WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE?
What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? followed Baby Jane and Sweet Charlotte and forms the third in a trilogy of these batty old harridan psycho-thrillers for Robert Aldrich. Unlike the other two films, here Aldrich takes only a backseat role as producer. He dispenses with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (or for that matter Olivia De Havilland) and the equivalent roles are now inherited by Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon. Replacing Aldrich in the directors seat was Lee H. Katzin, previously a tv director. Unlike the other two films, What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? makes the move into colour but otherwise it is the same business as usual for Aldrich. What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? is equally as much fun as both Baby Jane and Sweet Charlotte were, even if it has not enjoyed the reputation that the other two have.
Geraldine Page plays most slyly and nuttily over-the-top. She delivers the role with an arch Southern sophistication, all laced with a series of stinging sarcastic barbs. Indeed, she comes out something like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)s Blanche du Bois having been recast for a psycho film which makes perfect sense if you think about it. The films unabashed joy comes in seeing Geraldine Page placed up against the great Ruth Gordon and in watching the batty cat-and-mouse games as the two navigate around each other. Ruth Gordon, a seasoned stage actress and playwright, had found sudden fame (at the age of 72) the year before as the next-door neighbour in Rosemarys Baby (1968) and a couple of years later would appear in the all-time black comedy classic Harold and Maude (1971). Gordon is absolutely marvellous her wily, curious games with Geraldine Page are hilarious and she is extremely good when acting scared. The two completely dominate the show. Against them, the young leads are colourless, particularly the wooden Robert Fuller whose attempts to profess love to Rosemary Forsythe result more in unintentional laughter.
Robert Aldrichs two other batty old dames films, Baby Jane and Sweet Charlotte, were set in Old Dark House territory gloomy mansions with looming shadows and shot with high contrast black-and-white lighting. Contrarily with What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, Lee H. Katzin places Aldrichs patented Grand Guignol Gothic into a daylight setting and moreover relocates it to the Arizona desert. To the mix, Katzin also adds a realism of jagged mobile camerawork and grainy film stock, an experiment that proves surprisingly successful.
The joy of What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? though is the suspense that comes in the prowling cat-and-mouse games between Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon. Scenes like Ruth Gordons sudden return to life in the car or her frenzied hunt for Robert Fullers shoes are given a wonderfully edgy tension by Lee H. Katzin. The film also comes laced with a real sense of black humour in particular the cleverly ironic twist ending, which manages to make the film seem blacker than ever.