The Butterfly Room has a bunch of really strange psychosexual elements lurking in the corners of its narrative. It is a story of motherly need and motherly domination, all tied into the inherently disturbing milieu of butterfly collecting. It also has an actress that has historically thrived in these kinds of films. But even with all that going for it, The Butterfly Room falls horrifically flat. The film fails to embrace the craziness of its story, stumbling instead in the depressingly boring playground of the generic horror movie.
Elderly, reclusive Ann (Barbara Steele) spends her days tending to her butterfly collection. The film documents her relationships with two young girls. The first is her neighbor Julie, who finds herself neglected as her mother pursues a new beau. And the second is Alice, an eleven year-old she encounters at the mall. Ann lavishes motherly affection on these two young girls, but that love soon transforms into something darker as she struggles to keep them under her thrall.
The story could have been interesting, but the movie isn't equipped to tell it. It bogs down a fairly straightforward narrative with a jumpy timeline that only serves to confuse things. The sequence of events becomes pretty murky, the film unable to distinguish between flashbacks and stuff that's happening in the present. The film also struggles to handle its twists, all of the big revelations landing with a major thud.
The direction is really at fault here. It seems to be aping the aesthetics of more recent horror movies, when the story seems to veer closer to the camp sensibilities of the 60s and 70s European horror film. It's the kind of weird, identifiably Freudian horror story that would feel very much at home inside the catalog of Italian gothic horror films. But the film operates as if it were just another generic tale of ghosts popping up in corners. Colors are muted, and the sound design is stuck in the “foreboding” gear.
The film's Italian horror heritage is cemented in its casting of Barbara Steele in the lead role. Steele is a legend of the genre, her indomitable visage gracing many films of the era. Here she feels like a fish out of water, though she offers much in the way of personality. The effort she puts into the role makes the generic directorial choices even more disappointing. Steele is best when things get surreal and operatic, the actress always rising to even the most unreachable heights. The film keeps her somewhat subdued, and it's a poor use of this legend's talents.
The Butterfly Room gets pretty ridiculous in the end, heading into a climax that simply cannot be discussed without laughing. But the movie doesn't rise to the level of the scene, the direction continuing to play it straight even as things get straight up bonkers. I'd have liked to see this material in the hands of someone like James Gunn or Sam Raimi. Or really, any director that has a style beyond the homogeneous dimness of the modern horror picture.