Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972)

Buckle in, everyone, because even explaining what this movie is might get a little complicated. Here's the first issue: I fundamentally disagree with every synopsis I've seen of "Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?" on the internet.

I'm not talking about whether the movie's good or not (though my opinion is significantly more favorable than the consensus). I mean, on a quintessential level I disagree with descriptions of what the movie's about, who we're supposed to sympathize with, the subgenre it's in, and - hell - even the overall genre. I don't really think this is a horror.

Okay, I might be overstating things a bit. This was clearly marketed - and to some extent made - as a psychological horror, but I think it's better understood now as a dark comedy. One of the primary complaints I'm seeing skimming the handful of reviews present on Rotten Tomatoes is that this really isn't scary. Frankly, I don't think it's supposed to be. It's sort of a bizarre, warped tale with over-the-top characters and - unless I'm reading too much into it - some pretty biting social commentary.

Obviously, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's back up and talk a little about what this movie isn't about.

Contrary to what I read before watching, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is not a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel centered on a psychotic aging woman who threatens a pair of young orphans. At least one of the orphans believes that's what the movie's about, but he's explicitly wrong.

Instead, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? tells the story of a mentally ill, kindhearted woman who's been gas lit by people she trusted into believing she's conversing with the spirit of her deceased daughter. Instead, she's being conned by a spiritualist working with her servants.

Every year, Auntie Roo invites a group of children from the local orphanage to her estate for Christmas. One of these children, Katy, reminds her of her own daughter. Auntie Roo broaches the subject of adoption to Katy, who's naturally intrigued by the opportunity. Less enthused is her brother, Christopher, who's not willing to part with his only family.

It should be noted Christopher is familiar with the story of Hansel and Gretel and begins to suspect Auntie Roo isn't what she seems.

And, to a degree, he's right. Auntie Roo has a hard time separating reality from fantasy. She has her daughter's desiccated corpse in a hidden nursery which Christopher discovers. He also discovers at least the edges of the con being perpetrated against her. Meanwhile, Katy learns where Auntie Roo has hidden her jewels, a fact that comes up later in the film.

The orphans are supposed to leave after Christmas, but Katy can't be found. This is initially dismissed as her having run away (a plausible explanation since her and her brother have done so previously), but instead Auntie Roo has hidden her (with her permission, for what that's worth). Christopher sneaks back to the house to get his sister, but Roo kidnaps him, as well.

On New Year's Eve, Christopher becomes convinced Auntie Roo is planning to cook and eat him. He tricks the aging woman, locks her in the pantry, then sets fire to the house, barely escaping with his sister and Auntie Roo's jewels. Once outside, Christopher learns Auntie Roo was planning to cook a pig for the holiday, but he dismisses this with the assertion she'd have cooked them eventually. The kids deny any culpability in the fire and are immediately believed. While being taken back to the orphanage, the adults quietly discuss the children and express concern the ordeal will traumatize them. Instead, the camera shows them grinning coldly as they hold the object concealing their stolen loot. Christopher's voiceover narrates the end of his imagined adventure against the "witch."

What fascinates me about the movie is that while Auntie Roo is unwell and obviously shouldn't have abducted the kids and held them against their will, she genuinely seems to care for children. She isn't a violent or cruel person, at all: she's just an aging woman who's endured a great deal of trauma and has been manipulated and lied to by people taking advantage of her.

She is not, in other words, analogous to the witch in the story, but that role is functionally forced on her by a male character who views himself as the protagonist. Even when presented with evidence to the contrary, he holds to his original interpretation to justify his role in her death.

So... this is a critique of the way our culture devalues aging women and casts them in an unfavorable light, right? I ask, because that appears to be the opposite of how this is typically interpreted. The Wikipedia entry groups it in a subgenre called "psycho-biddy," and the synopses I've found seem to imply we're supposed to celebrate her demise. That's not what I got at all.

I think this is addressing the way media portrays women who are no longer sexualized, how they're framed as villains through the lens of culturally ingrained archetypes. Ultimately, Auntie Roo wasn't well, but she wasn't evil. And while holding onto the body of her lost kid was creepy, she wasn't really a bad person. Unlike, say, Christopher, whose unapologetic grin at the end was genuinely unnerving.

In short, I think this movie is deconstructing the kind of movie it's grouped with. At least that's my reading.

Let's set all that aside and talk Christmas. This is set during the holidays, so obviously there are decorations, songs, and so forth. More importantly, there's the Hansel and Gretel story at the center, which...

Okay, this is a little more complicated than I want to get involved in here, but suffice to say in Europe the story has more holiday cred than in the US. The movie is set in (and was at least partly financed in) England, so it's not surprising to see a bit of that make it into the picture. Likewise, the film reflects a tradition from the nation it's set in: the Christmas ghost story. Scary Christmas stories have been around a lot longer than the cute, family-friendly fare that's taken over the season.

Overall, I enjoyed this quite a bit, but I'm not certain I'd recommend it to everyone. The movie isn't without flaws: the story meanders with unnecessary side adventures and weird details. I think this mostly works as a dark comedy, but it's certainly not consistently funny. Production values are solid, but not exactly notable. Shelley Winters is good in the lead role, and several great actors appear in minor roles, but the kids are occasionally distracting (I think this is a case where stylistic choices come off as dated more than anyone being bad, but the end result is the same).

But while I can't recommend this unconditionally, I found the theme more nuanced and progressive than I expected. I think this is a much smarter movie than it's typically given credit for, and fans of the genre and era should absolutely give it a chance.