Director: Jack Clayton
Rating: 7.5 / 10
To say that I went into Our Mother's House blind is sort of an understatement. I learned of its existence a couple of months ago through a creepy trailer that screened during a revival showing of The People Next Door. I remember coming away from the trailer with a vague sense that the film had something to do with religion, secrets, and a bunch of strange little kids, but not much else. (Unfortunately I can't find the trailer online - this more straightforward one isn't the one I saw, and spoils a major part of the ending shortly after the two-minute mark.) It turns out that my first impression wasn't too far off, and I'm happy I checked it out. It's an unsettling little British chiller that didn't go quite where I expected in the end.
A backyard burial seems pretty good next to the possibility of ending up in an orphanage, and it ends up being the agreed-upon solution. This in itself would be weird enough, but the kids decide to move mom's possessions out to the garden shed along with her body and build a little shrine in her memory. Mother becomes almost like a god to them. They begin praying to her, scheduling "Mother time," and even speaking to her using an entranced Elsa as a conduit. It takes all of one day for things to get crazy within this house. Despite all of this, they insist (quite Britishly) that things will go on roughly as they have in the past and that the family will keep up appearances. The outside world must never suspect that anything is amiss. And if the looming threat of an orphanage isn't enough, the kids know what happens to those who can't keep secrets: "if we tell, we'll go to hell."
I fully expected the kids' little society to remain intact throughout the story and for the kids' world to become an allegory for society as a whole. Surprisingly, the microcosm is broken when their estranged father shows up at the door. Charlie Hook (played by a gloriously sleazy Dirk Bogarde), is a degenerate of the highest order. Once he finds out that Mother has died, his only goal is to somehow weasel his way into her will and take ownership of the house. It's interesting that he does this not through any overt authoritarian measures, but by trying to win the affection of the children through their desperate longing for a parental figure. Still, he's an awful dad, and vice reigns supreme in his life. It seems like the natural assumption is that his lifestyle will clash with the remnants of the religious upbringing that Mother bestowed on the kids, but that's not quite the case, at least initially.
|Essentially my childhood.|
|Father knows worst.|
Our Mother's House is a great little film that keeps you guessing, largely in part because of Charlie Hook, the film's wild card. Dirk Bogart is a highlight of the film, and manages to be convincingly despicable and manipulative while still occasionally hinting that there's a shred of good somewhere in his corrupt soul. Placing seven child actors front and center could easily turn into a disaster, but the kids are also surprisingly good here, particularly Pamela Franklin (as Elsa) who would continue her acting career throughout the following decades. A stuttering little Mark Lester also pops up, just before achieving minor child stardom with Oliver. (He'd eventually return to creepier territory in 1972's What the Peeper Saw.) It's a shame that Our Mother's House has fallen by the wayside, especially with the popularity of director Jack Clayton's The Innocents, which I haven't seen but am immediately seeking out. Layton was also responsible for Something Wicked This Way Comes, and thus can take credit for at least a few of my childhood nightmares. He's a director whose work I'm looking forward to exploring in more depth. Our Mother's House is definitely worth a look if you can find a copy.