roo’s been a bit out of it since her daughter died while trying to slide down a bannister (hope you all saw that, kids), so she’s been forced to keep her daughter’s mummified remains in the old, shuttered nursery room, enlisting the aid of drunk Ralph Richardson to call her baby’s spirit from the ether. Roo is a charitable soul though, holding annual Christmas parties (imagine that: Christmas—an annual event!) for a select group of urchins from the local orphanage so that she may shower them with the rich sweets and toys that the skeleton in the crib upstairs has absolutely no use for.
Enter siblings Christopher and Katy, two very British children who sneak into Roo’s famous “Gingerbread House” to sample some of the seasonal action that they’ve been missing out on. Too bad Roo thinks that the tots should stay at her place FOREVER, but Christopher, thinking he is in his own version of “Hansel and Gretel,” is determined to bring an end to the old witch.
I can’t help but get all goopy when I see horror films like this, thrillers of the old-school variety where everything is so arched and fruity. These are truly theatrical films, pieces that look like they’d be at home on stage with their creaky spirituality and old dark houses and characters that reek with color (Michael Gothard’s waspy servant who delights in terrifying children, Hugh Griffith’s blustery butcher who looks like a crusty leftover from Dickens).
Not having it
Ah, but there I go trying to spoil all that sweet devil(icor)ish fun for you. This is horror cheesecake at its finest, and one highly suspects that it would satisfy many a-craving palate.