1970's, Agnes Moorehead, Curtis Harrington, Debbie Reynolds, Dennis Weaver, Micheál Mac Liammóir, Shelley Winters, Thriller, What’s the Matter with Helen?
I was invited to take part in a blogathon to pay tribute to the great Shelley Winters by Gill and Erica . My first entry will be of the Grand Guignol thriller What’s the Matter with Helen? I’m doing this review early as I’m very busy and away on holiday next week.
A campy, enjoyable and creepy thriller that is not afraid to be over the top, What’s the Matter with Helen? finds the pairing of Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters. It’s not a perfect movie and hardly vintage, bu t it has its moments and the performances, particularly from Winters, are where it’s at.
Its the 1930’s and two boys commit a horrible murder. The boys are the sons of good friends Helen Hill( Shelley Winters) and Adelle Bruckner(Debbie Reynolds). After the boys are convicted, the two mothers are hounded ferociously and someone even starts stalking them. Terrified and wanting to start over, Adelle and Helen move to Hollywood and change both their looks and last names. This is all an attempt to escape their collective past and hopefully start afresh by opening a dance school for promising young girls wanting to be the next Shirley Temple. Adelle is the stronger of the two though she’s clearly on the make for money and success why she’s at it, while Helen is fragile and prone to aspects of paranoia. Having assumed different identities, things seem on the up for Adelle and Helen as no one knows them and life looks brighter. Adelle finds herself attracted to Lincoln Palmer( Dennis Weaver), the wealthy father of one of her students. He sweeps her off her feet and Adelle is soon seeing herself in line to success and money. Things are harder on Helen who really struggles with letting go of the past and finds herself growing ever more disturbed by life, specifically the relationship with Lincoln that Adelle finds herself in. She believes that someone is still stalking her and Adelle and begins to emotionally evaporate. Trying to cling to her religion helps stifle some of it but soon things spin wildly out of control for everyone surrounding and including Helen.
Curtis Harrington is in the director’s chair and does a serviceable job combining thriller with old school melodrama. It’s not award winning direction, but it has a sense of place and feeling which stand it in good stead and once he hits the creepy areas, he shines. What’s the Matter with Helen? is trying to emulate the enormous success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte and it has atmosphere going for it . While it never quite reaches the levels of the previous films mentioned( sometimes the narrative throws too much too quickly at us, not knowing when to stop and the pacing is left a bit wonky), What’s the Matter with Helen? still has its virtues. This starts with atmosphere which is a strong suit of this film and something that undoubtedly leaves you more than a little tense. It really hits the best moments near the 45 minute mark and from then on, everything begins to escalate and build towards a startling finish. The setting of the 30’s is rendered with a good amount of detail that shows it as a glamorous yet often sinister place, backed up by the darkness in the story that befalls both leading ladies. The settings reflect this with darkness pervading many of them but the sheen of starry gold of bright lights remains. We even get old newsreels to begin the film which is a nice touch that thrusts us into the story. Props to the visual department and set designs for bringing the 30’s to life as a backdrop to something much darker. The tone features the off the wall and melodrama of films like it in the past and that’s what makes it watchable. The fact it can be seriously creepy then campy is pretty nifty, even if not intentional. And things are really turned up to the max as the film progresses, with over the top antics and strange happenings taking full stage and unashamedly so. It won’t be to all tastes, but these kinds of movies usually are ones people either love or don’t. The score is wonderfully eerie at not being overly intrusive but when called for, ringing through with a sense of terror and irony.
Its the acting that is one of the strong suits in the uneven but watchable narrative. Shelley Winters is the clear standout with a performance that builds little by little towards cracking. You can gather that Helen is unstable but it’s the portrayal from the professional that is Miss Winters that truly gives it its magic. Her dour, melancholy demeanour is adept at charting the mental disintegration of a haunted woman and with a raised voice here and a questionable antic there, Winters knows how to invoke both sympathy and chills. Debbie Reynolds is no slouch either as the dramatic, self-obsessed Adelle, who truly dreams of making it big. We are so used to seeing Reynolds as a sweet faced and innocent lady that it’s a kick to see her portray someone who isn’t exactly the nicest of people. Plus she gets to show off her considerable singing and dancing skills which can’t be denied. Dennis Weaver is appropriately smooth and suave as the businessman wooing Adelle, but not realising its beginning to drive a wedge between the two old friends. Micheál Mac Liammóir is wonderfully imposing as an elocution teacher who always seems to turn up at the wrong time and creep everyone out.
Agnes Moorehead, in a mainly one scene performance, is sensational as an evangelist who Helen follows to the letter of the law. I love her scene as she gives it all forgiveness and being generous, when she’s really just avaricious.
A finely acted that isn’t going to pass as high art but is an enjoyably creepy and gleefully dramatic slice of psycho biddy thriller with Debbie Reynolds and the wonderful Shelley Winters going all out.