Tonight the Kurtodrome Vault is opened once again, this time to put a comedy in. Not the sort of genre that dominates the vault, but rest assured, The Anniversary is not out of place here. For here we have one of the most vicious comedies I’ve ever seen.
Actually, to call it a comedy seems to do the film injustice. Most of the characters are either deeply flawed or vile, or maybe both. The film opens quite normally, three brothers work in a construction business and, all of a sudden and completely unannounced, a girl pops up, asks for Tom (the youngest of the brothers), claims she’s engaged to him and before the other brothers can adjust to what’s happened, the girl called Shirley and Tom drive off, leaving the house unfinished.
But in the sixth minute of the film, The Anniversary shows its true colours for the first time. Shirley, who’s arrived with Tom at mother’s house, visits the hothouse, admires the caged bird, who promptly falls dead on the ground. Welcome to mother’s house, you’re just in time for the anniversary.
Mother, a one-eyed Bette Davis, has made a habit of celebrating her wedding anniversary with her three sons. Family traditions include a toast to the deceased father of the house and a bonfire. Sounds cozy? Think again, because the mother of the house has a habit of figuratively suffocating everyone who’s attending. There’s Tom, the youngest of the boys. There’s Terry, the hardest worker of all three and the one who’s married. To Karen, who’s given Terry a flock of offspring. And then there’s Harry, the oldest son and the one’s who’s a bit of … well, Karen calls him a “pervert”. That should suffice for the moment. And this is the environment poor Shirley is dropped in.
As Karen warns her, Mother will look for Shirley’s weak point in an attempt to crash her spirit. Think that’s an exaggeration? At one point, early in the evening, Mother asks Karen to come and sit next to her, only to adress her once more a minute later: “Shirley, would you mind sitting somewhere else? Body odour offends me.”
It’s just one of the many examples of cruel humour from the film. If you’re offended by that, avoid The Anniversary at all costs. If you’ve noticed a smile on your face, sit back and relax, you’re in one hell of treat for 91 minutes.
One of the few nice things you can say about Bette Davis’s character is that the rest of the family isn’t the best example of virtue either. Almost everyone seems to have a hidden agenda, the least of all Harry, but then again he’s crippling himself because of his perversion. Hal Hartley, director of Trust and already in the Vault because of Surviving Desire, once said: “A family is like a gun. Point it in the wrong direction and you’ve got yourself a deadly weapon.” As far as weapons go, The Anniversary is an automatic.
As far as the actors go, Davis is clearly the biggest name involved. The only other name standing out is the actress who plays Karen, Sheila Hancock, who’s renowned in the UK. Cult fans may also remember Jack Hedley (Terry) as the luitenant from Fulci’s slasherfest The New York Ripper.
The Anniversary was made by Hammer, a company predominantly known for their horror films starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It’s not the sort of film you’d expect from Hammer, even though this one is on a psychological level more horrible than most of Hammer’s output. Though not in the cast, a lot of Hammer familiars pop up in the credits. The film was directed by Roy Ward Baker and written by Jimmy Sangster. Directors may have been swapped between companies like Hammer, Tigon and Amicus, but Sangster’s name is seemingly married to the Hammer company. Summing up his entire Hammer filmography would keep us here for hours, but just to give you an idea, here’s a sample of his work: X – The Unknown, The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, Nightmare, The Nanny (also starring Bette Davis) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness. Sangster continued writing well into the 80s. In 2000 a German film, Flashback: Mörderische Ferien, was released. Though Sangster’s name appears on the credits as a writer, he wasn’t involved in the project. Instead, the Germans had bought an old script by Sangster and gave him the credit he deserved.
It’s true that Davis is very much the star of the picture and noone can match her, but let us not forget that it’s Sangster who gave Davis these glorious lines. Time to raise a toast, to Sangster, to Davis and to 91 minutes of vicious comedy. Cheers!
P.S. Instead of a trailer, which spoils some of the fun, here’s the moment mother comes down the stairs to meet her loving family. Mind you, she hasn’t seen Shirley before and the first thing she does is walk straight past her.