Undoubtedly sold to distributor/financier 20th Century-Fox as yet another variation of the Robert Aldrich-Bette Davis-Joan Crawford hit Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), The Anniversary stars Bette Davis, her fifth film in this popular sub-genre, as another aging, sadistic grotesque, but the similarities pretty much end there. The film has none of Baby Jane's Grand Guignol, and though rather daring in terms of its sexual relationships and characterizations, visually it's very restrained, even tame by Hammer Film standards.
The picture unfolds very much like a filmed performance of a play, and in fact was adapted from a 1966 West End production written by Bill MacIlwraith that had starred Mona Washbourne in Davis' part. Fortunately, Roy Ward Baker's direction is quite good, both in terms of the performances and in avoiding the staginess often associated with filmed plays.
Tom Taggart (Christian Roberts), the outwardly unfazed, rebellious youngest sibling of the three Taggart boys, has brought home pregnant fiancee Shirley (Elaine Taylor) home for the weekend, on the day 60-something widow Taggart (Bette Davis), as yet unaware of Tom's plans, lords over an annual family reunion. She's a cruel, domineering matriarch in complete control of her three adult children's lives, all of whom ineptly manage her profitable home construction firm. Oldest son Henry (James Cossins) is a meek, unmarried transvestite while second son Terry (Jack Hedley) and his wife, Karen (Shelia Hancock), conspire to escape her control over them by emigrating to Canada.
The Anniversary is a difficult film to describe. It's not at all a horror film, nor with its bits of serious drama entirely a black comedy, though there is a lot of darkly funny dialogue. Mostly this comes in the form of outrageous, acidy insults from smiling cobra Mrs. Taggart. ("My dear, would you mind sitting somewhere else," she cheerfully asks Shirley, "Body odor offends me.")
Though quite funny at times, Jimmy Sangster's adaptation gets to the dark core of ruinous blood ties like this and the long-term impact all-controlling parents have on their increasingly dysfunctional children. The Anniversary then is chiefly a detailed character study of a family centered around a matriarch so unrepentant and indefatigably cruel that it becomes funny. (This is a concept that the British repeatedly seem to find humor in, judging by the success of British shows centered on horrible, antisocial protagonists: Steptoe & Son, Rising Damp, Fawlty Towers.)
The bulk of the picture explores how each son copes with their mother's monstrous behavior, their efforts to break free, and how each character was shaped early on by her varying treatment of them. It also contrasts the world-weary efforts of veteran daughter-in-law Karen with newcomer Shirley, who has no idea what she's gotten herself into. (It's surprising Anchor Bay didn't seize upon the popularity of Jane Fonda's recent film; it would've been a natural: "Bette Davis is the original Monster-in-Law!")
The film afforded Davis another opportunity to camp it up, though in this case Davis' overripe performance is in tune with her larger-than-life Dragon Lady character. Looking like she was smacked in the eye with a giant comma, she wears an elaborate eyepatch, but more than compensates for this loss with a left eyeball that darts around so spastically throughout the film that it's worthy of an Oscar nomination all by itself. Unsettlingly manic, it recalls the one-eyed blobs in The Trollenberg Terror/The Crawling Eye (1958).
The rest of the cast is faultless, though less familiar to American viewers. Cossins is the only actor familiar to Hammer films fans: he also appeared in The Lost Continent (1968), The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), and few others around films, usually in small supporting parts. Most of the rest of the cast had careers that alternated chiefly between stage work and British television.
Video & Audio
The Anniversary looks great. This 16:9 enhanced DVD is impressively sharp with excellent color (including Davis' nicotine-stained, yellow-brown teeth), looking like it could have been shot yesterday were it not for its late-'60s fashions. There are no subtitle or alternate audio options.
Supplements begin with an invaluable Audio Commentary with director Roy Ward Baker and producer/screenwriter Jimmy Sangster moderated by DVD producer Perry Martin. They discuss adapting the play, dealing with Davis' outrageous demands, and essentially her firing of the film's original director, Alvin Rakoff.
Also included are what appears to be a 16:9 British Trailer that sells the film for what it is, and an American TV Spot that's a bit more misleading. Both make use of the film's repeated use of "The Anniversary Song" with somebody imitating Al Jolson. A good Poster & Still Gallery offers lobby cards and the like, while Talent Bios cover the careers of Davis, Baker, and Sangster.
A wry and astute look at domineering mothers and their messed-up offspring, The Anniversary may disappoint those looking for classic Hammer Horror or something along the lines of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but if viewed with an open mind the film has a lot to offer, and Anchor Bay's transfer and extras are impressive. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.