Whoever Slew Auntie Roo | Opening, a child’s room, sterile white with the dead glare of percaline dolls, some bare in dress, some dressed in rags and others in finery. A resting child in a vailed bassinet is being lulled by a woman in black. A calling on this dark and stormy night from the black-clad woman’s servant Albie that her guest has arrived, Mr Benton, has arrived. She leaves the bassinet to reveal the truth that the child has long since passed, desiccated and withered with an ashen grey appearance the corpse lays no longer vitalized by the mourning mother’s delusion. We cut to the titular Auntie Roo, also known as Mrs Forrest, played by Shelley Winters, greeting the bumbling drunkard readying with Albie to start the séance. Mrs Forrest calls to her lost daughter Katharine who eagerly, and briefly, makes contact leaving the grieved in a state of frantic distress demanding that the spirit not abandon her again. This scene is followed by a Dickensian schoolyard of the local orphanage where we meet the icy glare of the Coombs children a perfect juxtaposition to the soulless stair of the dolls at the opening.
This is the start of the “modern,” Hansel and Gretel tale that factors in throughout the entirety of the film’s run. We get the impression from the headmaster that these two dejected children are outcasts even amongst the others, the boy Christopher being chided as an incessant liar and his sister Katy following in his footsteps though we are not treated to the source of the hostility between the teachers and kids as the Coombs appear to be mute. There is talk of a Christmas party that for the ten most well-behaved of the fosters at the local rich Americans manor. This Chekhov’s gun leads to the predicable. The Coombs are overlooked for being miscreants but stored away to crash the party.
At their emergence they are discovered by the near-psychotic Albie who threatens to cut out their tongues if they do not speak, playing further into the Grimm-esque clichés of malicious strangers willing to harm the downtrodden for their own amusement. He alas does not mutilate but turns them in, the headmistress being infuriated at their presence apologizes to the host, the kind Mrs Foster who happily opens her house to them with the other ten lucky children for her yearly charitable event and this is where we begin to hear the first words of the Coombs, Christopher at first who is showed to be an elegant speaker with the widest shit-eating grin as an affront to the headmistresses’ stringent rules. The movie continues to show some cracks in Mrs Forster, her husband was a magician who vanished into the mirror and her daughter, the corpse, suffered an accident on the bannister goaded on by Mrs. herself, leaving an air of responsibility, regret and the implication that perhaps that was the driving force to her husband’s disappearance.
Strange that even with a house full of children, on Christmas no less, the deluded Mrs Foster has another séance this time interrupted by Katy the younger Coombs who looks to be the spinning image of her late daughter. Along with this revelation that implants the idea in the mother’s head to adopt the child we are made privy to the reality of Albie, Benton and another member of the staff have been duping the mad woman for profit. The rest of the movie is a far more grounded telling of the fairytale, instead of a witch its an aged starlet from the vaudeville era in a mansion designed by an illusionist to racked with grief to think clearly, and an unwanted child (Christopher) trying to save his beloved sister from the imprisonment of an unstable pseudo-aristocrat who he deems as the witch culminating in the destruction of the house and woman. A relatively happy ending for the orphans.
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo is a 1972 British mystery thriller somewhat self-aware of the premise by constantly taking time to have our hero reference and retell the tale of Hansel and Gretel. Its strongest attribute is that the characters are believable. Even if you disagree with what they are doing, you fully understand the why and the how. It starts with a mystery and whittles it down to the cold hard fact of broken people resorting to doing awful things. And it holds a tone of whimsy throughout. Never once was I bored, nor was I disappointed. I went into this blind and was happy with what I got. Is it worth a view? I would give an emphatic yes.