Review: What’s the Matter with Helen?

The layers of pastiche that fuel the film multiply like the titular character’s fat white rabbits.

What’s the Matter with Helen?
Photo: Solomon International Pictures

The layers of pastiche that fuel What’s the Matter with Helen? multiply like the titular character’s fat white rabbits. In fashioning a flapper-era psycho-shocker with muted sepia tones and two histrionic performances from slumming movie starlets, director Curtis Harrington (then also involved in the filming of Orson Welles’s lost project The Other Side of the Wind) and screenwriter Henry Farrell were some years too early for the big ’70s nostalgia fad for the American Depression years, and the film was far too late to stand shoulder with Robert Aldrich’s trend-setters Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte as a representative example of “diva-bitch Hollywood gothic” cinema.

Shelly Winters and Debbie Reynolds star as Helen and Adelle, the mothers of two murderers—two Leopold and Loeb-esque queens, probably, considering their high-maintenance mothers—who run away to Hollywood to escape the high profile life of flashbulbs and psychotic reporters begging for interviews. (For what it’s worth, Hollywood would’ve been my first choice too.) Adelle opens a dance studio for little Shirley Temples-in-training and Winters’s Helen accompanies on the piano, otherwise spending most of Harrington’s film clutching a ratty Bible and gradually losing her marbles while Adelle makes like the next Jean Harlow.

Whereas Debbie loses major points for trying to play her role straight, Shelly would appear to be using the film as a feature-length audition for her role in the following year’s disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure. (Swap out that crucifix around her neck for a Star of David and feature Gene Hackman pushing her meaty thighs through the inside of an aluminum Christmas tree, and there’s your Oscar nomination.) Like she did in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Agnes Moorehead cunningly uses her extended cameo as a third-wheel diva and milks it for all it’s worth, playing a radio evangelist who sings hymns in a riotous tenor harmony. As to the question of the film’s title, I think all of us at Slant would safely reason that it must’ve been a major mental strain to have to teach an entire brigade of yesterday’s Dakota Fannings to sing “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” and murdering a few people is a completely forgivable release.

Score: 
 Cast: Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters, Dennis Weaver, Agnes Moorehead, Micheál MacLiammóir, Samee Lee Jones, Robbi Morgan, Helene Winston, Molly Dodd, Peggy Rea, Yvette Vickers, Paulle Clark, Pamelyn Ferdin  Director: Curtis Harrington  Screenwriter: Henry Farrell  Distributor: Solomon International Pictures  Running Time: 101 min  Rating: GP  Year: 1971  Buy: Video

Eric Henderson

Eric Henderson is the web content manager for WCCO-TV. His writing has also appeared in City Pages.

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