The post-PSYCHO era of psychological horror films classified as “Grande Dame Guignol” or “hag horror” started with and didn’t get any better than the Davis/Crawford pairing in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? in 1962. The decade brought more entries that played on the title, often employing other veteran and respected (and sometime Oscar-nodded) actresses in macabre roles that might have been beneath them years ago. With her plumper, motherly-like appearance, former glamour queen of the 1940s and 1950s Shelley Winters became one of the most treasured character actresses of the 1960s and 1970s. She would embrace this “hag horror” genre—as she was more than well-suited for it—turning in two notable early 1970s starring roles for her friend, cult director Curtis Harrington. WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? now makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Shout! Factory’s “Scream Factory” arm.
In 1930s Iowa, two teenage boys brutally murder a woman named Ellie Banner and are sentenced to life in prison. Their single mothers Helen Hill (Shelley Winters, WILD IN THE STREETS) and Adelle Bruckner (Debbie Reynolds, DIVORCE AMERICAN STYLE) receive obscene, threatening phone calls from an attacker after Helen has her hand cut while fighting a crowd to get to their car when their boys were taken away in the paddywagon. As Adelle is confident she can run a successful dance school for little girls (this is when Shirley Temple is all the rage), the two move to Hollywood to live together and see those plans pad out, with Adelle (who has now bleached her hair Harlow style) being the instructor and Helen playing the piano during lessons. They hire Hamilton Starr (Micheál MacLiammóir, THE KREMLIN LETTER), an egocentric elocution teacher who practically pushes his way into the school sounding like Sidney Greenstreet, and Adelle starts a romance with wealthy Texan Lincoln Palmer (Dennis Weaver, DUEL), the father of one of her students (Sammee Le Jones). This new relationship doesn’t sit well with Bible-thumping, rabbit-loving Helen, who grows increasingly jealous of Adelle and also has wild, grotesque and hallucinatory visions centered on her husband’s strange death (by plow blades) and her boy’s murderous endeavor. The hot and cold friendship between Adelle and unhinged Helen becomes increasingly strained, the threatening phone calls continue and an unannounced visitor is murdered (remember Martin Balsam in PSYCHO) before everything comes to a hellish boil.
WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?'s script (penned by Henry Farrell, the man who also gave us BABY JANE) was actually a property that Harrington and producer George Edwards had developed when they were under contract at Universal in the 1960s, one that they ended up having to buy back and eventually undertaking themselves. Harrington described the well-fleshed contrasting lead characters this way: “Debbie Reynolds played a character with a will to live, and Shelley Winters played a character with the will to die. Everything else grew from that.” Although the script is thoroughly complex, it would likely be standard stuff if not for the pitch-perfect performances of Winters and Reynolds (who also backed the film as an uncredited producer), the addition of fine character actors, and the choice to keep it a period-piece, in this case Tinseltown in the 1930s. This allows Harrington to show a grand sense of nostalgic, art deco Old Hollywood style which works so well with the overall decadence of the story. With the ideal choice of Eugene Lourie as set decorator (the period set design is meticulous here), the film is true to the plot’s era in every way, from the introductory newsreel which sets things up (and it's more graphic than anything you’d see in an authentic one), to the song and dance numbers featuring the cutesy little girls and the toe-tapping Reynolds which play out like a Busby Berkeley musical recreation for feisty stage moms. Harrington adds his own little touches (such as references to “Dracula” and a theater marquee showing Karloff and Lugosi in THE BLACK CAT, a favorite of his), so with the horror elements added, you can look at this as a sort of crossbreed of SUNSET BOULEVARD and THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (in a more realistic universe if you will).
Harrington was unhappy that “presenter” Martin Ransohoff ultimately trimmed the climactic murder scene for the film, as he envisioned it as being much bloodier, not to mention the lesbian overtones of Helen kissing Adele on the lips and the scene-transitioning dissolves he intended to be included. As far as the visceral imagery is concerned, quick shots of mutilated faces and other bloodletting are gruesomely on display, and although United Artists did release it with a “GP” rating in 1971, it’s now been re-rated R (the rating carried on the back of this Blu-ray). UA’s advertising campaign for the film spoils things by showing a photo image from the final scene in the film (and it’s been scene on just about every home video release to date, including this Blu-ray) and also allowing the scene in the trailer, but I imagine we can be forgiving about this after 45 years. WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? also features a great supporting cast (some of them mere cameos) that also includes Agnes Moorehead (THE BAT) as radio preacher Sister Alma who is wildly confronted by Helen during a church mass, Logan Ramsey (THE BEAST WITHIN) as a police detective, Timothy Carey (THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER) as homeless beggar, Yvette Vickers (ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES) as a stage mom, and familiar child star (Pamelyn Ferdin, Edna on “The Odd Couple” and later in THE TOOLBOX MURDERS) as one of Adelle’s dance students.
WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? first saw life on DVD in 2002 when MGM released it as “Midnite Movies” double feature with WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? (that other Harrington/Winters collaboration which is now available on Blu-ray through Kino Lorber). Shout! Factory picked up video rights a few years ago but opted to release it on DVD only as part of an “All Night Horror Marathon” set with three other features, and all of them have now been or are being issued on Blu-ray as single releases through Scream, with HELEN being the latest. Presented in 1080p in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, HELEN’s High Def upgrade looks very sweet, with the picture quality being extremely pleasing on the whole. Image detail and textures—especially in facial close-ups and the realistic skin tones—are exceptional and the color palette is also nice. Blacks are deep and inky, grain is tight and natural-looking, and there’s very little in the way of print source blemishes. The audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track and offers clear dialogue and a strong score by David Raksin, which can be boisterous at times. Optional English subtitles are included. Extras include the original theatrical trailer (1080p HD), a radio spot and a generous still gallery. (George R. Reis)
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