Saturday, October 4, 2014

What's the Matter with Helen (1971)

Director: Curtis Harrington                             Writer: Henry Farrell
Film Score: David Raksin                              Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Shelley Winters, Debbie Reynolds, Dennis Weaver and Agnes Moorehead

In 1971 I was only ten years old, and it was the glory days of movie watching. Even though I grew up in a small town, we had one of those old movie palaces from the twenties that was still in operation--and is still in operation today. Not only that, but the town that bordered ours had two smaller, but just as luxurious, movie theaters. When a bunch of older kids in the neighborhood decided to go to the movies I could always persuade my parents to let me go too, and this is one that I vividly remember attending that summer between third and fourth grade. What’s the Matter with Helen was one of a slew of films that were made in the wake of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. They featured older actresses past their prime who had psychological problems and went on killing sprees onscreen, almost as if Norman Bates’ mother hadn’t really died. This one starred Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds, and while I remember almost nothing from the film except a scene filmed on cropland with a plow being used as a killing machine, I do remember that it scared the pants off me.

The film has an historical setting and begins with a Depression era newsreel, with Winters and Reynolds leaving the courthouse as the mothers of two convicted murderers. Reynolds runs a dance studio and wants to move to California while Winters is a religious fanatic who can’t bear the thought of leaving her son. After a number of threatening phone calls, however, the two wind up moving to California and start a new dance studio, with Reynolds teaching and Winters playing the piano. The eccentric Micheál MacLiammóir is an elocution teacher who wants to get access to the dance students and Reynolds agrees, much to the disapproval of Winters. Dennis Weaver plays the wealthy father of one of the students and as he becomes increasingly fascinated with Reynolds, she begins using him to get more publicity for the studio. This also greatly disturbs Winters, who doesn’t approve of their extra-marital relationship. What is the matter with Winters is that she saw her husband killed before her eyes in a farming mishap when she couldn’t stop the plow, and now every sharp instrument, from knives to scissors to the blades on a fan, become her obsession. Even so, by the middle of the film it’s difficult to tell which of the women is more psychotic.

Unlike the Joan Crawford and Bette Davis vehicle that began it all, the tension and suspense in this film is diluted at every opportunity by either the dancing of Debbie Reynolds or her students, to the point where the bloody conclusion is almost more satisfying than it is horrific. It’s a shame because the story is basically a good one, and yet Winters’ psychology is never really explored in any meaningful way. Agnes Moorehead plays a radio evangelist who Winters desperately wants to confess to, and when Winters is rejected she really begins to unravel. But ultimately the religious aspect is left just as unexplored. For the most part the film looks like a television movie, which is what director Curtis Harrington primarily made, though there are some atmospheric hand-held shots. But the preponderance of television actors and studio-bound exteriors, in addition to poor production values, really weaken the film. The ending, while chilling, also seems rushed and makes what should have been a powerful conclusion somewhat less than climactic. Even the great film composer David Raksin wasn’t able to raise the artistic level of the film. Still, What’s the Matter with Helen did well with audiences at the time and is a film I remember fondly. Whatever you do, however, don’t go in with high expectations.

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