What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

US / 101 minutes / color with some sepia & white / Filmways, Raymax Dir: Curtis Harrington Pr: George Edwards Scr: Henry Farrell Cine: Lucien Ballard Cast: Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters, Dennis Weaver, Micheál Mac Liammóir, Agnes Moorehead, Helene Winston, Peggy Rea, Logan Ramsey, Allen Pinson.

In the mid-1930s, in Braddock, Iowa, the sons of dowdy, dumpy Helen Hill (Winters) and glamorous dance teacher Adelle Bruckner (Reynolds) are convicted of a brutal murder. Vilified by the public and threatened by anonymous phone calls, the two women flee to Hollywood and change their names, becoming Helen Martin and Adelle Stewart and together, with the aid of diction coach Hamilton Starr (Mac Liammóir), setting up a dancing/performance school for children.

Soon Adelle catches the eye of Linc Palmer (Weaver), wealthy divorced father of one of her young students, and romance blossoms. Yet Helen’s behavior grows ever stranger, her gory visions seemingly rooted in the violent death, years ago, of her husband as he fell under the plow on the family farm; at the same time it becomes evident that the women’s anonymous phone caller—the lover (Pinson) of their sons’ victim—has traced them to their new home. When a terrified Helen pushes the lover downstairs, killing him, she and Adelle drag the corpse to a nearby roadworks, throwing it into a trench to make the death seem an accident. It seems briefly as if their troubles might be over, but of course they’re only just beginning . . .

What's the Matter with Helen (1971) - What Helen did to Debbie Reynolds

What Shelley Winters did to Debbie Reynolds

The movie’s fairly typical of writer Farrell’s noirish gothic melodramas, such as Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALLAN (1970 TVM) and most famously WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), although its first half comes with a number of distinctly un-gothicky song-and-dance routines done by Reynolds and, in Shirley Temple-wannabe mode, by her youthful charges.

While Weaver portrays a deliberately stereotyped genial rich Texan (I can’t remember him addressing Adelle as L’il Lady, but I’m sure he must), the other three principals ham it up joyously, capturing some of the Grand Guignol spirit of Tod Slaughter, who was more contemporary with the events of the plot. Moorehead has a smallish role as Sister Alma, the avaricious preacher of the aptly named Church of the Open Hand.

The movie’s overall affect, despite the abundance of talent involved—not just the leading players but crew members like cinematographer Ballard—is of a sort of pleasing mediocrity, as if director Harrington and the rest wanted to give proceedings a TV movie feel, a slight downmarket tawdriness that’s in keeping with Adelle’s efforts to make her children’s stage production glitzy.

On Amazon.com (as part of a four-movie set): Scream Factory All Night Horror Marathon (Whats the Matter with Helen, The Vagrant, The Godsend & The Outing)