1968, Dir. by Roy Ward Baker
The legendary Hammer Films studio is known primarily for their recreations of Universal's classic monsters, specifically their run of Dracula films from 1958-1974 that usually featured Christopher Lee. What a lot of film fans don't know starting out is that Hammer also produced a slew of other films in genres that range from prehistoric epics to swashbucklers to even the occasional dark comedy starring a Hollywood legend. That would be this one.
The Anniversary stars the legendary Bette Davis as a one-eyed mother of three, much to the dismay of '80s songstress Kim Carnes (you know, who sang Bette Davis Eyes). She's vicious and manipulative, and one heck of twisted blast to behold.
Mrs. Taggart (Davis) and her sons run the family carpentry business, despite Mr. Taggart's passing years before. However, things are less than friendly. Her oldest son, Henry, is a pervert who steals women's clothing (but at least leaves money on the clotheslines) for his own pleasure. The middle son, Terry is married with five kids and a sixth on the way, but his tired of his mother's control and plans to move to Canada with the family as an escape. And the youngest, Tom, is a smart-aleck who can't wait to show off his new young fiancee to mom, and to do whatever it takes to shut her up.
I know you're probably thinking "Hey, that's an interesting group of characters! I wonder if there's some kind of event that could bring them together for entertainment's sake?". Well, that's why the movie's called The Anniversary. Duh.
No commentary on this film could possible begin with anything but Davis' turn as Mrs. Taggart. Billed as "the most MERCILESS mother of them all!" in promotional materials, Davis hams it up with glee, taking joy in the fact she's unleashed as such a diabolical character. This was her second tour with Hammer after the known The Nanny three year's earlier, but it's clear that she is having a lot of fun with the comedic evil she shows in this film. She also does a great job of interacting with the rest of the cast, and holds the proceedings together quite nicely.
Thankfully, it's a two way street, and the rest of the cast holds their own against the overbearing matriarch. Sheila Hancock is most effective as Terry's controlling wife who's mother's archnemesis for most of the film, and Elaine Taylor gets in some chops as young Tom's fiancee Shirley. There's an interesting dynamic throughout the film in regard to the female characters taking control of the males in their relationships (in fact, it could be said that Henry's perversion is an effort to compensate for the lack of a controlling woman of his own). This plays heavily in the final act, as Davis' mother pits everyone against each other while watching with glee.
The film is directed by Roy Ward Baker who made a lot of horror for Hammer (including their Kung Fu crossover The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires), but also directed Marilyn Monroe in another dark comedy, Don't Bother to Knock, and the original Titanic epic A Night to Remember. He doesn't get a chance to use his varied skills in this very staged production (which was adapted from a play by master Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster), but he paces the film extremely well. There's a lot going on throughout the day the film takes place in (even fireworks!), and he and Sangster do a great job of bringing it all together without confusion.
The biggest complaint I had with The Anniversary came in the final act. As the plot continues to escalate by the mother pitting everyone against each other, there are a few revelations and plot devices that take the film a bit too far over the line that separates dark comedy from twisted psychodrama. Particular alarming are a couple of tricks involving possibly dead children which, while serving their purpose of proving how vile Mother is, come off as incredibly harsh and slightly difficult to stomach. Of course, there's also the question of why these characters would even give such a demanding and inhuman character so much attention, which is not always answered in regard to each character. The film never dwells too much on these faults or lets them get out of hand, thankfully, but it treads close to uncomfortable ground often enough that many viewers could be turned off to the film in general.
- Davis' eyepatch is a crucial plot point in the second act, and I'm partially glad it was explained...but on the other hand, just letting her have an eyepatch should be enough to prove evil exists! (I'm guessing they had to distinguish her from a pirate, hence the explanation).
- Don't miss the strange revelation of the young Shirley's "flaw"...a strange defect that seems kinda cooky...before you consider the rest of the film.
- Also memorable is a short scene in which Terry and Karen's children are shown to be quite scared by Grandma's eccentricities. I wouldn't have gone near her, either.
The Anniversary is about as dark as a comedy of its era could be, and I admire the fearlessness of all involved. With Davis taking the lead and the capable family playing it straight faced, it takes a while for the film to grab ahold of the viewer. Hours after viewing the film, I can't help but shake my head in surprise at a lot of the twists, and smile at the all-out tenacity of Baker's adaptation. The Anniversary is a strange entry into Hammer's canon, but I think it's a welcome addition that I'd recommend to anyone interested in a twisted family tale or a high-cheese star performance.