Monday, 24 June 2013

What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

The success of Robert Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 unleashed a flood of horror movies starring older actresses. One of the later movies in this cycle was Curtis Harrington’s 1971 What’s the Matter with Helen?

It is the 1930s, and Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) and Helen (Shelley Winters) are the mothers of two young men who have just been convicted of a brutal murder. Helen is a widow. We aren’t told what has become of Adelle’s husband but he’s certainly long gone from her life. The murder trial has made them so notorious that they decide to get out of town, to go to Hollywood to start a new life. Adelle will open a dance academy for children. Helen will be her partner.

Another, even more pressing, reason for leaving town is that they are being stalked by an unknown man, presumably a man bent on some sort of revenge for the murder committed by their sons.

The dance academy prospers. They take on a third partner, Hamilton Starr (Micheál MacLiammóir). While Adelle teaches the little darlings to dance Hamilton will teach them elocution. As he explains, talking pictures seem to be here to stay so elocution is all-important. The mother of every student is convinced that her daughter will be the next Shirley Temple (which would seem to fix the period of the movie somewhere around the mid to late 1930s).

Not only is the dance academy doing well - Adelle has also met a man. Lincoln Palmer (Dennis Weaver) is the first man she’s met in years who has interested her. The only fly in the ointment is that Helen’s behaviour seems a little peculiar. Helen is very religious and it is implied that this has been at least partly responsible for her strange behaviour (the demonisation of Christianity was already well underway in Hollywood in the early 70s).

Helen’s behaviour becomes even more of a concern when she starts receiving letters, addressed to her under her real name but sent to her new Hollywood address. We know that something’s got to give, and of course it does.

Shelley Winters puts everything she’s got into her performance. It’s the sort of role she reveled in and she has no difficulty in matching the similar performances of actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in this genre. Helen is clearly an accident waiting to happen.

Debbie Reynolds is more of a problem. At 39 she was a tad too young for this kind of role and the fact that she looked even younger simply exacerbates the problem. There’s nothing wrong with her acting, in fact she’s very good indeed, but she’s just too young and glamorous and Adelle is too obviously psychologically healthy so we find ourselves focusing too much on Helen. In the one scene where Reynolds gets to appear haggard and temporarily unhinged she certainly does produce the goods.

Agnes Moorehead has a minor role as radio evangelist Sister Alma and as usual does her best to steal the picture. Dennis Weaver is adequate in the undemanding role of Adelle’s new love.

Curtis Harrington excelled at making understated psychological horror with an edge of weirdness. This movie is something of a slow-burner. Nothing horrific happens in the first half of the film but we get enough hints to tell us that trouble is brewing under the surface of Helen’s fragile sanity. When the latter part of the story calls for grand guignol excess both Harrington and his two stars are able to supply it.

The major weakness of the film is that Henry Farrell’s screenplay telegraphs its punches a bit too obviously. This flaw is magnified by the distributor’s bizarre choice of poster art that reveals a major spoiler (the poster I’ve chosen for this post was the only one I could find that didn’t reveal the spoiler). Farrell wrote the stories on which both Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte were based so he seems to have made something of a speciality of this sub-genre.

The sets and costumes are impressive (in fact Morton Haack scored an Oscar nomination for his costumes). The real highlight of the movie is the kiddy revue put on by Adelle’s dance academy. This is both the strangest and most disturbing sequence in the movie. In its own way its excessiveness almost approaches Ken Russell dimensions. It has to be said that the performances of the child actors are uniformly excellent. The kiddy revue proves the truth of the old acting adage that you should never act with children or animals because they’ll steal every scene they’re in.

The MGM Midnite Movies DVD release pairs this movie with another Curtis Harrington movie, his 1972 Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?. As usual there are no extras, and as usual the image quality is superb.

What’s the Matter with Helen? fails to achieve the magical and subtle weirdness of Harrington’s wonderful feature film debut Night Tide but it’s still a fun ride.

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