The Butterfly Room (2012), written and directed by Jonathan Zarantonello, an Italian actor/director, in his first English-language film; starring Barbara Steele, Ray Wise, Heather Langenkamp, and Erika Leerhsen. This low-budget indie with a memorable plot and characters marks the return of Barbara Steele, the legendary Queen of 60s Gothic Horror, to leading lady status after years of sporadic cameos and “guest appearances” in small films. And boy, does she make the most of it!
As Ann, Babs expertly plays a wicked, wicked woman who is also capable of eliciting pity and pathos from the audience in this unique, giallo-flavored slasher film. Ann is a fairly well-off but very lonely widow living in a so-so Los Angeles apartment complex, who collects butterflies for a hobby. She’s also a rigid perfectionist who explodes into a violent rage when her high standards of behavior and hygiene are breeched. The story is told with frequent flashbacks in three different timelines, so it does take some effort to follow along, but it’s not all that confusing once the viewer catches onto the format.
The three timelines include the present, which focuses on Ann’s relationship with a neglected neighbor girl of about twelve, named Julie; the near past, which tells the story of Ann’s relationship with another girl of the same age, named Alice; and the distant past, which shows the troubled relationship of Ann and her now-grown, but estranged daughter, Dorothy (Langenkamp, from the original Nightmare On Elm Street, 1984.) The film begins with an appalling flashback to Ann violently punishing her young daughter for getting her period in the bathtub (although we don’t know it’s Ann until much later.) Then the timeline switches to the present day, when Ann rescues the neglected Julie, who has been locked out of her own apartment while her mother (Leerhsen, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2003) is on a date. Ann gives Julie a safe place to do her homework every day after school, complete with cookies and orange juice, but with one strict instruction: never go alone into “The Butterfly Room.” (This refers to Ann’s second bedroom, which she’s converted into a museum for her extensive butterfly collection.)
While Ann’s relationship with Julie develops, she encounters a workman who’s doing some repairs on the building. The workman innocently remarks that he saw Ann arguing with another girl months ago. Ann asks him up to her Butterfly Room on a pretext, and then promptly sprays him to death with some deadly chemical from her store of butterfly-killing supplies. Later, we find out that the other girl was Alice, who used to study at Ann’s apartment after school, much like Julie.
Flashbacks tell the story of Alice and Ann: Alice spends weekly time with Ann, in exchange for an ever-increasing “allowance.” Things later turn sour, however, when Ann discovers that Alice has the same lucrative relationship with other lonely, older women. And that’s when Ann’s body count (which frankly, I lost track of) first starts to pile up. Throughout the film, she murders indiscriminately and recklessly; first, for exclusive access to Alice (and later to Julie), and second, to cover up her crimes. The bloody trail of corpses eventually leads to a final confrontation between Ann and her grown daughter, Dorothy, and the creepy revelation of what’s really lurking within The Butterfly Room. (Hint: In an early scene, she buys taxidermy supplies.)
Some critics have carped that Steele (74 at the time of filming) was too old to realistically play such a physically demanding part, but she doesn’t look much past 60; in fact, she looks fantastic for her age. Also, her character’s murders all employ the element of surprise rather than physical strength, such as the sudden killing of the workman. Beyond these considerations, Steele’s performance as Ann is complex and compelling; her character acts by turns prim, stern, kindly, tragic, and batshit crazy.
The final scene—anti-climactic after the grand confrontation—is a little weak; I would have left it off altogether. Most of the film is intriguing and well-done, however, especially for those who like Italian-style suspense/horror. (There is apparently an Italian version of this film, as well as the English one, which is only fitting, since Babs first made her mark in Italian horror films like Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, 1960.) Viewers should keep an eye out for supporting roles by various scream queens from 80s slasher films, and for the legendary horror director, Joe Dante, (Gremlins, 1984) in a cameo as a taxi driver. Plus, there’s ol’ Leland Palmer himself, Ray Wise, who gives good support as the suspicious work crew foreman who clashes with Ann. IMDb viewers gave this film only a 5.3, but I think that’s sadly underrated (a lot of people probably had problems with the non-linear plotline and frequent flashbacks.) For me, it’s a 7/10; streaming at Amazon.