Jun 29, 2013

What's the Matter with Helen?

In his posthumously released memoir Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business (2013), avant-garde auteur turned camp horror master Curtis Harrington (Queen of Blood, Games) wrote regarding his eloquently exploitative “Grande Dame Guignol” flick What's the Matter With Helen? (1971), “Of all my films, Helen is the one I personally like the best. It comes closest to realizing in all its details what I intended. It deals with the underlying themes of Eros and Thanatos—the will toward life and the will toward death.” Indeed, while his debut feature-length work Night Tide (1961), a singularly atmospheric arthouse horror film, is my personal favorite Harrington flick, it is hard to argue that What's the Matter With Helen? is not the director’s most artistically accomplished and aesthetically eclectic work as a period piece and macabre melodrama of the cruelly campy and culturally cynical sort that the uses the cinematic conventions of Golden Age Hollywood against itself, or as the L.A. Herald Examiner once pegged it, “A musical-horror-melodrama-satire-love story.” Penned by Henry Farrell, who previously worked with Harrington on the TV movie How Awful About Allan (1970) starring Anthony Perkins and who initially came to fame writing the script for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), the very first “hagsploitation” aka “Psycho-biddy” aka “Grande Dame Guignol” flick, What’s the Matter With Helen?, like most of the director’s films which all seemed to be cursed, was unfortunately poorly advertised upon its release and relatively ignored, yet it would go on to rightfully develop a loyal cult following. In fact, What's the Matter With Helen? was so haphazardly and ineptly advertised that the official original movie poster of the film featured an image from the shock ending in a scene that Harrington hoped would be “as harrowing and brutal as the shower scene in Psycho,” thus ruining the experience for anyone who went to see it. Of course, I, like virtually everyone else interested in the film, had What's the Matter With Helen? spoiled for me after glancing at the poster, yet Harrington’s mischievous and even misanthropic celluloid exercise in homicidal hag hysteria is luckily a film of highly engrossing entertainment value and exquisite direction with the grand novel distinction of starring two clearly mentally imbalanced washed-up Hollywood Golden Age divas, thus, like good wine, it has only gotten better with age and has seemingly unlimited replay value. Starring an unflatteringly overweight Michelin Man-esque Shelly Winters (The Diary of Anne Frank, Poor Pretty Eddie), who plays a neurotic character going through a nervous breakdown while the actress herself was going through a real-life nervous breakdown, as well as Debbie Reynolds (Singin' in the Rain, The Unsinkable Molly Brown), who was apparently just as condescending to her co-star in real-life as her character is in the film, What's the Matter With Helen? is a film that is just as every bit hysterically hilarious as it is melodramatically macabre about the kind of mentally deranged mothers it takes to produce coldblooded killers of the anti-Oedipal sort. 

 As depicted in a fake 1930s Hearst Metrotone newsreel at the Americana-mocking beginning of What’s the Matter With Helen?, deranged young men Leonard Hill and Wesley Bruckner killed an unlucky young woman named Ellie Banner in a “Leopold and Loeb”-style fashion in Iowa and have both rightfully received life sentences for their dirty deeds. The two boys' mothers, Helen Hill (Shelley Winters) and Adelle Bruckner (Debbie Reynolds), decided it will be best to move away and get away from the bad press and abject social ostracization, especially after the former is cut on the palm with a knife by a vengeful anonymous assailant and receives a death threat from the same said perpetrator via telephone with the unsettling words “I'm the one who cut you.... I wanted to see you bleed.” Changing their names and hoping to live new press/stress free lives, Helen and Adelle head from Iowa to sunny California and open a posh pedophile’s dream, an unsettlingly debauched dance academy for little girls whose dubious parents want to make their daughters into the next Shirley Temple. Fat, morbidly depressed, and particularly passive, Helen merely goes along with her over domineering friend Adelle's madame-like get-rich-quick scheme, but, rather unfortunately, her mental health begins to decline over time. First, Helen, a woman who is deathly afraid of men, is rather angry when Adelle, a woman who does whatever she wants whenever she wants, hires a dandy queen of an elocution teacher named Hamilton Starr (Micheál MacLiammóir) to teach the little girls to have the proper voices for the new innovation of sound films. A shameless schemer and decadent dreamer of the mature MILF persuasion, Adelle also starts a hot and steamy love affair with the father of one of her students, Lincoln Palmer (Dennis Weaver), a rich Southern gentlemen of the seemingly closeted homosexual sort who knows how to treat a lady and behave like an ostensibly real man. With no other friends aside from Adelle, who constantly ignores and patronizes her, Helen gets a couple cute white pet rabbits, but that does not stop her from suffering flashbacks and ultimately hallucinations of her husband’s grizzly death in which he was mangled into a bloody pulp by a farm plow.

 Apparently, Helen’s murderous son witnessed the death of his father via machinery at the mere age of 4, thereupon possibly leading to his mental derangement. Naturally, petty and less than pretty Helen is jealous of Adelle’s new boy toy Lincoln and tries to break them apart, while also brainwashing herself with a steady diet of backwards Christian evangelist radio sermons so as to ease her perennial loneliness and sexual tension (it is hinted that she wants Adelle all for herself). After a mysterious man stops by at her and Adelle's home, Helen pushes him down the stairs and kills him as she suspects he is the same man from Iowa who threatened to butcher her. A nauseating narcissist of the self-obsessed and opportunistic sort who seems to suffer from histrionic personality disorder, Adelle helps Helen dump the mystery man’s body as she does not want the incident to ruin her career. Unfortunately, Adelle does not realize that she could be homicidal Helen’s new victim. After learning of her true identity and that her son is a sadistic killer, Adelle’s boyfriend Lincoln offers to hire the best lawyer in town to appeal for her son's case, but hateful Helen is less than impressed by Mr. Right’s rather generous offer. Finally building up enough gall to confront Adelle about her motives, Helen states to her bust bud, “I am not like you, Adelle. I’m not trying to buy back my son’s love by charming some rich man...,” Helen also lets Adelle know that their sons hate them and that their murderous behavior is a result of this hatred. Helen, who has more guilt than a Catholic cocksucker, visits a church and begs to a certain Sister Alma to forgive her, but she makes a complete and utter fool of herself and has to be dragged out of the church by Adelle. Helen ultimately goes ballistic and slaughters her beloved pet rabbits with a knife and confesses to Adelle that she is responsible for her husband's death as she apparently pushed him in front of a plow. Adelle offers to get Helen help and calls Sister Alma, but the bitch of a bunny butcher stabs her friend in the back both in a figurative and literal manner. In the end, Helen, who has finally taken the ‘dominant’ role in her relationship with Adelle sings “Goody Goody” on the piano in a one-woman/one-cadaver show that Lincoln accidentally walks in on in horror. 

 While the murderous Helen is, quite strangely, a more sympathetic character when compared to old whore Adelle, director Curtis Harrington summed up her character and the ‘moral’ of What's the Matter With Helen? as follows: “It is my portrait of the destructive narrow-mindedness of Christian fundamentalism, as exemplified by the character of Helen, whose hypocritical inability to face the truth of her sexuality brings only tragedy to those around her and madness to herself.” Indeed, What's the Matter With Helen? does not feature a single scene of overt lesbianism as Harrington surely concocted a celluloid work of subtle nuances, semi-inconspicuous camp, and cryptic naughtiness in the old school Hollywood style and in the tradition of the director’s friend James Whale (Frankenstein,The Old Dark House) that will surely be overlooked by most modern viewers. Poking fun at Hollywood ‘Christian’ flicks like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross (1932), the perturbing quasi-pedo phenomenon of Shirley Temple, ungracefully aged Tinstletown divas, and the aesthetic vulgarity of superlatively soulless old school Hollywood musicals, What's the Matter With Helen? is indubitably director Curtis Harrington’s respectful anti-tribute to Sunset Boulevard’s hyper hypocritical films of yesteryear. A film directed by the only filmmaker to start out directing European arthouse inspired films and starring in Kenneth Anger films to making films produced by Roger Corman and multiple major studios to directing episodes of poular TV shows like Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty and working with actors ranging from Gloria Swanson to Helmut Berger, What's the Matter With Helen? is certainly the bitingly sardonic creation of a man with a love-relationship for Hollywood who was far too subversive and artistic for the Hollywood studio system, hence his relatively small oeuvre despite making films for about 60 years. Although I am only someone with a slight interest in the short-lived subgenre, which tends to be especially cherished by momma boy queens, I unquestionably consider What’s the Matter with Helen? to be the greatest and least aged of the hagsploitation flicks. After all, any time I need some therapeutic relief after dealing with a bitchy and needlessly narcissistic old bird of the less than physically fresh sort in real-life, I can just pop in What's the Matter With Helen? and dream of the possibilities. 

-Ty E

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