While writer Henry Farrell did not invent overheated bitching, the success of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, based on his novel, may have been responsible for giving female sniping a new lease on life by turning it into horrific camp. Farrell certainly was responsible for subsequent exploitations of audience interest in movie queen decay. In What’s the Matter with Helen? he gives Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds their chance to disintegrate on camera.
The mothers of two convicted killers, Helen (Winters) and Adelle (Reynolds) are threatened with violence in their hometown and flee to Hollywood where the latter opens a school to teach girls how to sing and dance. At first they successfully exploit the desire of stage mothers to turn their darlings into another Shirley Temple. When Adelle gets involved with Linc Palmer (Dennis Weaver), the rich dreamboat father of one of her students, however, Helen seems to slide from neurosis into psychosis, haunted by memories of her husband’s death and guilt for her son’s crimes.
“Seems to” is the operative phrase, because, as is typical of the wasted hag genre, the difference between fairly Realistic melodrama and outright horror is never clear. One minute a homeless vagrant (Timothy Carey, doing his familiar, quasi-psychotic shtick) appears for some Depression-era squalor, only to disappear just as quickly. Then violence breaks out in bloody, contrived, excess. Reynolds taps through some ’30s throwback production numbers that are entertaining in themselves but way out of step with the rest of the movie. They certainly do nothing to create any suspense or dread. Similarly, when Linc takes Adelle to a gambling boat off the coast for their first date and recognizes she is itching to get on the dance floor, he pays a gigolo to tango her around the room to appreciative applause. Their dance is one of the film’s high points, but everyone seems to have forgotten poor old Helen, who doesn’t even merit a cutaway to her solitude as Adelle and Linc party. With all these digressions, the movie never finds the right tone.
Director Curtis Harrington, known for his visual flair, lavishes attention on the loving period recreations, but even at that level the film feels tenuous, insubstantial and rudderless. In fact, the only real mystery in Helen is wondering where the action will wander next. While horror does not demand much plausibility, domestic melodrama must appear to take place in the lived world to be effective. What’s the Matter with Helen? seems grounded in little beyond the desire to shock so that, for example, when Helen’s pet rabbits are introduced, we know they are goners. Winters nonetheless remains blessedly restrained. With no signal from her how we should react, however, the results feel half-hearted. Restraint is finally thrown to the wind in the over-the-top denouement, but by then it is too much, too late.