Although it bears a few distinctive hallmarks, the 1971 Shelley Winters vehicle Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is a wheezy, rheumy gasp in the death throes of the Hag Horror cycle. Not eerie enough to be unsettling nor outrageous enough to be camp, Auntie Roo is just...sort of...there, lulling you to sleep. Auntie Roo only wants a hug, but she smells of mothballs and ripple.
Winters stars as Rosie "Auntie Roo" Forrest, a Vaudeville dancer-turned magician's wife-turned widow. She lives all alone in a drafty mansion mourning the death of her daughter Katherine (tragic banister accident) as any grieving mother would: by singing to Katherine's dessicated corpse, which has been locked away in the nursery.
Come Christmastime, Auntie Roo invites ten lucky orphans to her house for the holiday, giving them all a taste of the good life (turkey, gifts, a song and dance performance) before sending them back to the orphanage to bear the hateful gaze of the stern Miss Henley (Rosalie Crutchley, The Haunting's Mrs. Dudley).
Uninvited orphans Christopher and Katy sneak in to the party, and Auntie Roo takes a shine to the girl, who reminds her of her dead daughter. She offers to adopt Katy, but not her brother; Roo eventually kidnaps the girl, stashing her in the nursery. Christopher returns for his sister, convinced that Roo is actually a witch who enjoys eating children. Is he right, or has he simply read Hansel and Gretel a few too many times? However will the children escape the clutches of the evil Aunt Roo? Whoever really cares?
Yeah, this is all a sort of modern (well, if you count a 1920s period piece as "modern") retelling of Hansel and Gretel, although there's never any evidence that Auntie Roo does, in fact, eat children...or even kill them, for that matter. There's no disputing that she's off the deep end- you know, tucked away dessicated corpse and all- but her plans for Katy and, subsequently, Christopher remain unclear. Still, she gets the witch treatment in the end, as anyone who's read the fairytale would expect.
I was extremely disappointed with this one- I loves me some Hag Horror! Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is no Strait-Jacket, and to compare it to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? will likely earn you a place in the fifth circle of Hell. Shelley Winters collects a paycheck, unable to muster real tears when the need arises, although she's not given much to work with. Her hysteria is a dull roar, and there's no damn slewin' to be found. Children are frequently capable of inventing stories for people, imagining them to be witches and monsters and the like; as kids, most everyone heard (or told) about that weird old lady who lives in that weird old house. Her doorbell was only rung as a result of a double dog dare. That notion, explored more fully, could have made Auntie Roo more compelling. Or screw it- why not go there? Why not make the "witch" a witch? Have her cookin' up those orphans like so many holiday turkeys.
Of course, it doesn't pay to sit around and criticize a film for what it's not...so, I'll criticize it for what it is: a drab, boring disappointment.