What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

I like to play this game where any time the title of the movie is mentioned, I scream and cheer like I’m Pee Wee sitting on Chairy. Good news for me — What’s the Matter with Helen? says it’s title more than once, leading to me wondering if I should invest in the paper bags full of confetti that Rip Taylor always seems to have to throw around.

Two young men are going to jail for life after murdering an older woman. Then, we see their mothers — played by Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds — as they bravely face an angry mob and drive away. As they make their way home, an anonymous phone call takes credit for the attack which bloodied up Winters’ character Helen. Reynolds character Adelle then reveals her plan to pack up her cardboard standup of herself and move to California to start a dance studio. Soon, the two ladies have changed their last names and gone west.

This is a movie packed with odd situations and even odder characters, like elocution teacher Hamilton Starr and a tramp who continually bothers Adelle. And oh yeah — Helen is madly in love with her friend and becomes insanely jealous to the point that she often sticks her fingers into metal fans when she isn’t listening to Sister Alma (Agnes Moorehead) on the radio. Alma is obviously Aimee Semple McPherson, the 1920’s and 30’s celebrity whose Foursquare Church’s faith healing radio broadcasts were the forerunner of modern televangelism and charismatic Christianity.

Adelle falls for Lincoln Palmer (Dennis Weaver), the father of one of her students. He’s rich as it gets, rich enough to pay for gigolos to dance with her while he watches in yet another one of those moments that would get explored in a modern movie and are just another creepy aside in this one.

Between Helen murdering people who break into their house, then trying to be forgiven by Sister Alma all while having flashbacks to her husband being run over by a plow, her madness soon overtakes the film and things proceed to a rather sudden and shocking conclusion. There’s also an extended miniature golf sequence and numerous rabbit murders, as well as the reveal that Helen may have been right to kill at least one of the intruders.

This movie happened when director Curtis Harrington (Night TideWhoever Slew Auntie Roo?) and producer George Edwards approached writer Henry Farrell (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) became a hit. was a hit, hoping to get a screenplay. Hagsploitation was in, baby, and these dudes wanted in on the action!

According to Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters’s psychiatrist had warned her not to take this movie, as she was about to play a woman having a nervous breakdown while she was actually having one. She claims that Winters became her character to the point that the studio considered replacing her with Geraldine Page, who had plenty of hagsploitation cred after starring in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?

Winters also totally caught the lesbian undercurrents — well, they’re not so well hidden, so let’s say overcurrents — in the movie, but the scenes where she really played it up were left on the cutting room floor.

It’s worth noting that this was an Oscar-nominated film — for Reynolds outfits, that is. If you have a Debbie Reynolds crush, good news. This is the movie for you. This is also the movie for you if you love musical numbers about animal crackers.

Every single person in this one is disreputable, even the children, who are forced to dress as showgirls and purr songs like “Oh, You Nasty Man.” This posits What’s the Matter with Helen? as a forerunner of calling out the blatant sexuality of child beauty pageants years before Jon Benet was murdered.

I’ve always wanted to see this movie, despite its trailer and poster giving away the ending. What were they thinking? That said, there’s enough weirdness here to sustain my interest, even if I knew how it was all going to turn out.

Want to see it? Shout! Factory has recently released it on blu ray.

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