What’s the Matter With Helen? directed by Curtis Harrington
One of the more curious subcategories of the horror field, the genre known as hagsploitation (sometimes called psycho-biddy films, Grande Dame Guignol and, as my buddy Rob calls it, aging-gargoyle movies) got its jump start with the release of the seminal What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, in 1962. After the success of that truly remarkable film, the crone gates were opened, and it was quickly followed by others, in which formerly glamorous actresses, now advanced in years, got to play aging biddies on the verge of madness. Such films as Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964, with Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Agnes Moorehead), Strait-Jacket (also ’64, with Crawford again) and What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice (’69, with Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon) proved marvelous entertainments, and thus, as the ’70s began, the hagsploitation genre showed no signs of abatement. Case in point: What’s the Matter With Helen?, which opened in June ’71 and starred yet two more former beauties, Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds, going hysterically bonkers for the audience’s delectation.
Unlike Baby Jane, which had begun in the 1930s and flashed forward to modern times, the film in question transpires entirely in the ’30s. As the film opens, the viewer sees, on a news reel, footage of the distraught Adelle Bruckner (Reynolds) and Helen Hill (Winters), whose sons have just been sentenced to life in prison for the thrill killing of a woman in the town of Braddock, Iowa. The two women, after receiving death threats from a mysterious stranger on the phone, decide to change their names and move to Hollywood, where Adelle opens a dance school for young Shirley Temple wannabes, with Helen acting as her assistant. All seems to go well, although Helen is convinced that a stranger is watching them with evil designs. Adelle even starts to date a handsome rich Texan, Linc Palmer (played by a suave and excellent Dennis Weaver, who was just beginning his McCloud stint on TV), much to Helen’s resentment and seething jealousy. But soon enough, things start to go very wrong, as Helen begins to hallucinate, confesses to Adelle that she had murdered her husband many years before, and starts to become enraptured by the voice of a female radio evangelist. Inevitably, her crack-up is NOT a pleasant one for all concerned…
What’s the Matter With Helen? manages to keep a light tone throughout its initial first half, and the viewer begins to wonder if this is indeed a horror film that he/she is watching or not. That first half even manages to shoehorn in a girls’ dance recital (Adelle’s so-called Kiddy Star Revue), although there are surely signs of creeping unease to be had, such as Helen’s murderous revelation, the startling arrival of a tramp at Adelle’s doorway (the great character actor Timothy Carey), and Helen’s frightening visions.
The film reserves its truly gruesome horrors for the final 15 minutes, and I cannot say that all the characters here get what they deserve — especially Adelle — but that just makes the film even more horrifying. Although the film is an unqualified addition to the hagsploitation genre, Debbie Reynolds’ Adelle surely does not look anything like an old crone here; in fact, she is quite gorgeous, especially after moving to Hollywood and assuming a Jean Harlow-like blonde hairdo. Reynolds was pushing 40 here, and a good 20 years past her Singin’ in the Rain breakthrough, but nevertheless gets to show off her remarkable hoofing abilities, performing a frenetic jitterbug as well as a sexy tango. She easily steals the first half of the picture, although 50-year-old Winters, naturally, walks away with the second.
Besides these two, 70-year-old Agnes Moorehead gets to shine in her brief role as that evangelist; Michael MacLiammoir, who the gals hire to give elocution lessons at their school, does an astoundingly good Sydney Greenstreet imitation; and Star Trek alumnus Logan Ramsey contributes a good bit as a police detective. Also in the cast is cult actress Yvette Vickers, as one of the mothers of those young girls; I must confess that I did NOT recognize her as the film proceeded. What’s the Matter With Helen? has been well directed by Curtis Harrington and offers up a winning script from Henry Farrell, who had written the original Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? novel in 1960, as well as the screenplay for Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte. The film’s theme music by David Raksin, sadly, is fairly unmemorable; at least, as compared to his gorgeous and classic theme for 1944’s Laura, admittedly one of the finest of all time.
The film balances itself just on the right side of camp without teetering over, and like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, reserves some genuine surprises for the viewer until the very end. It is, overall, a very entertaining experience. Now I find myself wanting to see still another psycho-biddy film that Winters appeared in in ’71, also directed by Harrington: Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? Stay tuned…