Movie Name: What’s the Matter with Helen?
Studio: Filmway Pictures
Release Date(s): June 30, 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Helen Hill (Shelley Winters) and Adelle Bruckner (Debbie Reynolds) are mothers forced together by tragedy. Their sons were convicted of killing a woman and now, they’ve moved to California to start a new life in Hollywood. Helen suspects everyone is after her and has turned to religion while Adelle focuses on moving forward with her boyfriend Lincoln (Dennis Weaver) and her school. When Helen begins to suspect her paranoia is more than just illusion, things could turn deadly.
Directed by Curtis Harrington, What’s the Matter with Helen? is a horror thriller. The movie was well received but also criticized for giving away key plot points in its advertising which gave away the ending. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.
What’s the Matter with Helen? is often put in with movies like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and other “psycho-biddy” horror films. The movie was even packaged with the other Shelley Winters film Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971). While it isn’t the best movie, there is a fun, campy nature to it that makes it enjoyable.
The story is all over the place. You get pieces of what happened with Helen and Adelle’s children, a rather dull romance with Dennis Weaver, creepy child performances, and an unbalanced Shelley Winters who might/might not have been crazy all along…then it abruptly ends after an ironic twist. It is campy but amusing.
Shelley Winters is a pro when it comes to the exploitation movies that she often headlined in the ’70s. She’s over-the-top and always gives her all (she’s really good at crazy). Debbie Reynolds comes off as extremely unlikable, so I don’t know if you are supposed to be happy she meets her fate or not (even trying to social climb with Dennis Weaver). Micheál MacLiammóir’s elocution teacher doesn’t serve much purpose, and Agnes Moorehead plays an under-used cult-like religious leader.
The movie is shot rather cheaply and mostly on sets. Normally, this would make a movie less viable, but it kind of works with the film which feels a bit more like a Whatever Happen to Baby Jane? ripoff than an homage or twist on the story.
What’s the Matter with Helen? doesn’t push the movie far enough. Shelley Winters might go crazy (and crazy Shelley Winters is good), but it takes too long to get there. The movie needed to boost the psychological thriller aspect of it and ease back on some of the story. If you’d like a campy horror movie in the veins of something like The Bad Seed, What’s the Matter with Helen? might be for you!