What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

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*. Success breeds imitation. Genre is formula. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a surprising hit, both commercially and critically. It led to Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte and a whole spate of very similar films that go by different labels: hagsploitation, Grande Dame Guignol, hag horror, or psychobiddy.
*. What impresses me is that such a sub-sub-genre had as much traction and lasted as long as it did. Though the first spate of slasher films barely stuck around any longer, the level of production for those was much higher.
*. The basic elements of Grande Dame Guignol are all present and accounted for in What’s the Matter with Helen?, which is no surprise given that it was developed out of an original screenplay by Henry Farrell who also wrote the novel What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and the screenplay for Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (which was in turn based on a story he also wrote). This material was his only stock-in-trade.
*. What are the basic elements? A couple of big-name Hollywood stars, now past their prime, play women haunted to the point of mental breakdown by a mysterious crime (or crimes) in their past. The pair are bound together in a toxic relationship and as the barometer rises there will be blood. For some reason a scene where there is difficulty disposing of a body is also a staple. At the end there is a revelation concerning the historical back story which sends one of the women over the edge into madness and/or death.
*. It’s material that sits just on the edge of camp, which seems to be the main audience draw for these movies today. That’s a historical judgment, but one it’s hard to argue with in the case of this film. It has that tacky, small-screen, studio-bound look to it that we associate with camp, and the cast includes campy figures like Dennis Weaver’s Tex (or Linc, to give him his proper name). Linc must be a billionaire in the oil bidness but for a good time he takes Adelle out to play minigolf. I loved it. But then there is the awful (and also very campy) Kiddiestar Revue complete with two full musical numbers featuring little girls glammed up like drag queens singing “Animal Crackers” and “Nasty Man.” I found this part hard to watch.
*. Shelley Winters plays Helen: yet another hard put-upon, slightly dim, whiny dishrag role for her filmography. I guess Helen is camp as well, being Debbie Reynold’s overweight “partner” (a lesbian subtext was edited out of the final cut) who finds comfort in bon-bons, rabbits and listening to Christian radio broadcasts from the Church of Agnes Moorehead (another typecast actress, if ever there was one).
*. There is, I think, too much going on, too much information that doesn’t add anything to the film. The whole Leopold and Loeb act that gets the ball rolling is totally pointless. Unless, that is, we are meant to take seriously the bizarre psychological analysis made by Helen wherein she seeks to explain the murder by saying that the victim was a surrogate for the boys killing their mothers. Also irrelevant is Helen’s memory of the death of her husband, who is run over by a disc (not a plough, as she calls it). Then there’s an elocution instructor (Micheál MacLiammóir) who is made out to be quite a sinister type but who ultimately just disappears. And I wasn’t sure what was going on with the guy who was hunting Adelle and Helen down. Did he actually write a letter about a bogus inheritance or was Adelle just making that up?
*. I don’t think it’s a very good or even very interesting film. Reynolds and Winters manage to keep it professional, but it’s a rather cheap and stupid movie all around, one of the last gasps of a fad that never really came back after its initial run. Don’t we have any Hollywood hags to exploit any more? Or would that be ageist and sexist?
*. Nuts to that. If you believe that horror is all about breaking taboos then we need to bring the biddies back.

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