What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

Really good movie ruined by its promotional campaign. Don’t search for the poster (if you can) as it spoils the fun. Who allows such a thing? Why? Even the title gives a big hint which is not known from the start. The very sentence appears exactly in the middle of the movie… Very bad marketing.

But even if you saw the poster or photos while looking for this film, still watch it. It’s a surprisingly good, though literally unknown, gem with great acting, costumes and atmosphere of the 1930s. There is something in this decade that attracts the grotesque! (“The Day of the Locust”).

Helen (Shelley Winters) and Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) are two women whose sons commited a gruesome murder. The case is widely known, their faces appear in the media. After two young men’s conviction, the women move to Hollywood, change their names and open a dance school for girls. Pretty standard for anyone who wants to start anew: move to Hollywood or Las Vegas. At least that’s what American movies taught us.

Both women share similar names, but they personalities and appearances differ. Helen is calm, religious, anxious, and superstitious while Adelle is energetic, free-spirited and practical. One looks like an average, overweight middle-aged woman while the other is a slim and sexy dancer who is still in her prime. The two become friends because of their dark secret. While Adelle decides to move on, Helen is stuck in the past. Moreover, there seem to be a stalker nearby who wants the women to pay for their sons’ crime.

Whats the Matter with Helen_Debbie Reynolds___
Debbie Reynolds looks fabulous as a platinum blonde. Notice the costumes (nominated for an Oscar).

What’s the matter with the grotesque here, you may ask.

Firstly, 1930s child stars. “Toddlers and Tiaras” is nothing new. The appeal for child stars actually started with the growing popularity of cinema. With megastars like Jackie Coogan or Shirley Temple (and their small fortunes), the need for child actors increased. And so did the ambitions of many children’s parents. As shown in many satires of the time (again, “The Day of the Locust”), the past show business did not really differ much from the present one. Most of the children taught by Adelle are as untalented and oversexualized as contestants of today’s reality TV shows.

Whats the Matter with Helen_Mother and daughter
“Remember, the Warner Brothers are in the front row.”

A girl (pictured above on the right) is stylized as Mae West and sings “Oh, you nasty man!” and “Shame”! while wearing full makeup and a padded adult dress. All the time her moves are mimicked by her mother behind the scenes.

Secondly, the violence is shown in a grotesque way. Helen gets more and more disturbed. Every sharp object reminds her of the way her husband died.

“We were going to have a ride on the plow. And we started out. And then the harness seemed to come loose. And he got off to fix it. And something frightened the horses. And I couldn’t hold them. And the blades of the plow, they’re big and much sharper than they look. He fell. He fell. And Lenny saw it. He saw all of it and blamed me ever afterwards for not being able to save his father.”

The scene actually shows the bloody body and Winters’ delivery is memorable.

Whats the Matter with Helen_Debbie Reynolds_Shelley Winters
Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) and Helen (Shelley Winters).

If you remember my review of a Christmas movie “Whoever Slew Auntie Roo” (link here), you know how great Shelley Winters is when it comes to horror. “What’s the Matter…” came in the double DVD box together with “Whoever…” and they are an amazing double feature for any Winters fan. She plays two totally different, though undoubtedly troubled, characters. It’s worth noting that both movies had the same director, Curtis Harrington, who seemed to work exceptionally well with Winters.

This is a very female-centered movie: you’ve got two female protagonists and a bunch of mother and daughters are constantly at the background. What is more, two boys murdered a woman and were sentenced for this crime.

Women are always portrayed as victims. Victims of circumstances and of their (failed) roles as mothers. Victims of early sexualization. Victims of seductive men, stalkers and murderers. Finally, victims of madness and unfulfilled desires.

There appears a very strange scene when the handsome father of one of the girls, Linc Palmer (played with ease by Dennis Weaver), takes Adelle on a date. They are sitting in the club and the orchestra starts playing tango. She obviously wants to dance, but he says that he cannot. He spots a gigolo nearby and gestures him to come over. Then he pretends to agree upon the man asking her out to dance. They dance very passionately (it’s tango, after all), all the other guests stop and watch them. Linc observes it with a big smile as Adelle ends the dance in the contrived, semi-violent pose. I smell a connection with the pose of her son’s victim, who also has arms stretched out and actually looks like she is dancing. Given the fact that Adelle’s son blamed her for focusing on her dancing career rather than fulfilling her duties as a mother, these associations may not be accidental.

Whats the Matter with Helen_murder_victim
The murder victim.

 

Whats the Matter with Helen_Debbie Reynolds_tango
The creepy tango scene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the same time, I would not say that this movie is biased against either men or women. It just presents a coherent vision of reality that is psychologically, socially and historically justified. It also loves to throw a bunch of red herrings here and there. Not bad for a horror movie not many heard about.

Third grotesque aspect is religion represented by Sister Alma. She appears in flesh, but more often as a voice from the radio that Helen constantly listens to. She is judgmental and condemning while running a strictly commercial organization. An almost identical character appears in Day of the Locust. I found out both characters were actually based on a real person, Aimee Semple McPherson (also known as Sister Aimee), an evangelist and media celebrity in the 1920s and 1930s who was active in Los Angeles at that time. For those interested in this topic more, here is a good website dedicated to her (controversies included): http://www.aimeemcpherson.com/.

The last grotesque aspect is the twisted ending. I won’t spoil it as I’m not a member of the marketing team of the movie and it seems it was their job to do. Let’s just say the ending remains as creepy as it was over 40 years ago.

***

P.S. I hate to start anything with apology, so let me apologize you for my absence at the end of this post. I was gone for three months partly because a lot happened in my life recently (PhD studies, here I come!), but also partly because blogging turned out to be more demanding than I expected.

There is also this feeling of writing “into the wild”, that no one is reading this (even though I see that the stats are improving). Well, I chose to write about the topic that is not very popular, but I feel strongly about it. So I have to do my best. I won’t be blogging about lifestyle, cooking or fashion. So I cannot expect a huge readership.

At the same time, I feel responsible for what I write since literally no one blogs exclusively about the grotesque. It paralyzes me so much that I have a few posts that I never finished because I felt I had not done those movies or books the justice they deserve.

Still, I hope you can stay with me and come here from time to time to see what movies and books I recommend and what’s the matter with the grotesque. :) I thank you for reading, subscribing and commenting, it means a lot to me. I respect several real followers more than a thousand fake ones, especially since I write about such a narrow subject. Thank you for staying!

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3 thoughts on “What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

  1. How have I not heard of this?? I’m eagerly scouring now for a copy. Good luck with PhD endeavors. I know how school can totally wipe one out (I didn’t start a blog till after my grad school days). I know how you feel. I wonder what’s the point if no one is reading. Somehow, with every new post, more people catch on; something happens behind the scenes with Google and rankings and wordpress and posts will start appearing in people’s search results. Hopefully, it’s not too lame to say this, but over the years, my writing has gotten better and my review eye more astute. I know this is from just years of article writing for publications, but more importantly, from blog posts (I think they are the reason for finally bringing out my “own” voice in my other articles). So, there is definitely a perk to keeping a blog.

    Keep going! I’m a diehard follower.

    1. Thank you so much! You don’t even realize how much it means to me. You are one of the few real readers I had in mind. :)

      I agree, I can definitely see how my writing has been improving with every post. And you don’t get your “writing voice” right until you actually write…

      By the way, how can I call you? I’m afraid to nickname you “Acid” ;)

      1. Ha! Most people just write AFP in reply, but I’ll send you a DM on Twitter with my real identity (writing that made me feel slightly like a super hero)–this is mostly because I keep the blog separate from my published writing and editing duties.

        I’m having a wicked time trying to find this title. Unfortunately, the library and Netflix failed me.

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