Directed by Jonathan Zarantonello
If Bette Davis were alive, the role of crazy neighbor-lady Ann would have gone to her. Fortunately, we have Barbara Steele instead. Steele plays the evil, enigmatic septuagenarian with much less scenery chewing and a lot more underlying malice than Davis would have. Steele’s Ann is not a caricature – she’s a fully-realized character.
Ann isn’t your typical predator – yes, she has a fascination with young, prepubescent girls and she does haunt the local shopping mall in search of victims, luring them with money and presents… but unlike the male version of herself, Ann isn’t in it for the sexual thrill. Ann is trying to replace the lost love of her daughter whom she, in a fit of insane rage, drowned in the bathtub decades ago.
In the ensuing years, Ann has caught and collected butterflies to metaphorically replace her beautiful, fragile child. She lives alone, but never wants for company. A la Norman Bates and his taxidermy, Ann’s morbid hobby of suffocating and pinning butterflies is exploited to its maximum creepiness. Though she plays a malignant character, Steele’s innate elegance and timeless beauty lend an eerie gravitas to Ann.
Directed deftly on a little budget but with big love by Jonathan Zarantonello, The Butterfly Room succeeds as a slow-burn and moody psychological thriller reminiscent of the best of the 1970s (though it is not a giallo, in spite of some of the press’ fervent wishes). The fact it is shot on location in beautiful, historic Los Angeles only adds to the atmosphere and authenticity.
In addition to the incomparable Steele in a leading role (this is definitely not a case of featuring an icon on the poster and then they’re in the movie for one minute), The Butterfly Room features cameos from more scream queens than you can shake a machete at. The child actresses who get caught in Ann’s web – Ellery Strayhorn and Julia Putnam – are very good. Ray Wise enjoys a larger role as a suspicious handyman whose curiosity leads him into… cue the music… the butterfly room.
If you’re in search of an original horror film, and you are a fan of the slower, more hypnotic horror of the 70s – and you don’t mind a lack of blood and guts – then The Butterfly Room is definitely one for your collection. Add it to the queue for this Mother’s Day movie-thon!
4 out of 5