I’ve heard a lot of jokes about Shelley Winters, mostly regarding her role in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). And while it’s true that Winters often gave rather campy performances, she often imbued them with some of the human reality and subtlety that marked her work in Night Of The Hunter (1955) and The Big Knife (1955). But no matter how silly or serious the film that Winters appeared in was, she always committed herself to her role entirely. Even in a film as fractured as The Visitor (1979), Shelley Winters is one-hundred percent invested in her part.
Shelley Winters’ courageousness as an actor is what led to director Curtis Harrington to work with her in two successive features. At the time Harrington had turned his avant-garde sensibilities to low-budget genre filmmaking for Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures. Winters, on the other hand, had discovered that she could either have small supporting parts in prestige pictures like The Young Savages (1961) or meaty lead roles in B-Movies like Bloody Mama (1970). It may seem like an odd pairing but Winters’ human frailties disguised by broad emotive gestures matched Harrington’s style of measured tension and psychological complexity.
The first of the two films that Harrington and Winters made together was Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972), an imaginative re-telling of the Hansel and Gretel folktale as a Christmas horror film. The film balances two perspectives on the same folkloric narrative. There’s the perspective of the two orphaned siblings, Christopher (Mark Lester) and Katy (Chloe Franks), who view Winters’ character Rosie “Auntie Roo” Forrest as a witch who has abducted them from her Christmas party (given every year for the local orphanage) to cook for supper. But, despite Christopher’s insistance, Auntie Roo is not motivated by an obscene desire to ingest children.
Auntie Roo is a bereaved and deeply disturbed parent who cannot see past her own traumas and emotional needs. Winters is tasked with playing this character as both pitiful and terrifying as these juxtaposing perspective intersect in the bizarre behavior and actions of the Auntie Roo character. Winters, true to form, gives a no holds barred performance that is as demented as it is affecting. In the final moments of the film Harrington uses Winters’ performance to pivot the tone of the film from that of the “psycho-biddy” sub-genre to that of the “killer kiddies”.
In Harrington’s hands Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? suggests some powerful themes, particularly how children perceive and interpret grief. Nonetheless Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? fails to transcend its exploitation film roots and turns out to be an uneven, though often intriguing, little holiday horror flick. Fans of camp can’t afford to skip this holiday classic.