Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What's The Matter With Helen? (1971)

Reviewed By: Billy

In 1963, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? became an enormous hit and revived the careers of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. This, in turn, inspired an entire new sub-genre of horror, as over-the-hill female movie stars signed on to star in low-budget movies that made them look as ghastly as possible. Eventually, just about every big female star of the 40s and 50s ended up in one of these “old hag” movies: from Olivia de Havilland (Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte) to Tallulah Bankhead (Die! Die! My Darling!), and Barbara Stanwyck (The Night Walker) to Ruth Gordon & Geraldine Page (What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?), the women of Golden Tinseltown became the ladies of Tarnished Sleazeville.

Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds tossed their hats in the ring with 1971’s What’s the Matter with Helen?, one of the last of these movies (that is, until Sharon Stone revived the genre with Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction) and, I think, one of the best. Basically a re-write of Baby Jane (not surprising since the same guy, Henry Farrell, wrote them), Helen takes two old broads, adds in a backstory about murderous sons, sets it all in 1930s Hollywood…and even throws in crazy Agnes Moorehead as a televangelist for good measure. And damn if it’s not a hundred minutes of hag heaven!

Winters and Reynolds (pulling off the big/skinny odd couple thing like Laurel and Hardy in drag) play Helen and Adele, two mothers whose sons have been convicted of committing a gruesome murder together. The women – now the targets of media scrutiny and public scorn (you know, like Jazz Age Dina Lohans) – decide to start their lives over in grand old Hollywood, opening a dance studio where Adele teaches tap and Helen pounds along on the piano. Now, we should probably just call this what it is: a lame excuse to get Debbie “Singin’ In The Rain” Reynolds tap dancing. That's OK...but it also provides us with dozens of irritating child actors stamping around on the floor, including a full ten-minute Kiddie Revue, in which little girls imitate Shirley Temple, Mae West, and all do a tribute to the grand old red, white, and blue. OK…I realize this sounds insufferable, and…it is. But thankfully crazy old Helen freaks out backstage when she thinks she sees a dead body and screams the show to a crashing halt. This, among many other things, will really make you root for our gal Shelley.

Anyway…the “brand new start” in Hollywood doesn’t really work out (does it ever?) as someone begins calling and threatening the women, which leads Helen to go completely berserk. She starts listening to a radio televangelist (Sister Alma, played frightening well by Agnes Moorehead), obsessively raising bunnies in the backyard, and ends up killing some guy who walks into her house. Adele, meanwhile, has transformed herself into a glamour girl, sporting platinum blond hair and wearing big fur wraps, and is romancing one of her student’s father. Let’s just call this what it is: a lame excuse to let Debbie “Liz Taylor Stole My Husband” Reynolds show everyone how hot she still is. Anyway, with both women traveling in such different directions, you just know something bad is going to happen…and let’s just say Helen takes care of Adele in a way that would make Baby Jane very, very jealous.

Much of the success of What’s The Matter With Helen? is due to Curtis Harrington, a woefully underrated sleaze king who specialized in the “old hag” genre. This is the man who led Ann Sothern to new heights (and widths) in The Killing Kind and took Piper Laurie from de Palma’s skillfully bizarre Carrie to the gonzo nuts Ruby. Here, Harrington actually does a really good job of evoking the period (the costumes got an Oscar nomination) and working in some subtle winks to the audience (Reynolds gets a line mentioning Joan Crawford). At the same time, you never once forget you’re watching a B-movie…there’s a grainy, grimy quality that even Debbie’s blindingly bright hair and fake diamonds can’t mask. This combination of glitz-n-grunge works perfectly for the subject matter and the genre, and is a big reason the movie works so well.

But, of course, the only reason Helen has managed to survive the DVD age is due to its stars. If you know anything about Shelley Winters, then I probably don’t need to even describe her performance. Shelley Winters was never afraid to look bad and act bonkers, and she does both very well here. The performance, like Bette’s in Baby Jane, is so all over the place – over the top and around the farm and out the side door – that it threatens to overshadow its counterpart. But unlike Joan Crawford’s basically bland Blanche, Debbie Reynolds actually has a character to work with, and she more than holds her own…even when leading a group of pre-teen girls in a patriotic tap routine that is as nausea inducing as being on a boat during a hurricane.

So overall, Helen is kind of like Baby Jane’s less popular sister; she’s not as flashy or as pretty, but she’s got a good heart and she’s there when you need her. Yes, there are some pretty big script issues – i.e. the entire middle of the movie doesn’t really go anywhere and is just filling time until the shocking finale – and at an hour and 41 minutes, the movie’s about 20 minutes too long. But you have to love a movie that features Shelley Winters covered in blood and petting dead rabbits. So I say the next time you’ve got a hankering to see an over-the-hill star slumming it up, leave Risk Addiction on the shelf and take Helen out for a spin…you might be surprised at how well the old broad holds up.



  1. ...Helen, is one of my fave b-films of all time. What's not to love about this one?

    Shelly chewing up the scenery, Debbie going all platinum-blond-slut, Dennis Weaver as a love interest, and Agnes Moorehead playing someone suspiciously like Aimee Semple McPherson.

    And how about that damn song at the end of the movie, "Goody Goody" !

  2. Yes...this movie is so great. I watch far more often than I ever expected to.

    And not only is the song "Goody Goody" great, but I love that it was used as a bizarre tagline in the ad campaign.