Grand Dame Guignol: WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (United Artists 1971)

The recent FX mini-series FEUD has sparked a renewed interest in the “Older Actresses Doing Horror” genre, also known by the more obnoxious sobriquettes “Hagsploitaion” or “Psycho-Biddy” movies. This peculiar film category lasted from 1962’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? until winding down around the early Seventies. 1971’s WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? came towards the end of the cycle, a creepy little chiller with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters   getting caught up in murder and madness in 1930’s Hollywood.

I wouldn’t exactly call Debbie Reynolds a “hag”; she was only 39 when this was filmed, and still quite a hottie, especially when glammed-up in a Jean Harlow “Platinum Blond” wig. Deb gets to show off her tap-dancing and tangoing in a few scenes, showing off her still amazing legs for good measure. She and Shelley play a pair of Iowa mothers who (as the opening newsreel footage tells us) have spawned two killer sons that slaughtered a young girl and got sentenced to life in prison. Harassed by angry mobs and receiving threatening phone calls, Adelle (Debbie) and Helen (Shelley) decide to go west and open a dancing school for aspiring Shirley Temple types in Tinsletown.

Changing their last names, Adelle and Helen rent a studio, and soon an oddball unemployed ham named (appropriately enough) Hamilton Starr worms his way into a position as voice coach. Linc Palmer, rich father of one of Adelle’s no-talent pupils, takes an interest in her, while Helen withdraws from the world, finding solace in her pet rabbits and the religious radio broadcasts of Sister Alma (played by Agnes Moorehead, whose genre credits include HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE   and DEAR DEAD DELIALH).

Helen is still getting those threatening phone calls, and seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Adelle suspects Helen of sending a newspaper clipping of her sordid past to Linc, and comes home to find blood smeared on a cardboard cut-out of her. She demands Helen leave, and walks out in a huff. A knock on the door finds a man who knows Helen’s real name, and as he walks up the staircase, the frightened, freaked out woman pushes him to his doom. Adelle returns, discovering the horror, and helps Helen get rid of the body.

Helen is now truly cracking up, and not even Sister Alma can save her (“There is no forgiveness for me”). After Adelle receives a marriage proposal from Linc, she arrives back home to discover her bedroom trashed, and blood all over the bathroom. Following a trail of blood down the bannister to the backyard, she gasps as she sees Helen’s pet rabbits all slaughtered in their coops. Then Helen appears, blood on the front of her nightgown, and…

And you’ll have to watch the movie to find out (although that poster up top may give you a clue). Shelley Winters was said to have been having a real-life nervous breakdown while shooting this film, and her acting is more restrained than usual at this stage of her career. She certainly had me convinced she was going bonkers but, given the circumstances, it probably wasn’t that much of a stretch for her. There’s a subtle but noticeable lesbian subtext in Helen’s reliance on Adelle, deftly handled by both ladies. Shelley had previous appeared in THE MAD ROOM, and went on to star in WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, and overcame her breakdown to continue a long career.

Linc is played by Dennis Weaver, taking a break from MCCLOUD to portray Debbie’s lover. Flamboyant Irish thespian Michael MacLiammoir plays the flamboyant Hamilton Starr in a clear case of typecasting (though he did remind me a bit of Sydney Greenstreet). Another oddball actor, Timothy Carey , has a cameo as a down-on-his-luck bum. Pamelyn Ferdin, Logan Ramsey, Peggy Rea, and the immortal Yvette Vickers   all pop up in small parts.

Henry Farrell, whose novel served as the basis for BABY JANE, wrote the spooky screenplay, as he did with SWEET CHARLOTTE. He also did the teleplays for HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALAN (with Julie Harris and Anthony Perkins) and THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE (Barbara Stanwyck). Director Curtis Harrington was a huge horror buff responsible for the atmospheric NIGHT TIDE, QUEEN OF BLOOD, GAMES, and the TV Movies THE CAT CREATURE, KILLER BEES (with Gloria Swanson!), and DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL. DP Lucian Ballard isn’t a name usually associated with horror films, but he dabbled occasionally early in his career (1942’s THE UNDYING MONSTER, ’44’s THE LODGER), so he knew the territory fairly well.

WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? is kitschy fun, with Debbie and Shelley enjoying a good, gruesome romp together. Keep a lookout for more of these “Psycho-Biddy” films on TCM and elsewhere, featuring Golden Age stars like Bette, Joan , Barbara, Agnes, Olivia, Tallulah, Miriam , even Gloria Grahame… just watch out for hidden knives!

 

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