Lee H. Katzin
Review by Thomas Scalzo
Posted on 13 December 2004
Source MGM DVD
Any horror fan that thinks he’s seen it all might want to check out this unusual offering centered on the clandestine machinations of two female sexagenarians. Or, to put it more enticingly, any horror fan that thinks he’s seen it all might want to check out this unusual offering featuring a catfight between two female sexagenarians. Trust me, once the wheelchair is rolled violently across the room, you’ll want to call your friends.
The fun begins when Mrs. Claire Marrable, a heretofore well-heeled member of Arizona high society, is informed that her recently deceased husband has left her nothing but a dusty old stamp collection and a pile of debt. Refusing to relinquish her luxurious lifestyle, she hits on the idea of employing gullible housemaids, bilking them of their life savings, and then killing them. For years, the plan comes off without a hitch, no one in the affluent desert community harboring any suspicions that one of their own is a cold-blooded murderer.
But one day, with her latest victim below the ground, Mrs. Marrable makes the ill-advised decision to hire Mrs. Dimmock, a woman with sparkling references and a healthy bank balance, but also an insatiable curiosity to get to the bottom of things. As she fields increasingly pointed questions regarding her previous housemaids, Mrs. Marrable undertakes an investigation of her own, attempting to discover just who this inquisitive Mrs. Dimmock is and what she’s after. The result is a great battle of wits, each woman quietly attempting to undermine the other and discover the truth, while ensuring that the day-to-day functioning of the Marrable estate shows no outward signs of discord. Knowing that Mrs. Marrable’s murderous impulses are never very deeply suppressed imbues these scenes with enjoyable tension and a sense of foreboding; each morning that Mrs. Dimmock wakes, and each question she asks, could well be her last.
Augmenting this captivating dynamic is a series of secondary characters, introduced at well-spaced intervals, who respectively compel us to examine and reexamine how all the pieces of the story fit together. We have George, Mrs. Marrable’s doting stockbroker nephew, who may or may not know his aunt’s secrets; Harriet, the alluring young woman who has unexpectedly, and suspiciously, moved into the apartment next door to Mrs. Marrable’s estate; and Mike, the dashing auto mechanic and salesman who claims to be passing through town on his way to a big business meeting, but oddly decides to stay and start up a relationship with Harriet. Intriguing characters all, and with each new addition to the story comes new questions for the audience.
However, despite these quality elements of suspense, and the underlying horror potential of a society matron who offs her help, the aspect of What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? that resonates most distinctly, and makes the film worthy of a recommendation, is the acting, specifically the terrific performances of Ruth Gordon as Mrs. Dimmock and Geraldine Page as Mrs. Marrable. Page in particular shows us a Mrs. Marrable that is far from a one-dimensional murderer. Instead, we come to see her as a complex and dreadfully insecure woman, a character that is at once loathsome and tragically pitiable.
With only the occasional droll society function to break up her solitary life, we watch as Mrs. Marrable daily slips farther and farther away from a clear understanding of reality. Her life is little more than a series of days and nights in which nothing much happens. She rises, sends out letters asking for free samples of soaps and perfumes, drinks a glass of Grand Marnier, reads the paper, lashes out at her servant, dines, and then goes to bed. Unwilling to form too intimate a bond with anyone who might discover her awful secrets, and lacking an income substantial enough to afford much time from plotting how to get money away from her latest victim, she leads a sad, lonely, and viciously cyclical existence. To be sure, Mrs. Marrable is a brutal killer, but through Page’s performance we see that she is also a genuinely troubled person cast into what she views as an impossible situation. Watching Mrs. Marrable, we at once fear, pity, and sympathize with her, a rare scenario indeed for a film classed as horror.