Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971)

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Mrs. Rosie Forrest is a wealthy, but very lonely woman. Her husband has died, and her daughter, Catherine, disappeared mysteriously some time ago. The only real joy she seems to have anymore is hosting an annual Christmas party at her mansion each year for several children at a nearby orphanage. Things change one year when two orphaned siblings, Christopher and his younger sister Katy, crash the party. Mrs. Forrest (who insists the children all call her Auntie Roo) is more than happy for the extra company. But what makes her even happier is Katy, who bears a striking resemblance to her missing daughter. Mrs. Forrest is immediately taken with the child and wants Katie to come live with her (surely as some replacement for Catherine.) Christopher, however, is completely against this idea. He has become convinced that Auntie Roo is actually a witch who plans to fatten up his sister and eat her, and he is determined to save Katy from the seemingly gentle woman at all costs.

whoslewauntieroo_2And let me tell you, the kid is dedicated.

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is a Grand Dame Guignol style (aka Psycho Old Lady) horror film with a Hansel and Gretel inspired twist. In the original Grim tale, two cute, innocent little children get abandoned by their parents (or one parent, depending on the version you’re reading) and left to fend for themselves against not only the elements, but also a mean, cannibalistic witch they come across in the woods. But in this updated version of the tale the two cute, little orphans are far from innocent. Instead they turn out to be liars, thieves and, ultimately, killers.

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That isn’t to say that Auntie Roo is in any way an innocent victim herself. Far from it. It’s obvious that she is a very, very disturbed woman. 

It’s clear almost immediately that she never got over her daughter’s tragic death years earlier. Hell, in the opening scene we learn that she keeps her daughter’s decomposing corpse in an oversized cradle in a nursery upstairs. With such obvious obsession, it’s no wonder that she invites mediums to her home to try to contact her daughter’s spirit and immediately becomes smitten with a girl who resembles Catherine. And her obsession to keep the girl with her just grows worse and worse as the story progresses.

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No happy story ever begins with, “So I was singing a lullaby to the child corpse…”

What’s never made clear is why the death was ever covered up to be a disappearance in the first place. We’re shown what happened to the girl in a flashback, and despite initial assumptions that there might have been some nefarious goings-on regarding her death, we learn that Catherine’s demise was just a huge, tragic accident. Neither Ms. Forest or her husband had anything to do with it. In fact, it’s clear that Mrs. Forrest not only had nothing to do with the death, but she was also a genuinely patient and loving parent. There is not even a hint of maliciousness or abuse to be seen. On top of that there was also a third party who witnessed what happened, which makes the coverup all the more puzzling. 

Perhaps it has something to do with a status thing. It’s never really clearly explained. It seems the entire episode is merely used as a catalyst to explain her ever growing obsession with Katy.

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But the actions of the children make Auntie Roo’s deteriorating mental state almost seem tame by comparison. Katy herself is pretty innocent. She’s really too young to be especially malicious, and it’s not until the end that she comes off as more than an ungrateful brat.

Christopher, on the other hand, seems to be just as obsessive and mentally unstable as dear Auntie Roo. He is dead set on his sister not being adopted by Mrs. Forrest. And while he tries to convince his sister (and himself, I think) that the woman is a witch intent on eating them, it’s clear that his grumbling and protestations come from a place of deep-seated jealousy and possessiveness, rather than fear. He also doesn’t seem to have much of a conscious. He slinks around her house in the middle of the night, almost guillotines his own sister with a magic prop and has no compunction about stealing from the woman. His behaviour (and that of some of the adult characters) end up making Forest feel like a sympathetic victim more than anything else. And up until the final act of the movie it’s Christopher, not Auntie Roo, who comes across as the villain of the tale. It really feels like Forest’s spike in insanity was just an excuse to give the kids a real excuse to kill her.

whoslewauntieroo_6Or maybe it’s just a symptom of sleep deprivation due to the fear of her sneaking into their room at night.

A movie with the premise of two young kids killing off an old woman has the potential of being incredibly campy. When that woman happens to be Shelly Winters that potential rises even more. But Who Slew Auntie Roo? manages to retain just enough levity to keep it from falling into camp territory. Winter’s has a tendency to be a bit… over dramatic at times, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone overact while eating a piece of fruit, but there’s also a good dose of sincerity here that also makes her feel very tragic and sympathetic. The kids also handle their roles well. Mark Lester (Oliver!) plays a good diabolical kid, and Cloe Franks is such an image of a porcelain doll that it’s no wonder Forest would fall for her.

whoslewauntieroo_7Seriously, who eats apples like this?

Who Slew Auntie Roo? Is from a subgenre of horror that’s more known for invoking mood rather than invoking true scares. Roo holds true to that formula, and so is less a story about an evil kidnapper and more of a tale about obsession and loss. Whose obsession and loss is more pronounced will be up to the viewer, but it’s clear that the characters from both sides of this modern fairy tale are just as broken as the other. It can be a bit hammy in spots, but there’s a subtlety and heart here that keeps it fairly grounded. If you’re looking for scares or blood, than you’re going to walk away disappointed. But fans of subtle 70’s horror will likely get some amusement out of it.  At the very least it has the potential to be a nice underground addition to someone’s Christmas horror film collection. 

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is available to rent on Amazon Prime. Or you can watch it for free if you can catch it again on Comet tv.

It is also available on DVD and Bluray.

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Michi

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