What’s the Matter With Helen? (1971)

What’s the Matter With Helen? (1971)

“Helen, you do act like a killjoy sometimes.”

When the mothers (Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters) of two convicted murderers receive threatening phone calls, they flee to Hollywood, where they establish a song-and-dance studio for aspiring kid stars. Reynolds finds happiness by dating a wealthy admirer (Dennis Weaver), but Winters’ increasingly unstable mental state puts both their lives at risk.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Agnes Moorehead Films
  • Debbie Reynolds Films
  • Hollywood
  • Horror
  • Mental Breakdown
  • Shelley Winters Films

What’s the Matter With Helen? was written by Henry Farrell, best known for penning the Grand Guignol classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and its successor, 1964’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (based on his short story “Whatever Happened to Cousin Charlotte?”). Farrell was clearly interested in milking the theme of “things happening” to middle-aged women with troublesome pasts — yet unlike in either …Jane or …Charlotte, it’s obvious from the beginning of …Helen which of the two female leads will eventually show evidence of having a few too many screws loose.

While …Helen? offers some enjoyment in its recreation of 1930s Hollywood — complete with eerie Shirley Temple- and Mae West-wannabes dancing their hearts out for hypothetical talent scouts in the audience — it ultimately fails to generate the same type of twisted energy as its cinematic predecessors, due primarily to the rather tame central relationship between Winters and Reynolds. Ironically, 40-year-old Debbie Reynolds’ uber-trim, youthful appearance (she looks not a day over 30) works to her detriment here, given that she never comes across as either middle-aged or pathetic — and her friendship with Winters, based purely on the circumstance of their sons’ hideous crime, lacks the emotional gravity of the contentious familial relationships grounding both …Jane and …Charlotte.

As a result, Winters’ gradual descent into madness exists in a weird parallel universe to the somewhat mundane path taken by Reynolds (who seems to want to be in a romantic musical — note her two impressive dance scenes). There’s some tension to be had in the underlying question of who’s been making threatening calls to the two ladies, and whether or not Reynolds’ convenient new love interest (nicely played by Dennis Weaver) will care about her grown son’s infamous record — but a potential subplot about Winters’ obsession with a charismatic female evangelist (Agnes Moorehead in a criminally small cameo) sadly fails to go anywhere, and the climactic ending, while shocking, feels like a bit of an emotional cheat.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective 1930s set designs and (Oscar-nominated) costumes
  • The surreal “kiddy revue”
  • Dennis Weaver as “Linc”

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a one-time look.


One thought on “What’s the Matter With Helen? (1971)

  1. Not a must.

    I saw this when I was in high school. It no doubt worked for teen ffs at the time, but modern ffs in general expect so much more from this type of material – and, seeing it now, its deficiencies are glaring. The murders, for example, are as fake-looking as those in William Castle movies (was ketchup actually used?). ‘What’s…’ takes itself more seriously than Castle himself ever did.

    The film becomes forgettable even as you’re watching. I’d forgotten it was penned by Farrell. Certainly not a shining moment in his career – this one really can just be skipped.

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