DirectorLee H. Katzin
Release Date(s)1969 (January 8, 2019)
Studio(s)Cinerama Releasing Corporation (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
In the Grand Guignol tradition, 1969’s What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? is one of a number of horror thrillers featuring older women in grim, even grisly roles. The trend started in 1962 with the phenomenal success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In Aunt Alice, Geraldine Page stars as the prim and proper Claire Marrable.
Discovering that her late husband left her with liabilities and no assets, Mrs. Marrable devises a plan. At her small ranch in Tucson, Arizona, she hires housekeepers, gains their confidence, then kills them for their life savings. She buries the bodies in her yard and plants trees in the plots. A row of healthy, vibrant trees lines one side of her property.
After murdering her latest victim, the timid Miss Edna Tinsley (Mildred Dunnock), Mrs. Marrable once again advertises for a housekeeper/companion. Alice Dimmock (Ruth Gordon) answers the ad and is hired.
Ms. Page, known more for her stage work than motion pictures, plays Mrs. Marrable with a controlled craziness manifested mostly in her eyes, which suggests a woman whose mental facilities are not intact. A tough taskmistress and a larger-than-life employer, she lords it over her housekeepers, intimidating them, expecting to be waited on constantly, and demanding undivided attention. Because Ms. Page is an artist who knows her craft and understands the character, she delivers a believable performance of an elaborately polite, unhinged killer.
Ruth Gordon plays Mrs. Dimmock fairly straight, without the quirky mannerisms of her characters in Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude. With more spine than Miss Tinsley, Mrs. Dimmock develops a relationship with Mrs. Marrable that transcends employer/employee. This is part of a plan that involves her nephew Mike Darrah (Robert Fuller). She hopes to learn more about her predecessor’s disappearance.
Though not as graphic as modern horror films, Aunt Alice offers a knock-down, drag-out fight between two elderly women, arson, unsuspecting women getting hit with huge rocks, drugged victims, and a grisly drowning. As people start disappearing and questions begin to be asked, Mrs. Marrable goes on the defensive, making her all the more dangerous. Despite all this mayhem, there is little gore.
What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? was produced by Robert Aldrich, who directed What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and its follow-up Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. As in those earlier films, the central character is a Jekyll-and-Hyde who looks perfectly at home as an affluent widow having tea with guests but can chill you as she methodically kills her victims with the least fuss and bother.
The Blu-ray release contains a brand new HD master from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. Resolution is 1080p. Aspect ratio is 1.85:1. Picture quality is very good with no scratches, dirt, or other perceptible imperfections. Details are sharp, such as the wrinkles around Ms. Gordon’s mouth, patterns in Ms. Page’s dresses, and individual strands of hair. Color palette varies from bright in the outdoor, sun-drenched desert scenes to muted in the interiors. In a cocktail party scene, Mrs. Marrable’s bright orange dress among the browns and blacks of the men’s suits and the subdued tones of the other women’s dresses causes her to “pop” as she holds court seated at the center of the room.
Sound is DTS-HD, which gives the movie a rich surround ambience. Dialogue is clear and balanced well with music and sound effects. The wind blowing through the tress that mark the graves of Mrs. Marrable’s victims is an appropriately creepy sound. Gerald Fried’s score accentuates certain scenes but often is a means to amp up the tension rather than underscore it. A few sequences use silence effectively to enhance suspense when Mrs. Marrable prowls through her house.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray release include an audio commentary and theatrical trailers.
Audio commentary – Film historian Richard Harland Smith notes that Robert Aldrich’s directing career spanned 1953 to 1980 and included crime dramas, westerns, and women’s pictures featuring “toxic femininity.” Aldrich purchased Occidental Studios but was forced to sell it after making several box office failures. The house used in the movie was rented fully furnished. Exteriors of the Marrable house were shot at a movie ranch which had once served as location for a Gene Autry western. Career overviews of the actors are provided. Smith also discusses the career of composer Gerald Fried, who worked mostly in television. Ms. Page had just completed a national tour of The Little Foxes before starting the film. She had also starred on Broadway in a Peter Shaffer play. Ruth Gordon was in her seventies when her movie career took off. The movie is based on a novel, The Forbidden Garden, by Ursula Curtiss. After its first-run engagements, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? went on to share double bills with other horror movies.
Trailers – Four trailers are included: What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, Burnt Offerings, and Jennifer.
– Dennis Seuling