WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971)
Article 3980 by Dave Sindelar
Directed by Curtis Harrington
Featuring Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters, Dennis Weaver
What is it: Horror hag picture
Two women whose sons have been convicted of a notorious murder change their names, move to Hollywood, and open a dance studio for children intent on breaking into the movies. One of them tries to return to a life of normalcy, while the other, fearing the possible wrath of a vengeance-driven stalker, deteriorates mentally.
This movie came near the end of the “horror hag” cycle that began with WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, and is written by Henry Farell, who provided the stories and/or screenplays for both that earlier movie and for HUSH HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE. You can kind of tell that’s the case; there’s definitely a similar vibe that some of the other “horror hag” entries don’t share. In fact, it may be a little too similar; some of the touches feel a little forced; I don’t think there’s any real reason for the Hollywood backdrop, and the Victor Buono character (albeit not played by Buono), though an interesting character in himself, does little more plotwise than scare one of the women every time he appears; it almost seems like the writer is trying to borrow from BABY JANE but to no real purpose. On the plus side, Shelley Winters gives a great performance; she’s careful to underplay whenever she can so that it can contrast with the histrionics when she goes over the edge, and this gives her character an interesting vibe. However, I emerge from the movie not quite satisfied; I’m never quite sure why these two women are hanging around together, and the movie rings a false note in that regard. And the ending doesn’t quite deliver the jolt to make it really effective.