Curtis Harrington and Shelly Winters follow up WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? with a fairy tale twist in WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.
At an orphanage for deserted children in post-WWI London, overstimulated and imaginative Christopher (Mark Lester, WHAT THE PEEPER SAW) and his sister Katy (Chloe Franks, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) have been playing a game of silence with the harried staff ever since their last unsuccessful escape attempt. As a result, they are overlooked on the guest list of lucky children to spend the Christmas holidays at "The Gingerbread House" which is actually Forest Grange, the home of former American showgirl turned respectable entertainer's wife Rose Forest (Winters) aka Auntie Roo who spreads holiday cheer once a year in memory of her daughter Katherine who mysteriously disappeared in 1917 and whose spirit she has tried to contact with the help of sham medium Mr. Benton (Ralph Richardson, THE FALLEN IDOL) and the machinations of butler Albie (Michael Gothard, SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN) and housekeeper Clarine (KEEPING UP APPEARANCES' Judy Cornwell). The siblings stowaway in the car of Inspector Willoughby (Lionel Jeffries, CAMELOT) who has volunteered to transport the other children and crash the party but are nevertheless welcomed by Auntie Roo. When Katy is drawn to Katherine's teddy bear and makes a surprise appearance at one of her midnight séances while the children are spending the night, Rose begins to believe that Katy is a reincarnation of Katherine (or at least an acceptable substitute) and the little girl disappears when it is time for the children to return to the orphanage. Inveterate liar Christopher's attempts to warn the adults fall on deaf ears, so he runs away from the orphanage and back to Forest Grange to get Katy only to be trapped with her in the Gingerbread House. As Rose tries to fatten them up before New Year's dinner, Christopher suspects that he and Katy may be on the old witch's menu.
More of a wickedly funny and dark fractured fairy tale than a horror film, WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? carries over director Harrington's fascinations with myth and the flipside of show business with Rose's past as a can-can dancer and the wife of a magician turning her home into a nostalgic shrine in which show business paraphernalia and children's toys line the periphery of several camera angles. Apart from a couple instances of PSYCHO-esque staccato editing, the staging of the actors, and cinematographer Desmond Dickinson's (TOWER OF EVIL) treatment of Winter's close-ups suggest a film from an earlier era of Hollywood filmmaking. Grisly touches sprinkled throughout the movie extend to the climax, but viewers will still leave the film with a chuckle. Child actor Lester is more bearable than in some of his other post-OLIVER/BLACK BEAUTY days but Franks does not have as much opportunity as she had in THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD or TALES FROM THE CRYPT (as the little girl who unwittingly lets a killer Santa into the house) to match Lester's naughtiness. The fine British cast also includes Rosalie Crutchley (THE HAUNTING's Mrs. Dudley) as the orphanage's headmistress, Pat Heywood (10 RILLINGTON PLACE) as the orphanage's sympathetic doctor, and Hugh Griffith (TOM JONES) as the butcher.
Released theatrically by American International Pictures, this early Hemdale co-production had fallen under ownership of Orion Pictures when it was released on VHS by Vestron in 1985 in a fairly attractive fullscreen transfer. MGM released the film in a barebones anamorphic transfer in 2002 in a double feature disc with WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (that title apparently with Shout! Factory). Kino Lorber's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer sports attractive, stable colors and good detail while also revealing something akin to a more subtle glamour treatment on Winters in close-up. The heightened resolution does reveal some bumpier camera moves and some flaring candlelight at the edges of the frame in the otherwise fine photography. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track gives greater depth to the orchestral scoring of Kenneth V. Jones (THE TOMB OF LIGEA) which is sometimes richer than the film requires. There are no subtitle options.
The film is accompanied by an audio commentary with film historian David Del Valle and film scholar Nathaniel Bell. Del Valle knew Harrington late in life while Bell wrote his graduate thesis at Chapman University on Harrington's films. Together they discuss how Harrington had earned a reputation as a director who could work with difficult actresses of a certain age, how Winter had spearheaded Harrington's involvement in the film after he had been passed up on the opportunity to director AIP's WUTHERING HEIGHTS (intended to be a big roadshow production) in favor of Robert Fuest (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES), and the film's transition from the treatment CHRISTMAS AT GRANDMA'S by David Osborn (OPEN SEASON) and a first draft by Jimmy Sangster (SCREAM OF FEAR) to THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE by David Blees (DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN) with rewrites done by Harrington associate Gavin Lambert (THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE). The final title change was motivated not only to associate it with WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? and Robert Aldrich's WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? but also to avoid conflict with the Neil Simon play GINGERBREAD LADY which was in the works for a film adaptation (it would end up shelved until 1981 when Simon adapted it to the screen as ONLY WHEN I LAUGH). They also discuss the fairy tale aspects and gothic sensibility of the film and muse on what opportunities Harrington would have had as an expatriate director in Europe rather than returning to the United States where he embarked on a career of TV movies with only three more theatrical features to his name including the radically-altered RUBY and MATA HARI (both of which were eventually restored for their DVD releases). The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:13) and AIP trailers for MADHOUSE, DERANGED, JENNIFER and THE CRIMSON CULT. (Eric Cotenas)
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