Every year at Christmas time, wealthy American widow Mrs Rosie Forrest (Shelley Winters) invites children from the local orphanage round to Forrest Grange for a lavish dinner – where she insists they call her “Auntie Roo”.
Each year, brother and sister Christopher (Mark Lester) and Katy Coombs (Chloe Franks) are left dejected because the caretakers won’t let them go, on account of how they are both prone to telling lies and willful 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. It turns out that 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 shady psychic Mr Benton (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?
While she definitely takes a turn for the creepy mid-way through the film, she still seems a tragic victim of circumstance and some scheming supporting characters, and though she 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.
This American International Pictures release finds Shelley Winters well into the “crazy old dame” phase of her career which she cemented with What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971), also directed by Curtis Harrington.
Mrs Rosie Forrest (Auntie Roo)
Inspector Ralph Willoughby
Mr Harrison (The Pigman)