The Anniversary was the second movie that Bette Davis made in Britain for Hammer Films, and it’s classic Bette Davis. This one is not a horror film, it’s a black comedy, but she still plays a monster.
Mrs Taggart (Davis) is about to celebrate her 40th wedding anniversary with her family. It’s going to be quite a celebration. Her idea of a good time is psychologically torturing her three sons and any woman unwise enough to marry into this bizarre family (her husband is long dead). Mostly it’s just too easy. Her sons are so down-trodden they rarely put up much resistance, which is why Mrs Taggart is grateful for the presence of second son Terry’s wife Karen (Sheila Hancock). Karen is more spirited than the sons and she hates her mother-in-law like poison. That makes things much more fun.
Although we don’t know this at the beginning of the film, there’s a weird annual ritual associated with the anniversary. Each year her youngest son Tom brings along his intended bride. It’s a different one each year. And each year Ma Taggart psychologically disembowels the luckless fiancée, which is why it’s a different one each year. Mrs Taggart particularly looks forward to this part of the celebration. This year it’s Shirley (Elaine Taylor), but this time the bride-to-be is pregnant which promises to add some spice to the evening.
Terry and Karen have finally had enough and are emigrating to Canada with their five children. That’s the plan anyway. Even they don’t really believe they’ll get away with it. Mrs Taggart has no intention of allowing any escapes from her queendom.
Eldest son Henry has found his own way to deal with all this. He has a hobby. Unfortunately his hobby is cross-dressing. As you might imagine, being a transvestite makes him an appealing target for his mother’s awesome vicious wit.
Shirley realises early on that she’s wandered into the family from Hell but she doesn’t realise just how crazy things are until she goes upstairs to the guest room to change and finds Henry lying on the bed in her lingerie.
The family business is part of the hold Mrs Taggart has over her sons. Taggart Homes specialises in erecting jerry-built houses that have usually already started falling to pieces before their unfortunate purchasers have even moved in. This shonky building business only adds to the self-loathing of the Taggart brothers.
Mrs Taggart’s idea of an amusing joke is to tell Karen that she’s had a telephone call informing her that Karen’s children have been involved in a horrific car accident are now in hospital in a critical condition. And she’s only just started the evening’s festivities - she’s just warming up. Shirley will be her main target. Shirley turns out to be more feisty than expected. Mrs Taggart is delighted. This will be a challenge. This evening will be even more entertaining than she anticipated.
Davis is magnificent. With Bette Davis in full flight you might think the other players would be overshadowed but fortunately the film has a very strong cast
The movie was based on a stage play and while it’s very theatrical it doesn’t seem excessively stagey. Director Roy Ward Baker wisely avoids trying to do anything fancy. With a sparkling script by Jimmy Sangster and a great cast he doesn’t need to - anything ostentatious in the directing would have distracted the audience from the performances. Production designer Reece Pemberton provides a wonderful set.
Hammer had had a success with their first Bette Davis star vehicle in 1965, the superb psychological horror thriller The Nanny. Perhaps this explains the commercial failure of The Anniversary - it wasn’t the movie audiences were expecting. But it’s aged extremely well, like a very fine very rich port.
The humour is dark and cruel but this is a very funny movie which never becomes depressing. This is a true camp classic and a must for Bette Davis fans.