Cast & Crew
Louis Sheldon Williams
Because their mother has long been bedridden, the seven Hook children have learned to take care of themselves in their old Victorian house. Never having known a father, their whole existence centers around "mothertime"--an evening visit to their mother's room for Bible reading and family guidance. Then one night their mother dies. Mingled with grief is their fear of the outside world and of being sent to an orphanage. Unable to bear a separation from their mother, they secretly bury her in the garden and set up a shrine in the backyard shed. After dismissing the cleaning woman, they resume their everyday habits, continuing to attend school and running the household on their own, meeting expenses by forging their mother's signature on her annuity checks. Each night they gather in the shed for "mothertime," which now has become a rite in which one of the girls, Diana, communes with the spirit of the mother "who is always with us." Eventually they adopt a schoolmate, Louis, who has run away from home, but the youngster's absence precipitates a visit from a schoolteacher, who almost discovers their secret. The danger is averted by the arrival of their father, Charlie, who has been summoned by the oldest boy, Hubert. A charming opportunist, Charlie quickly captivates the children; before long he has squandered most of their savings, accustomed himself to bringing home women at late hours, and even made plans to sell the house. One day he commits the ultimate sin by attempting to destroy their mother's shrine, and the children finally turn on him. To their horror, he confronts them with the knowledge that they are all illegitimate, the result of their mother's promiscuity. Upon hearing the truth about their beloved, pious mother, Diana seizes a fireplace poker and strikes Charlie a fatal blow. Now that their world of innocence is destroyed, the seven youngsters leave the home of their childhood.
Louis Sheldon Williams
Our Mother's House
It helped that the movie, taken from Julian Gloag's novel, is a deliciously spooky bit of gothic, largely unfolding in a claustrophobic hothouse world. It's inhabited by seven siblings with a secret several secrets, actually, to not all of which they're privy. When their beloved and intensely religious mother dies of natural causes wisely, no deathbed histrionics; she just seems to flicker and expire like a guttering candle -- they solemnly bury her in the garden, tell the outside world she's gone off to the seaside for her health, and carry on the mundane rituals of daily living. Effortlessly, they scam a bank manager who cashes the monthly annuity check that keeps arriving as well as the postman, their teachers, and even their brassy housekeeper, whom they soon dismiss, lest she get wise. Already a tight family unit, they become even tighter, almost entirely avoiding the outside world, convinced they'll be packed off to an orphanage if they own up.
Clayton had successfully gone the civilized horror movie route with child actors before, in The Innocents (1961), an adaptation of Henry James' novel, The Turn of the Screw, starring Deborah Kerr as a governess terrified by dead people. He was to travel it again in Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), turning Ray Bradbury's sinister carnival into the darkest Disney release ever. Well aware that tension and dread are best arrived at by small increments, Clayton quickly specifies a milieu that combines the spiraling irrationality in a domestic setting of Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and a reversion to primal savagery a la Lord of the Flies (1963). When one of the seven children does something deemed morally offensive, they meet in council down in the garden shed and decide she must be punished. To our relief, the punishment consists of only having her hair shorn but we would not have been surprised at worse.
The kids proceed from day to day, the older ones ministering to the needs of the younger ones, attending school, doing the marketing, cooking and housekeeping, with the world outside the gloomy walls of their mother's house in Croydon none the wiser. Until one day, golden-curled, good-humored Jiminee (Mark Lester) brings one of his friends home from school, announcing to all that the boy is unhappy at home. Jiminee wants to fold him into their ranks, and does for a while. Things look dodgy for them all when a teacher shows up, insisting to be let in the house. But before her questioning can proceed, the children's father, of low reputation and unseen for years, materializes, and smoothes things over.
Bogarde was to describe Charlie Hook as "a balding, green-toothed horrid little man with seven children." The key word in his description is perhaps "little." Bogarde's Charlie Hook is no Bill Sykes. He's lower-profile, and although cunningly on the alert for whatever he can grab, not above taking the kids to the dinosaur sculpture garden at Crystal Palace. He's a breath of, if not fresh air, at least some air. Ironically, in the midst of these polite, proper children who don't much resemble one another except in their upper-class accents, Charlie seems the normal one, partly because while sleazy, he's also mundane. Things lean toward the sinister, however, when he sniffs out the latent sexual dimension of the eldest daughter (Pamela Franklin) as her attraction to his seedy charm tilts toward an unstated crush on him. The closest he comes to doing the right thing is when he deliberately, if crudely, rebuffs her.
Besides, Charlie has another agenda. First he rifles their mother's Post Office savings account. Then he sells the furniture. A neighbor rings the bell to pointedly ask if Charlie knows anything about a break-in next door. Even before a real estate agent subsequently shows up with potential customers for the house, it becomes obvious that Charlie is stripping the place of everything he can steal or pawn, spending the money on drink and floozies, most notably the fired housekeeper, now rehired with, it is clear, added duties. Charlie relies on a family secret he's sitting on to keep the kids in line, if no longer exactly on his side.
The kids in Our Mother's House, individually, and in the aggregate, are simply one of the best young ensembles ever put on film, reminding us of how matter-of-factly children accept the world they live in, knowing no other. Bogarde, who had nothing but praise for them, knew what strong presences they were and used them to push off against with his own characterization. Because Clayton deals in the kind of unsettling eeriness arising from insinuation, as opposed to clumsier, more conventional shock theater, the sibs never suggest the zombie kids from Village of the Damned (1960). If anything, they're more alert and sentient than average, watchful, always looking out for one another. In short, natural. Indeed, only Franklin and Lester (who played the title role in Oliver! the following year) went on to lengthy acting careers. The others didn't. But they convince us they're a cohesive unit here. Extreme as their little world may be, they always seem natural in it.
Charlie's alert to them, but only up to a point. Sporting a bowl haircut -- almost a Beatles do -- and the bright eyes of the natural forager, he's alert for whatever he can grab next. But he fails to notice, especially in the unwavering glance of the second oldest girl, Elsa, played by Margaret Brooks, daughter of co-screenwriter Jeremy Brooks, that these kids play for keeps. Elsa's the take-charge one, who makes sure their routine allows for what she calls "Mother Time," during which she channels what in their minds is their mother's spirit down at their improvised shrine in the garden shed. She and the others harbor, beneath their well-mannered closed ranks and occasional eruption of high spirits, a collective sort of grave clarity, a fierce sense of morality. One reason the tension mounts so steadily is that Charlie is largely oblivious to it.
His last spurt of ineffectual verbal venom is interestingly layered most immediately, with pettiness, but also with Charlie's essential smallness, and an unexpected sense of humanity derived from Bogarde making us feel Charlie's long-standing pain. It's much more than your usual Cockney underworld hustler turn here. And he does warm their lives, if only momentarily, sparking a tonal shift from funereal to lively before he turns from roguish accomplice to pathetic looter. The kids, as is so often the case in all films save Hollywood's, easily maintain an unforced, unposed steadiness. We never doubt that Charlie's emissary from a bottom-feeding world of grab-and-run is no match for their unswerving innocence in this subtle, masterfully crafted film that deserves to emerge at regular intervals from the dark corners that are its natural habitat.
Producer: Jack Clayton
Director: Jack Clayton
Screenplay: Jeremy Brooks, Haya Harareet; Julian Gloag (novel "Our Mother's House")
Cinematography: Larry Pizer
Art Direction: Reece Pemberton
Music: Georges Delerue
Film Editing: Tom Priestley
Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Charlie Hook), Margaret Brooks (Elsa), Pamela Franklin (Diana), Louis Sheldon Williams (Hubert), John Gugolka (Dunstan), Mark Lester (Jiminee), Sarah Nicholls (Gerty), Gustav Henry (Willy), Parnum Wallace (Louis), Yootha Joyce (Mrs. Quayle), Claire Davidson (Miss Bailey), Anthony Nicholls (Mr. Halbert), Annette Carell (Mother), Gerald Sim (Bank Clerk), Edina Ronay (Doreen), Diana Ashley (Girl Friend), Garfield Morgan (Mr. Moley), Faith Kent (Woman Client), John Arnatt (Man Client), Jack Silk (Motor Cyclist).
C-106m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Jay Carr
Dirk Bogarde: The Authorized Biography, by John Coldstream
The Cinema of Dirk Bogarde, by Margaret Hinxman, Susan d'Arcy
Our Mother's House
Location scenes filmed in Croydon, England.
Released in United States Summer July 1967
Released in United States Summer July 1967