A uniquely stylish horror fest from the late Curtis Harrington. WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? contains little in the way of terror or suspense, but is a wildly enjoyable romp through old Hollywood, with two old time actresses, Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds, hamming it up magnificently.
WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971) was one of several knock-offs of the phenomenally successful WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) to appear during the sixties and seventies—that is to say, psychothrillers headlined by middle-aged starlets (other include HUSH…HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, STRAIGHT JACKET and DEAR DEAD DELILAH). This one had the advantage of having been scripted by BABY JANE writer Henry Farrell and directed by the talented Curtis Harrington.
Already a ten year veteran of the horror/thriller genres (with standout works like NIGHT TIDE and GAMES), with this film Harrington began his habit of putting aging starlets through their paces. HELEN’S headliners were the seasoned veterans Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters, along with Agnes Moorhead (who was deemed a “formidable” personality by Harrington). Harrington’s like-minded follow-ups included WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, again starring Winters, and RUBY with Piper Laurie.
Adelle and Helen are both middle-aged mothers of convicted murderers. Living together and suffering persecution, they decide to relocate to Hollywood in an effort to escape their respective pasts, complete with new names and hairstyles. Once there Adelle takes to teaching a tap dancing class with Helen as her assistant.
Adelle begins dating the dashing Lincoln, or Linc, whose daughter is a student of Adelle’s, and thinks she’s found the man of her dreams. The dour and possessive Helen, alas, doesn’t share her enthusiasm. Adelle comes to suspect that Helen is trying to sabotage her relationship with Linc, while Helen argues that Linc knows of their husbands’ transgressions and may be looking for revenge.
After a particularly violent row Adelle orders Helen to leave their apartment. But before she does so a strange man enters bearing a mysterious letter; thinking he’s looking to do her harm, the thoroughly unhinged Helen pushes the letter-bearer down the stairs. When Adelle returns from work it’s her turn to go nuts upon discovering Helen’s handiwork–and the fact that the letter the man was delivering was from a relative granting Helen a large sum of money!
From there Helen takes refuge in religious mania while Adelle desperately tries to keep up a façade of normalcy. “All I want” she tells Helen, “is for you to get well as soon as possible…and then go away as far as possible!” But Helen has far deadlier ideas.
WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?, despite flaws (of which it contains its share), must be counted as one of Curtis Harrington’s most inspired works. The visuals are bright and gauzy, and Harrington has a ball with the glitz and artifice of his forties-era Hollywood sets. The atmosphere is sufficiently delirious and obsessive, which fits the outrageous script perfectly. In direct contrast to the makers of most seventies horror fests, Harrington paid his screenwriter the supreme compliment of not taking his work too seriously.
Of course this means the film is never particularly scary or shocking, especially since the passage of time has rendered many of its “shocks” redundant. What resonates is the campy, deliberately overwrought atmosphere in which both lead actresses go totally bonkers.
Shelley Winters proves, not for the first time, that she’s got a real gift for cinematic hysteria (her end-scene piano playing is unforgettable), but the real revelation is Debbie Reynolds. Despite her advanced age, this onetime Hollywood sex symbol still looks quite foxy, and manages to hold her own with Winters, arguably the grand madam of screen psychettes.
WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?
Director: Curtis Harrington
Producer: George Edwards
Screenplay: Henry Farrell
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Editing: William H. Reynolds
Cast: Shelley Winters, Debbie Reynolds, Dennis Weaver, Michael MacLiammoir, Agnes Moorhead, Helene Winston, Peggy Rea, Logan Ramsey, Swen Swenson, Timothy Carey, Sammee Lee Jones, Robbi Morgan