Following What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), writer Henry Farrell generated yet another campy horror story about deranged women. Set in the ’30s, What’s the Matter with Helen? stars Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters as widows whose sons are convicted of committing murders. Ostracized as the mothers of monsters, Adelle (Reynolds) and Helen (Winters) flee the Midwest for Hollywood, intent on helping each other start new lives. Outgoing entrepreneur Adelle opens a dance academy for young girls, and Bible-thumping doormat Helen becomes her business partner, playing piano during lessons and sewing costumes for students. As a charming beauty who catches the eye of Linc (Dennis Weaver), the wealthy father of one of her students, Adelle reboots herself effortlessly. Helen has a tougher time. Wracked with guilt over her failure as a mother, Helen believes she’s being stalked, and she imagines that a radio preacher (Agnes Moorhead) is speaking directly to her with messages of repentance. So, as Adelle woos her beau, Helen spirals into derangement.
As directed by horror stalwart Curtis Harrington, What’s the Matter with Helen? is simultaneously underdeveloped and overwrought. The story is too thin to sustain the movie’s running time, yet Harrington indulges in languid pacing, as well as lengthy production numbers featuring Reynolds and various child performers. Additionally, shooting the entire movie on soundstages precludes any attempt at realism, and the production design isn’t sufficiently opulent to justify the artifice. However, it’s the performances that really hold Helen back from realizing its potential. Reynolds, playing her only big-screen role of the ’70s, seems game for anything, so casting her in the “nice” role represents a missed opportunity. Conversely, Winters is absurd playing yet another in her gallery of grotesques, her dialogue shouted and her eyes bulging at regular intervals—it’s impossible to take a single frame of her performance seriously. As such, casting the actors against type (Reynolds as Helen, Winters as Adelle) would have been a lot more interesting. Nonetheless, for some snarky viewers, the combination of Reynolds’ sweetness and Winters’ flamboyance probably has a certain florid appeal.
What’s the Matter with Helen?: FUNKY