WHATEVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE?: Blu-ray (ABC Pictures 1969) Kino Lorber
I have a confession to make: I have never much cared for actress, Geraldine Page; prolific and renowned as she was on stage, screen and television, so eloquently eulogized in Vogue as a performer, “…on (whose) face one can see emotion coming like a wind across a prairie.” I suppose it doesn’t help my appreciation, or lack thereof, that Page always seemed to be perfectly cast playing variations of the wicked shrew: such awful, spiteful, manipulative, vindictive and greedy bitches, so woefully misguided in their uber-critical disdain of others, that, at least in my youth, I somehow managed to graft these character flaws onto the lady herself. It also has not helped my outlook on the star, that apart from a few praise-worthy epitaphs written shortly after her premature death in 1987, at the age of 62, not a single biography has been penned to set the record straight. Page, who married twice, the latter to Rip Torn, had a union since described as ‘volatile’ and fraught with heated angst and depression over Torn’s extramarital affairs. Yet, I could almost believe Page – or rather, the Page I know only from the screen – could have pushed any man over the edge of infidelity, if not, into his early grave.
This latter presumption kick starts Lee H. Katzin’s Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969). There appears to be some discrepancies whether Bernard Girard actually contributed to certain sequences in the director’s chair. Whatever the truth, the greater curiosity is that producer, Robert Aldrich did not also direct this picture himself. Aldrich was no stranger to grand dame guignol, thanks primarily to two iconic thrillers exploiting elder actresses as grotesques and gargoyles: 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – the now infamous teaming of life-long rivals, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and 1964’s Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. This latter effort ought to have re-teamed Crawford and Davis, if only Davis’ strong-armed tactics had not prematurely worn-down Crawford’s patience and nerves, the latter replaced by Olivia de Havilland. At the time of its release Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?, based on Ursula Curtiss’ bone-chilling novel, The Forbidden Garden (published in 1962) was loosely perceived as the successor to ‘Baby Jane’. It has since come to be regarded as the final film in Aldrich’s psycho-biddy trilogy. From the outset, Aldrich sought out Geraldine Page’s participation; she, rumored to have been resolutely opposed to the idea – at first. Page, a method actress, employing psychoanalysts to evolve and better inform her performances, would eventually see to reason – or rather, acquiesce to Aldrich’s request; perhaps, in recognition of his two aforementioned prior successes.
Aldrich had hoped, against hope to salvage his fast-failing enterprise as an indie owner/operator/film-maker. Prior to 1969, Aldrich’s reputation in Hollywood had been rock solid. He was a prolific and rising directorial star when, in 1967 he sold his profit participation on The Dirty Dozen to MGM for a cool $1,350,000; means to venture into his life-long ambition to be his own boss. Alas, almost immediately the Aldrich Studios proved a quicksand rather than a cash cow. Virtually all of the movies conceived there, lost money at the box office, steadily depleting Aldrich’s resources and ability to make more. The pall of financial ruin lingered, even as Aldrich entered into a somewhat desperate alliance and 4-picture deal with newly-amalgamated ABC Pictures; Aldrich, swiftly announcing his ambitious spate of projects to meet the arrangement head on. Of these, only The Killing of Sister George (1968), notable for its frank depiction of a lesbian relationship, proved popular with audiences. Despite good ticket sales, cost overruns prevented it from showing a profit in the end. What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? - the second film in this short-lived partnership – was not without its virtues – at least on paper; chiefly, in securing legendary stars, Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon to partake of its rather ghoulish tale about a penniless dowager who manages her penchant for extravagances by murdering a string of housekeepers after convincing them to invest their money with her stock broker.
In hindsight, one can easily see the writing on the wall; Aldrich’s stepping down from the director’s chair, becoming the hands-on ‘observer’ to this macabre psycho-biddy chiller. Although well cast and afforded a truly vial performance by Page as the venomous Claire Marrable, Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? miserably failed to catch the tail fires of ‘Baby Jane’s legacy or success. After this box office implosion Aldrich tried, mostly in vain, to reboot his reputation with a 20-min. test reel for what he hoped to transform into a full-fledged feature, The Greatest Mother of Them All (1969). But ABC balked. His final obligation to ABC, a similarly war-themed actioner a la The Dirty Dozen - Too Late the Hero (1970) lost over $6,765,000, and proved, in hindsight, to be one of the biggest turkeys in ABC’s history. In retrospect, Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? is not a bad movie; just not nearly as memorable as Aldrich’s two previous bites at the same apple. Still, there is something decidedly B-grade about the drama – Page, playing over-the-top cynical cruelty with a Cheshire grin, deliriously indulging in the bizarre machinations of Theodore Apstein’s screenplay. This has her bludgeon one housekeeper with a large stone, another with a shovel, repeatedly to strangulate – then drown – a third, and finally, make an attempt to kill a neighbor’s dog, torching the house with the neighbor, Harriet Vaughn (Rosemary Forsyth) and her young nephew, Jimmy (Michael Barbera) left deliberately drugged and unconscious inside.
Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? opens appropriately with a funeral; nothing like a corpse to set the tone of the piece. In this case, we are privy to the death of a prominent California businessman. His unrepentant widow, Claire Marrable collects a handful of gladiolas from atop the casket before greedily awaiting the legalities of her late husband’s Last Will and Testament to be finalized. Too bad for Claire, the codicils will not be to her liking. Indeed, Mr. Marrable must have had an inkling of his wife’s wretchedness and gluttony, as he leaves virtually all of his estate to various charities, liquidating the house and assets so that Claire is virtually penniless, with nowhere to live. She does, however, inherit his stamp collection. Distress quickly turns to rage as the devious Mrs. Marrable, newly relocated to an out-of-the-way ranch in the middle of the desert outside of Tucson, Arizona, embarks upon a string of killings to sustain her new life as a fabulously wealthy widow. Presumably, having moved to be closer to her favorite nephew, George Lawson (Peter Brandon) and his wife, Julia (Joan Huntington), Claire’s hasty dispatch of her second housekeeper, Edna Tinsley (Mildred Dunnock) leads to an unforeseen repercussion. Hurriedly burning all of Edna’s belongings in her fireplace, save a Bible, whose inscription page she tears out, placing the Bible on her bookshelf, Claire is eager to hire her next unsuspecting victim.
At one of George and Julia’s elegant soirees, Claire is introduced to the young widow, Harriet Vaughn, whose late husband was a stock broker. However, Claire’s cordiality dissolves after discovering Harriet and her nephew, Jimmy renting the cottage adjacent her property. Shortly thereafter, Harriet begins a love affair with Mike Darrah (Robert Fuller), a car restorationist from Phoenix. Meanwhile, Claire employs a retired nurse, Alice Dimmock (Ruth Gordon) as her new housekeeper. Alice finds Edna’s Bible in Claire’s library and is visibly perturbed. A search of the house also retrieves a few scant pieces of Edna’s mail, inquiring about her safety and whereabouts. To quell Alice’s suspicions, Claire angrily claims Edna was discharged because she had become a hopeless drunk. Claire’s temper, however, is far more cause for concern. Indeed, she flies off the handle at a stray Labrador retriever sniffing around the pine trees in her garden and threatens Harriet and Jimmy if they continue to harbor it. The plot thickens as we learn Mike is actually Alice’s nephew, and Alice has not taken up employment with Claire merely on a whim, but rather, to get to the bottom of her friend, Edna’s strange and sudden disappearance.
Mike fears for Alice’s safety, but agrees to help in her search for the truth. In Tucson, Mike learns Edna’s sizable bank account was closed out just hours before she vanished into thin air. Suspecting Claire of embezzlement, Alice promises Mike she will remain cautious and in touch. Alas, these plans too are altered by Claire’s impromptu decision to attend a music festival in New Mexico the following morning. Lying to Claire, that she is in need of a new pair of stockings and some toothpaste for the overnight journey, Alice asks if she can use the car to drive into town. Claire agrees; then, quite by accident, finds a half-used tube to toothpaste in Alice’s medicine cabinet. Suspicious, she next rummages through Edna’s dresser drawers, uncovering 2-boxes of new stockings. Finally, Claire finds a letter written to Alice from Mike regarding Edna’s bank account. The handwriting matches a letter Claire earlier found among Edna’s belongings. She now slyly deduces Alice is onto her. Upon Alice’s return, a confrontation ensues. Alice does not back down. In fact, she demands to know what became of her good friend. Instead, Claire and Alice struggle. Although Alice puts up a good fight, she is beaten into submission by Claire who uses the telephone to knock Alice unconscious. Meanwhile, Harriet arrives to inform Claire that Mike has been trying to telephone the house but cannot get through.
Taking notice of Alice lying unconscious in bed, Claire lies to Harriet, telling her Alice injured her head on a falling tree branch during the previous night’s windstorm. Later that same afternoon, Claire, disguised as Alice, drives the still incapacitated Alice to a nearby lake and drowns her in the car. Arriving home with a fiendish sense of accomplishment, Claire finds George and Julia waiting with the telephone repairman. George inquires about Alice. Claire nervously suggests that despite her head injury, Alice dutifully drove into town to fetch her allergy medication. Mike and Harriet arrive moments later, also curious about Alice’s whereabouts. As the telephone is fixed, Claire now receives a call from Sheriff Armijo (Richard Angarola), informing her of the recovery of Alice’s body from the wreck. Feigning grief and a collapse, Claire invites Harriet and Jim for dinner that evening, serving them tainted egg nog. Jim, an avid stamp collector, is fascinated by the late Mr. Marrable’s collection. Perceiving no value in it, Claire offers it to Jim. As the eggnog is laced with a powerful sleeping pill, Harriet and Jim begin to suffer its effects. Waiting out the inevitable, Claire drags their bodies into the adjacent cottage and sets it on fire.
The last act to Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? is nonsensical to a fault, as, having locked Harriet and Jim, along with their dog, in the house set ablaze, with no help in sight, there is no plausible way either ought to have survived the inferno. Miraculously, in the morning, Claire awakens to discover the cottage, not only standing, but still in relatively good condition. Worse for her, Harriet and Jim have survived their ordeal. Claire emerges to find all of her pine trees upturned, exposing the various shallow graves beneath. Harriet and Jim are awaiting, along with George and Julia, Mike and Sheriff Armijo, who earlier, absolutely refused to even entertain the notion Claire might be responsible for Edna’s disappearance. Now, with definitive proof of her serial killer’s instinct, and the testimony of two survivors, he is prepared to arrest her. Jim reluctantly gives back the stamp collection and Claire learns it is worth well over $100,000. Unable to reconcile the irony in her fateful situation, as her murder spree could so easily have been avoided, Claire bursts into a fit of laughter; overwrought and utterly insane.
Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? is the weakest of Robert Aldrich’s psycho-biddy dramas. While Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte exist in the stark and moodily lit noir shadows of vintage B&W, Aldrich’s decision to shoot ‘Alice’ in color is a mistake; Joseph F. Biroc’s flat and brightly lit cinematography, diffusing whatever atmospheric visualized suspense might have otherwise been derived. The movie’s narrative timeline is a little wonky too. We are privy to the murders of two housekeepers. But there are five pine trees neatly planted in a row in Claire’s backyard, denoting at least three more unspecified bodies among this dowager’s victims. Character motivation is as ill-defined, with Julia and George the least clearly represented. The screenplay deviates from the central plot to accommodate Mike and Harriet’s burgeoning romance, which is utterly pointless. There are some good solid moments fraught with tension as Alice confronts her employer and is made to pay the price for her curiosity. But otherwise, Geraldine Page’s venomous killer is left pretty much to her own devices. Page is a fine actress. Thus, we get glimpses into Claire Marrable’s steadily eroding and sadly demented state of mind; also, her monstrous disregard for human life, played almost as pantomime, with Page’s bedeviled plotter shot in extreme close-up and uncontrollably leering for the camera.
Is it enough to sustain the plot? Hardly. One gets the distinct sense Robert Aldrich had more in store for this bone-chiller than actually made it to the screen. Given his two previous excursions into grand dame guignol ran approximately 133 minutes, with extended prologues to establish their ghoulishly memorable premises, ‘Aunt Alice’s’ 101 minutes play like a ‘rush job’ by comparison, particularly the last act – clumsily stitched together by director, Lee H. Katzin with a total neglect of continuity or even logic applied before the stipend from ABC ran out. A shocker is only shocking when it plays its cards close to the vest for most of the run time and reveals some pivotal plot point only in its penultimate moments before the final fade out. A pity Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? folds its hand in its first act. We know Claire Marrable is a murderess from the outset, the audience helplessly observing as she bludgeons and buries at least two victims in her backyard. So, providing her with fresh opportunities to strike again evolves into something of a matter-of-fact, foregone conclusion. It is only a matter of ‘when’ as opposed to ‘if’. Ruth Gordon’s inquisitive Alice is the only true rival to Claire’s cunning, and the scenes where Alice conspires with Mike to unearth – literally – the truth regarding Edna’s disappearance are tinged with clever variations on the basic mechanics behind this whodunit. But the audience already knows who did it…and this is a hurdle from which the picture never entirely recovers. In the final analysis, Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? struggles to infuse its story with the sort of nail-biting anxiety so readily apparent to bone-chillingly effective in Aldrich’s other horror-hag masterpieces.
There is better news ahead, as Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is gorgeous. Colors are richly saturated and contrast is excellent. Apart from a few instances of age-related dirt, the image is remarkably clean. Film grain is accurately represented. Fine details abound. The image harvest is solid and should surely please. The DTS mono audio can sound strident, but this is to be expected, given the limitations of its original sound mix. We get a new and thoroughly comprehensive audio commentary from film historian, Richard Harland Smith, who not only covers the production, but finds time to offer biographical information on virtually all of the players. Smith never stops talking, and what he has to say is engaging and relevant, adding immensely to our appreciation of this middling effort from Robert Aldrich. Kino also provides us with a badly worn original theatrical trailer, as well as several others for product it is sincerely hoping you will want to buy from them. Bottom line: Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? should be considered as fodder for Aldrich completionists only. The Blu-ray is stellar. The film is not. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)