Every year at Christmas time, wealthy widow Mrs. Rosie Forrest (Shelley Winters) invites children from the local orphanage round to Forrest Grange for a lavish dinner. And each year, brother and sister Christopher (Mark Lester, from Oliver! (1968)) and Katy Coombs (Chloe Franks) are left dejected because the caretakers won’t let them go, on account of how they’re both prone to telling lies and wilful behaviour. This year the siblings decide to sneak along, hiding in the back of a car driven by Inspector Willoughby (Lionel Jeffries), who once investigated the disappearance and presumed death of Mrs. Forrest’s only daughter. Turns out Mrs. Forrest sings lullabies to her daughter’s mummified corpse every night, locked away in a secret playroom festooned with creepy dolls. When she discovers the shady psychic (Ralph Richardson) hired to contact her child in the spirit world is actually mounting a scam alongside her butler Albie (Michael Gothard), she finally snaps and starts fixating upon little Katy as a substitute. But does Mrs. Forrest really want to cook and eat the children, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, or is it all in Christopher’s mind?
What’s the Matter with Helen? deservedly became a hit and the big-wigs at AIP evidently wanted more of the same from Harrington and Winters. Unfortunately this follow-up suffers from a multi-authored screenplay, with veteran Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster and co-writers Robert Blees and Gavin Lambert seemingly unable to agree on what the movie is supposed to be. A straightforward kids-in-peril psycho-thriller with a fairytale twist? Or a subversive peek inside a child’s distorted fantasy world? It’s unsatisfying on both counts, emerging as a muddled reinterpretation of Hansel and Gretel.
Since almost everyone knows the fairytale, the fiery outcome is something of a foregone conclusion. What’s more, the title rather gives the game away. Mrs. Forrest, or “Auntie Roo” as she insists the orphans call her, emerges a pitiable, fairly sympathetic figure. Patient and caring towards the kids, she takes a turn for the creepy mid-way but still seems a tragic victim of circumstance and some scheming supporting characters. Though Mrs. Forrest kidnaps young Katy, she never really mistreats her nor does anything nasty enough to justify being labelled a witch. By contrast, Christopher comes across as a wilful, manipulative brat who instigates a feud for possession of his sister and helps himself to Mrs. Forrest’s jewels. Mark Lester doesn’t shift into full Night Hair Child (1971) mould but the script jarringly flip-flops him between unsavoury adolescent and plucky child hero.
Harrington is an un-showy but evocative stylist and weaves quite an atmosphere out of the creepy fairytale setting and claustrophobic interiors. It’s well acted by Winters and a cast of cherished British character actors but compared to Night of the Hunter (1955) and Hansel and Gretel (2007) offers a shallow subversion of childhood terrors.