"We know a secret...We won't tell. For if we tell, we'll go to hell"
After spending years in the British film system director Jack Clayton appeared to be on quite a roll in the first half of the sixties. After ROOM AT THE TOP in 1959, followed by the great THE INNOCENTS in 1961 and then 1964's THE PUMPKIN EATER he seemed destined to become one of the leading figures of British cinema, and then in 1967, he directed this adaptation of Julian Gloag's novel of the same name. A failure at the box office, the film was saddled with a wholly inappropriate ad campaign that attempted to sell it as a Hammer-type PSYCHO-inspired psychological horror complete with lurid one-sheets along with a spoiler-laden trailer that managed to pack every bit of perceived salacious & violent content into its brief running time. With its blend of old-fashioned Gothic ambiance combined with a very dark (this film truly goes into some shadowy & disturbing places) storyline along with a very creepy and unsettling blend of religious hypocrisy and dark sexual undertones (all of which involve children) it no doubt was a tough sell.
In the London suburb of Croydon, the seven Hook children (with the name of "Hook" perhaps being a reference to Peter Pan) live with their sickly bed-ridden & deeply religious mother in a large rambling Victorian house. Ranging in age from pre-school to middle teen they tend to their mother and with their only outside contact being school and a visit from an occasional housekeeper they live isolated in the home which the mother has festooned with crosses and biblical verses. One night right before "bible story time" the mother dies suddenly and faced with the prospect of being sent to an orphanage the children conspire to secretly bury her in the garden.
Building a makeshift shrine to their mother in a shed, they dismiss the suspicious housekeeper Mrs. Quayle (Yootha Joyce), and set about to carry on as before. At first, all seems to go reasonably well with the older siblings Elsa (Margaret Brooks) and Hubert (Louis Sheldon Williams) taking charge with Elsie playing the mother role as she cooks and sends the younger children off to school. Hubert suggests to Elsie that they might want to bring an adult or authority figure into the situation but is chastised for this. The stuttering and shy Jiminee (a pre-OLIVER Mark Lester) shows an aptitude for forgery which is put to good use in the form of replicating their mother's signature on the monthly relief checks.
Things begin to get darker however when they begin to hold candlelit seance-like "mommy time" sessions in the dark garden shed with the coming-of-age Diana (in a wonderful performance by Pamela Franklin) rocking back and forth in their mother's rocking chair while quoting biblical verses, intoning advice from "mother" and doling out punishment. In the film's most horrifying sequence perky young Gertie (Phoebe Nicholls) is punished for accepting a ride from a stranger on a motorcycle by having her hair cut off while she terrifyingly shrieks and the other children scream "harlot!" at her.
Into this increasingly dark environment arrives the smiling and affable Charlie Hook (Dirk Bogarde) the children's absent father who arrives just in time to help pacify an inquiring school teacher and later the returning and nosy housekeeper Mrs. Quayle. At first, Charlie seems to fit in with the children well. He accepts their story of the mother's demise and subsequent garden internment without an afterthought. Taking the children for outings in some of the few sequences where we are not in the increasingly claustrophobic house, he initially seems to be the adult figure needed but underneath there is something devious lurking in him. The older Elsie quickly grows suspicious of him while Diana seems enamored of him and although it is initially left ambiguous as to who (if any) of the children he is the actual biological father of, his attraction to Franklin's Diana is very queasily disturbing.
With a sly glint in his eye, Charlie befriends Jiminee when he learns of the latter's forgery skills and soon begins to bring the outside world into the up till then cloistered home. This includes pop music, Playboy magazine, liquor, and women with which he carries on sexual relations within full view of the children. This all turns the then swinging 60's on their head by having the adult figure indoctrinate the children into the changing trends and morals. However, it seems that along with the strict religious upbringing the children also have in them a sense of biblical retribution which plays out in the film's terrifying and somber climax.
As he demonstrated with ROOM WITH A VIEW and especially in THE INNOCENTS Clayton was a master of mood and here, he is helped immensely by Larry Pizer's shadowy cinematography that shows off the films gorgeous, muted brown, and autumnal color palette along with Georges Delerue's spare musical score who's gently descending & ascending chords suggest a child's lullaby. The book was adapted for the screen by Jeremy Brooks and Haya Harareet (who played Esther in 1959's BEN HUR and was Clayton's wife).
Although Clayton had a reputation as a taskmaster on set, he seemed to have a special gift for working with children as evidenced in THE INNOCENTS and here he conjures up a wonderful ensemble performance from the children letting each show a distinct personality while still behaving like children and not "little adults" which was a common trait in films of the period. Pamela Franklin (whom Clayton had worked with previously in THE INNOCENTS) is magnificent here. Her role as the child Flora in THE INNOCENTS followed by the young teenage Diana here and then the troubled adult medium Florence Tanner in THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE in 1974 form a wonderful symmetry.
Dirk Bogarde who started out in light comedies for Rank brings that easy-going charm to our initial impression of the wayward father and later turns to a darker complex personality more related to his roles in THE SERVENT and THE VICTIM. In his memoir, Bogarde related that he “loved every second of the film,” and upon his first day on the already in production film he found a note in his dressing room which read “Let us hope you’re as good as you’re cracked up to be" and it was signed "The Children". It was his work in this film that brought him to Luchino Visconti's notice and cast him in THE DAMNED and DEATH IN VENICE.
The British Board of Censors slapped the film with an "X" rating (the rough equivalent of an "R" today) and its failure at the box office led to a downturn in Clayton's career and he did not direct again until the somewhat messy version of THE GREAT GATSBY in 1974 and later Disney's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES in 1983 which suffered from post-production tampering by the studio. Regulated to the occasional late-night TV showing and later sporadic scheduling on TCM, OUR MOTHER'S HOUSE was finally given a release on bare-bones DVD release by Warner Archive in a soft but serviceable 1.66 transfer. However, this film screams out for a beautiful new restoration and packed Blu-ray edition from Criterion and/or Indicator.
I did some exploring on Google Maps in the Croydon area hoping to find the house, but the entire area seems to have been redeveloped.