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Director Jack Clayton grew up in the British film industry, made four acclaimed pictures and was then slowed down by indecision and bad luck. His version of The Great Gatsby was considered a disappointment and his difficult Something Wicked This Way Comes a disaster. 1987's The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a fine movie, but almost nobody saw it. Clayton's reputation rests on two unforgettable pictures, his debut Room at the Top and his horror masterpiece The Innocents. Praised but not popular were 1964's The Pumpkin Eater and a little thriller from 1967, Our Mother's House. Sold as a horror shocker, the second movie is a highly rigged and somewhat suspicious suspense picture that goes in a very risky direction -- most of the cast is comprised of children, some of them rather small children. Clayton's work with these young actors is exemplary, which surely accounts for the reported favorable impression that the film elicited from Steven Spielberg.
Taken from a book by Julian Gloag and partly rewritten by Clayton's wife Haya Harareet, Our Mother's House confects a grim situation. In an old house, Mother Hook (Annette Carell) is dying. With their father off somewhere and not missed, the family of seven children is run by her oldest daughter Elsa, a child herself (Margaret Brooks, future writer Margaret Leclere). Elsa herds them through meals and gets them off to school. When Mother dies suddenly, Elsa and her older siblings contrive a scheme to keep the family from being broken up or sent to the orphanage. They bury their mother and move some of her furniture to a shed in the back yard, to serve as a shrine to her. They then manage to dismiss the housekeeper Mrs. Quayle (Yootha Joyce) without raising suspicion. One of the children figures out how to forge Mother's signature on her aid checks.
But things are definitely not right. Mother has passed on a mania for the Bible, which assumes the contours of a cult among the impressionable tots. One boy constantly quotes scripture to justify his decisions. The liveliest daughter Diana (Pamela Franklin, of Clayton's The Innocents) thinks she can receive Mother's commands from beyond the grave. Even after she realizes she's wrong, Diana and Elsa use the séances to get the kids to agree to extreme decisions -- and punishments. When tiny Gerty (Sara Nicholls of The Pumpkin Eater allows a young man to give her a ride on his motorbike, the others accuse her both of bad behavior and giving out their secrets. They cut off Gerty's hair with scissors, traumatizing her so severely that she comes down with a fever. She won't speak or leave her bed. The reign of religious terror is almost stopped when the teacher Miss Bailey (Claire Davidson) comes demanding to know why Gerty isn't in school. But at that moment the estranged Charlie Hook (Dirk Bogarde) returns. He chases Bailey away and does not seem at all bothered by what has happened to Mother. Hook doesn't inform the authorities, but instead lets things progress as 'normally' as before while he raids the Hook accounts to buy a car, and to invite women over for private parties. The children variously accept or resent the slick-talking Charlie, but he doesn't realize just how thoroughly his late wife has passed down her hatred and anger to the next generation -- along with an Old Testament aptitude for bloody revenge.
Our Mother's House is a carefully planned and directed show that few directors could pull off. Perhaps the children were carefully chosen but it's obvious that Jack Clayton rose to the occasion, applying time and patience to the task of directing this special cast,. The kids in The Innocents had little precedent in film; they came off as larval adults, already damaged by twisted adult psychological problems. Lord of the Flies takes the position that civilization is a thin veneer that barely restrains primitive savagery; schoolboys on their own instantly expand the casual brutalities they know from school into a brutal system of rank and repression. In the somewhat similar Our Mother's House a pack of kids, none older than ten, apply literally the philosophy of a bitter, resentful woman who has resorted to heavy Bible moralizing. The result is a repressive, witch hunt, a Christian nightmare in a teacup. Is Our Mother's House a credible thriller? Yes, given the narrow contrivances on view. Is it a good allegory about the effects of religious repression? I don't know about that.
The acting across the board is excellent. The kids have separate personalities and seem to be behaving like kids. Unless we're really being tricked, none are the little polite robots (with adults dubbing the voices) that were once ubiquitous in English movies. Two years before Oliver!, little Mark Lester is pitch perfect as a stammering little tyke. Little Gerty's hysteria and screaming fits after her traumatic hair cut are entirely believable.
The movie will be strongly resisted by viewers that don't enjoy situations involving jeopardy to children. As we wait for something awful to happen, the movie gives us the rather sickly feeling that the storyteller may have no point beyond bald sensationalism for putting us through this wringer. But most of the time things feel natural. As muted as everything else is in the movie, the concluding violence works only because the fine actress Pamela Franklin is screen center. Her Diana is the one multi-dimensional child in the story, and she powers the finale through.
Dirk Bogarde is a charming rogue even without doing anything to endear us to him. We can guess what Charlie is up to as soon as he arrives. As he sets about stripping the family of its assets, the show continues in its unpleasant, if always interesting, direction. It's more of an ordeal than a story. The housemaid and the teacher almost see through the deceptions, but don't. The housemaid tries to work her way into a new relationship with Charlie, but that doesn't work out either. Charlie certainly isn't looking out for the kids, even though he takes them on outings and keeps them distracted. The older children don't know what to make of the sight of a naked woman in Charlie's bed, after a night of partying. It's like an old colonial movie where the natives finally realize that the Great White God is mortal, and that they no longer owe him their allegiance. Charlie picks the wrong night to drink too much.
After all that happens, even the kids seem to know that the jig is up, and it's time to submit to the authorities. The movie keeps things a little open ended, but the whole enterprise remains sordid and depressing, despite its essential emotional honesty.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Our Mother's House is a good but not great transfer of this '60s British production. The image is somewhat soft. The colors are as muted as Clayton's approach to the direction. The cover art comes from the original poster, which makes the film look like a Hammer shocker with a juvenile theme: "You know, for kids!" It's definitely not a good movie for children. For adults it's neither an all-out horror item nor even a particularly suspenseful thriller. In 1967 I imagine it could have been taken for an insightful look into family dynamics... everybody's family has at least a few screwy weirdnesses running through it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.