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!

5 Creepy and Grotesque Christmas Movies

Christmas movies are usually supposed to make you feel good while presenting kind and warm image of families joined by the Christmas spirit. It is the idea that is imprinted in our minds by the media, advertisements, and commercial tradition. We encourage it ourselves, gathering together at this time of the year and trying to fulfill the ideal of “Merry Christmas. ” But what all this sweetness just asks for are exaggeration and satire. When traditional Christmas imagery gets distorted it leaves us puzzled or even uneasy. Here I give you 5 entertaining  movies that present a grotesque picture of Christmas.

1. Christmas Evil (1980)

"Christmas Evil" poster

A man obsessed with Santa Claus, toys, and children in his neighborhood, decides that in the world devoid of true Christmas spirit, he will be the perfect Santa Claus that will make good children happy and punish adult non-believers. With a knife and an axe.

Probably the best of horrors featuring Santa Claus killer (there are many more movies with such a character, if you want more, I recommend Bloody Disgusting list: http://bloody-disgusting.com/news/18511/), Christmas Evil is a great B movie which presents a truly disturbed individual who nevertheless earns our sympathy. After all, he tries to help neglected children from the hospital or reward nice kids with beautiful toys he makes. He says: “I only have good intentions” and we want to believe him. At the same time, he remains infantile and wants others to remain such, in order to repair his childhood memories, damaged by sexual trauma.

Brandon Maggart in "Christmas Evil"
Brandon Maggart in “Christmas Evil”

An unsure man, he gains confidence only when in the red-and-white costume. Brandon Maggart’s acting reaches far beyond usual B movie stuff, believably presenting increasing madness of the protagonist.

2.  The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" poster

I have a love-hate attitude towards Tim Burton’s movies, but I love this one. It has all wonderful qualities that make Burton’s universe original, engaging and fascinatingly creepy. It tells the story of Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, who gets bored with doing the same performance every year for Halloween. But when he discovers Christmas Town, he decides that all monstrous (or even dead) citizens of Halloween Town should try to celebrate a new holiday. With their usual scary approach towards decoration and gifts.

Jack Skellington as Santa Claus
Jack Skellington as Santa Claus

When you want a perfectly animated mix of comedy, horror, and musical, choose this movie. There is also a nod towards Bride of Frankenstein and the result is Sally, a character truly beloved by fans of the movie. Paradoxically, though monsters of Halloween Town get a very incorrect notion of Christmas décor, the movie reaches the spirit of Christmas all right.

3. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972)

"Whoever Slew Auntie Roo" 1971 poster

This is a bizarre take on Hansel and Gretel story. Auntie Roo, an American widow, gives an annual lavish Christmas party in her Gothic mansion. Good children from the local orphanage are chosen to go there. But this year, naughty brother and sister, Christopher and Katy, sneak into the party uninvited. They will be the ones that discover the secrets of the old house and its inhabitants. Moreover, Katy reminds Auntie Roo of her dead daughter. And nobody knows what exactly happened to the daughter…

Christopher and Katy vs. the evil witch
Christopher and Katy vs. the evil witch

If you like old-fashioned plots where children are the only ones who know the truth, and no adult person believes them (think “The Night of the Hunter” *) , you will love this movie. The setting is creepy and Shelley Winters is marvelously over-the-top as the title character who is mentally unstable but at the same time pitiful. Child actors also do their best, the boy (played by child star Mark Lester) is clever and caring, the girl sweet and adorable. At the same time, the movie is ambiguous in the same way as Hansel and Gretel story is. If you want a horror movie that is appropriate for children, I suggest this flick.

*interestingly, that movie also starred Shelley Winters, but as an innocent victim, not a villain

4. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Rare Exports, 2010)

"Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" poster

A harsh climate of the Korvatunturi mountains in Finland hides the old secret of Christmas. American expedition comes to dig it up. They soon find out what they were looking for and, apparently, disappear. Finnish reindeer hunters living nearby face a series of strange events. The only person who knows what’s going on is a small son of one of the hunters who reads some interesting legends about the real, monstrous, Santa Claus. Tagline of the movie: “This Christmas Everyone Will Believe In Santa Claus.” Ho ho ho.

"Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale" - Illustration
An illustration that suggests the truth about Santa

A weird movie if there ever was one. And not for children, even though the main character is a very clever boy, played convincingly by Onni Tommila (who also stars in the upcoming movie “Big Game” with Samuel L. Jackson http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2088003/?ref_=nmmd_ph_tt1). Weird, because it mixes many genres: family movie, adventure film, horror, and comedy. There are also a few really grotesque scenes. This mixture does not always work, nevertheless the movie is really entertaining and worth watching. It will make you reconsider the character of Santa Claus for sure.

5. The Day of the Beast (El día de la bestia, 1995)

"The Day of the Beast" Spanish poster

The most grotesque of all five movies, it won’t suit everyone. And it certainly does not try to. Its creator, Álex de la Iglesia, is one of my favorite living directors. He makes truly original black comedies mixed with horror and lots of cultural (and pop cultural) references. This is one of his best works. And, after all, it is a Christmas-themed movie. About the forthcoming birth of the Antichrist.

An idealistic and modest priest finds by means of a study of the Apocalypse that the Antichrist is going to be born on Christmas day in Madrid. With the help of a sweaty long-haired heavy-metal fan and a stylish TV showman of a TV esoteric program, he will try to invoke the devil to find out the place of birth and kill the baby. He also decides that he must do all the evil possible to do so.

"The Day of the Beast" main characters
Three main characters

If you enjoy ridiculous and violent scenes that are accompanied by dramatic music, you will love this movie. It is outrageously funny at times, while some motifs (e.g. the “cleaning” movement) are genuinely terrifying. It also possesses a delightful ambiguity that leaves you questioning everything that happens in the story. For me this film is a “Big Lebowski” of occult horror.

So here you have it, 5 creepy movies to enjoy during your holidays. These movies ultimately prove that the good and the evil lies in the choices we make, not in our appearances. Remember that and enjoy your Christmas, in whatever way you want to spend them.

Happy Holidays! :)