When bed-ridden, crankily religious Mother (THE VULTURE’s Annette Carell) dies, her seven well-spoken children don’t want to be sent to an orphanage. They covertly bury the body under a ‘tabernacle’ in the garden, dismiss nosy home help Mrs Quayle (BURKE & HARE’s Yootha Joyce), cash monthly annuity cheques, live on baked beans and toast, and keep going to school. However, bereft of adult supervision the large gloomy house, the children take eccentric turns. Diana (Pamela Franklin) becomes a medium, rocking in a chair to channel Mother (a PSYCHO touch?) and issue commands – and wracked when she feels she’s lost contact with the spirit. Puritanical Dunstan (REVENGE OF BILLY THE KID’s John Gugolka) is eager to punish lively Gertie (DR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORROR’s Sarah Nicholls) for supposed sacrileges (by cropping her long hair). Nicholls is now character actress Phoebe Nicholls: Merrick’s Mother in THE ELEPHANT MAN and ‘the Intended’ in Nicolas Roeg’s HEART OF DARKNESS. Stuttering Jiminee (a pre-OLIVER! Mark Lester) hones his forgery skills to keep finances afloat and brings home (or kidnaps) a near-silent schoolfriend (Parnum Wallace) to live with them. Young Willy (Gustav Henry) almost goes feral and sensible elders Hubert (Louis Sheldon Williams) and Elsa (Margaret Brooks, later screenwriter of LOOSE CONNECTIONS and THE LOST SON) try to manage practicalities. The situation is on the point of spiralling out of control when Hubert writes to Mother’s estranged husband, Charlie Hook (Dirk Bogarde), to come and be their father. However, the plausible, charming, crooked Charlie–a decade-on version of the spivs Bogarde played early in his career (cf: THE BLUE LAMP)–fractures the children’s strange solidarity. He sets about robbing them blind, gets creepily flirty with Diana (not his natural daughter, he claims) but breaks her heart by bringing home a dolly bird (SLAVE GIRLS’ Edina Ronay) and quickly loses patience with responsibility.
Jack Clayton’s film of Julian Gloag’s novel–scripted by Jeremy Brooks (WORK IS A 4-LETTER WORD) and Haya Harareet (Esther from BEN-HUR and the Queen of Atlantis from JOURNEY BENEATH THE DESERT and more pertinently married to Clayton)–is an entry in a small group of films (mostly based on books) about children left to their own devices creating enclosed societies which mimic the adult world but are also magical, dangerous and topsy-turvy. There’s a touch of Peter Brook’s LORD OF THE FLIES, from William Golding’s novel, about the invented worship and enthusiasm for punishment. In turn, OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE might have influenced the similar set-up of Ian McEwan’s novel The Cement Garden, filmed by Andrew Birkin. Once Bogarde turns up, there are striking parallels with Don Siegel’s THE BEGUILED, from the novel by Thomas Cullinan. Even Joseph Losey’s THE DAMNED feeds into the trend, with its little kings and queens raised in a radioactive bunker to survive a devastated future. OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE also slots into the arc of Pamela Franklin’s career as mad-eyed child/teenager, from Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS through THE THIRD SECRET to THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE; after handling heavyweight dramatic demands (in a precedent for Kirsten Dunst or Chloë Grace Moretz decades later) Franklin was sidelined in the 1970s, stuck in the likes of FOOD OF THE GODS rather than collecting awards nominations.
In the 1960s, the British cinema turned out a surprisingly wealth of .going-mad/playing-games-in-an-old-dark-house films: ONE WAY PENDULUM, THE SERVANT, SECRET CEREMONY, PERFORMANCE, MUMSY NANNY SONNY & GIRLY, NEGATIVES, THE RULING CLASS–even HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR and CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR. Perhaps, along with the upheavals of the decade, there was a national need to revisit Brideshead again and find the big house a haunted ruin with traditional values in decline, threatened by swinging hedonism with a violent clash inevitable in the last reel. The first half of the film, where the children are left alone, is eerie, affecting and oddly believable: the kids are canny enough to get by, but have their heads stuffed full of strange beliefs, Bible quotes and horror stories about orphanages. After Charlie moves in, there’s a trip to the dinosaur sculptures in Crystal Palace Park (an indispensible part of a London childhood) but his blokey, self-serving philosophy is just as damaging as the strange notions bequeathed (along with the house, in a handwritten will) by Mother.
As always, it’s as much about class as mental breakdown, with the children literally sanctifying their peculiar Mother and only momentarily beguiled by their declassé father figure. They disapprove of Charlie’s pick-up because ‘Doreen is such a common name’ and seethe to learn he’s blown Mother’s post office savings account on the horses (‘they say gambling’s a sin–I suppose it is if you don’t win’). When Charlie moves in, there’s also an intrusion of pop music (Elsa catches her younger siblings doing the Twist and takes it as a sign of demonic influence) and pop culture (Willy reads Playboy while the returned Mrs Quayle peruses the weekly comic Smash). As in almost all films in this cycle, a sacrifice is made at the end. Along with a repeated shot of Ronay in bed, the trailer (the sole extra on the disc) uses this outbreak of violence to try and make it seem a straight-up gothic freak-out. Though the reputation of THE INNOCENTS has risen in recent years, the rest of Clayton’s output (mostly careful, unsettling literary adaptations) has been overlooked somewhat. OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE benefits slightly from its obscurity and that of its source novel. It plays best to audiences who don’t quite know what to expect and are willing to explore strange byways. The Warner archive disc is no-frills, but a reasonable transfer shows off the shadowed cinematography of Larry Pizer (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE). Georges Delerue contributes a delicate, fairytale-sinister score. Among the Britfilm faces who have brief roles are Gerald Sim (DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN), Garfield Morgan (28 WEEKS LATER), John Arnatt (DR CRIPPEN), Faith Kent (BEYOND BEDLAM),Anthony Nicholls (IF ….) and Diana Ashley (CORRUPTION).