Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Debbie Reynolds is always quick to cite her performance in 1964s The Unsinkable Molly Brown as her personal favorite. Which is easy enough to understand given it's a title role which afforded the versatile actress the opportunity to play both comedy and drama, showcase her considerable singing and dancing ability, and won her an Oscar nomination (her only to date). While I find parts of The Unsinkable Molly Brown to be a little tough going (I hate to say it, but Reynolds’ acting in the early scenes make Irene Ryan in The Beverly Hillbillies look like a model of nuance and subtlety), I nevertheless enjoy the movie a great deal. But even given that, I still would only rank it as my favorite Debbie Reynolds film somewhere below Singin’ in the Rain (1952), I Love Melvin (1953), and Mother (1996). Surprising even myself, I have to rate 1971s What’s the Matter with Helen? – Reynolds’ late-career, against-type, low-budget, semi-musical venture into the world of hagsploitation horror – as my absolute favorite Debbie Reynolds movie.
Debbie Reynolds as Adelle Bruckner (Stewart)
Shelley Winters as Helen Hill (Martin)
Dennis Weaver as Lincoln Palmer

In What’s the Matter with Helen?, Reynolds and Winters play Adelle Bruckner and Helen Hill, two dowdy, Depression-era moms in Braddock, Iowa who forge an unlikely friendship (Winters’ Helen is a slightly dotty religious fanatic, Reynolds’ Adelle is a self-deluding dance instructor) born of a shared burden of guilt and fear of retribution arising out of the conviction of their adult sons in the brutal mutilation murder of a local woman. Hoping to flee both the scrutiny of the press, and, most significantly, mysterious phone calls from a stranger threatening murderous revenge, the women flee to Los Angles to start a new life as partners in a dance studio catering to aspiring Shirley Temples.
Adelle and Helen are confronted by an angry mob outside the courthouse where their murderous sons have been spared execution and sentenced to life. In the cab, Helen becomes aware that someone in the crowd has sliced her hand. 

With new names: Adelle Stewart/Helen Martin; and altered appearances – Jean Harlow-fixated Adelle goes platinum blonde ("We could be sisters!”), mousy Helen has her Lillian Gish tresses cut into a bob ("You’re the Marion Davies type!”); the two women, at least for a time, appear to have successfully left their pasts behind them. This is especially true of the dreamy, ambitious Adelle, who, in trading the bland Midwest for the seedy glamour of Hollywood, clearly feels she is in her element. Unfortunately, the change of locale has rather a more detrimental effect on the mentally fragile Helen, whose religious fundamentalism plagues her with guilt over her son’s crimes and whose latent, repressed lesbianism fuels an irrational possessiveness once Adelle begins showing interest in the wealthy divorced father of one of her tap school charges (Dennis Weaver).
Is it mere coincidence when mysterious letters, death threats, phone calls, and shadowy figures in the distance start to resurface just as Adelle moves closer to securing a new life for herself …  a life free of  memories of her neglectful past and thoughts of her estranged son and his crimes? Is it coincidence? Bad luck? God’s will?  Or is something the matter with Helen?
Adelle and Helen are joined by a mutual inability to see themselves as they really are

Released into theaters (well…dumped, actually) on the heels of the single-season cancellation of Reynolds’ rather grim NBC sitcom The Debbie Reynolds Show, What’s the Matter with Helen? is a first generation cousin to the unofficial trilogy of Robert Aldrich-produced horror thrillers centered around elderly female twosomes of questionable sanity (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? - 1962/ Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte - 1964/ What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? – 1969).

Directed with a rather uneven hand by Curtis Harrington (Games - 1967), and lacking Aldrich’s gleeful willingness to go for the full Grande Dame Guignol; What’s the Matter with Helen? is nevertheless an intriguingly quirky and off-beat melodrama with an irresistible premise  and considerably more on its mind than its quick-buck, exploitation film title would indicate. (The film's working title was the infinitely more subtle: The Best of Friends.)
I love how ill-matched the two women are. It's so absolutely clear that nothing good can come of it. Plus, the setting of a tap school for creepy little Shirley Temple wannabes lorded over by a bunch of pushy stage mothers more terrifying than anything else in the film, is truly inspired.
Themes of transferred guilt, repression, delusion, redemption, role-playing and revenge play out against the backdrop of a darkly cynical, funhouse-mirror vision of tarnished Hollywood glamour populated with a gallery of grotesques rivaling The Day of the Locust.
Above: a crime scene photo of the murder victim, Ellie Banner (Peggy Patten) showing a bloody palm. Below: several times in the film, Helen suffers wounds to her hand. A motif of bloody palms runs throughout What's the Matter with Helen?, fueling the religious and moral themes of transferred guilt and (quite literally) having blood on one's hands. 
Agnes Moorehead as Sister Alma 

No film about Hollywood's creepy blend of artifice and showmanship would be complete without referencing the oddball phenomenon of celebrity evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. A similar character known as "Big Sister" is portrayed by Geraldine Page in The Day of the Locust.
(It has been alleged - refuted by producer Ed Feldman - that Page was an in-the-wings replacement option for Shelly Winters who was very difficult during the filming of What's the Matter with Helen?. Drinking, displays of temperament, and, according to Reynolds, suffering something a a bit of a mental breakdown, Winters turned the filming of What's the Matter with Helen? into something of an ordeal for all involved)
In both films, religion is depicted as just another myths-for-a-price opiate of the masses in the souls-for-sale landscape that is Hollywood.

What’s the Matter with Helen? was directed and written by Henry Farrell (author and screenwriter of both What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte) from his short story "The Box Step," and produced by Debbie Reynolds as part of her contract with NBC for a TV series, two specials, and a film. The television angle certainly goes to explain the participation of NBC star Dennis Weaver, who was riding high as TVs McCloud at the time.
Micheal Mac Liammoir as acting coach, Hamilton Starr ("Two 'R's, but prophetic nonetheless!")

When What’s the Matter with Helen? came out, I was familiar with the likable Debbie Reynolds from her TV appearances, from having seen The Unsinkable Molly Brown four or five times at the local theater, and from surviving How Sweet It Is - a smutty, 1968 “family” comedy with James Garner that by any rational standard should qualify as Debbie Reynolds’ first real horror movie. As a fan of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, I was fairly eager to see a What’s the Matter with Helen?, but it came and went so quickly from theaters that I didn't get to it until many years later.

Still, not seeing the movie didn't prevent me (at age 13) from being fairly traumatized by its legendarily boneheaded ad campaign; one which prominently featured as its central image, an image from the film that effectively gave away the grisly surprise ending. My guess is that the distributors (and a monumentally lazy publicity department), obviously stumped as to how to convey to an unwitting public that a PG-rated pairing of America’s perennial girl-next-door with the reigning queen of outrageous talk show appearances wasn’t going to be a comedy or a musical, resorted to using the single most striking and violently grotesque image in the film to sell it.
Never mind that it not only seriously undercut the suspense in a film that could use every ounce of help it could get in that department, but in its ham-fisted obviousness, cheapened and sabotaged the very real potential What’s the Matter with Helen? had for building word-of-mouth interest based solely on the shocking payoff of its climax.
Watching the usually cheerful Debbie Reynolds playing a somber and self-interested character who stands in stark contrast to her well-established girl-next-door image, contributes immeasurably to making the psychological horror of What's the Matter with Helen? all the more unsettling.

Imagine Psycho promoted in its original release with a tip-off to Janet Leigh’s fate, or a Planet of the Apes poster comprised of the film’s "big reveal" ending (which now serves, ironically enough, as the cover art for the DVD).

Did the poster for What’s the Matter with Helen? (which also included an inset pic of Shelley Winters looking more demented than usual) create interest in my wanting to see the movie? Yes. In fact, the image was so harrowing and disturbing, it made me want to see the movie more. So…in that way, you could say the advertising was successful. But did it ultimately spoil the moviegoing experience for me? Hell yes!

When I finally got around to actually seeing the film, the tension leading up to that dreaded denouement is so deftly handled that I was more than a little pissed-off that I already knew EXACTLY how things were going to pan out. The colossal spoiler of that poster (still used on DVD overs to this day and shown in the theatrical trailer) cheated viewers out of a well-earned shocker climax, leaving us with only the HOW to wonder about.
(Such careless disregard is something of a stock in trade for Martin Ransohoff, the meddlesome and artless head of Filmways Productions [The Beverly Hillbillies] - hair-raising stories about whom can be read in the memoirs of Roman Polanski and Joe Eszterhas.)

Although a troubling number of my favorite films fall under the classification of "camp," I sometimes think that overworked little noun is a frustratingly limiting classification. Especially when, as in the case of the rather marvelous What’s the Matter with Helen?, it reduces the entirety of a flawed but arresting thriller to its most superficial and easily-accessed characteristics. What’s the Matter with Helen?, as does the entire "psycho-biddy" horror sub-genre, traffics in the sexist conceit that there is something inherently grotesque and terrifying in women (most particularly, unmarried women) growing older. In the cultural currency of Hollywood, old men are adorable (The Sunshine BoysGrumpy Old Men), old women are gargoyles (Sunset BoulevardStrait-Jacket).
Structured as standard gothic melodramas, these films replace the traditional movie monster with actresses "of a certain age" and exploit our attraction/aversion to seeing once-youthful and glamorous stars in various states of mental and physical decline. Camp rears its head in the spectacle of excess: too much makeup on wrinkled, sagging flesh; opera-scale performances;  overdramatic dialogue; and the occasional outburst of female-on-female violence (which, regardless of the intensity, is depicted in the scope of the irrational "catfight").

Psychological horror is the context, but running below the surface like an undercurrent is the unmistakable air of gynophobia. The fear that women, when divested of their cultural "value" as wives, mothers, and youthfully ornamental symbols of beauty and desirability, turn into monsters. They become, as the line in Clare Booth Luce's The Women goes, "What nature abhors. ... an old maid. A frozen asset."  Which may go to explain why a significant camp element of the genre is how strongly these women come across as female impersonators or drag queens. It's as if on some level they cease being women at all.

All the above are present in abundance in What’s the Matter with Helen? (and with Shelley Winters playing insane, how could it be otherwise?), but the enjoyable weirdness of this infectiously watchable, wholly bizarre movie shouldn't completely blind one to the fact that behind the camp there lurks a hell of a nifty thriller containing a great many good (if not wholly realized) ideas.

The Feminine Defiled
Sammee Lee Jones adopts the exaggerated, hyper-feminine "living doll" persona of Shirley Temple 
Body of a child, face of an older woman. Mature, heavily made up Little Person, Sadie Delfino (who looks like a doll-come-to-life to the children at the tap school) is  presented as jarring contrast to the armies of little girls tarted up by their stage mothers to look like grown women 
Robbi Morgan vamps a la Mae West in a vulgar burlesque (that proves nonetheless to be a real showstopper) to the highly inappropriate song, "Oh, You Nasty Man!"
The Best of Friends
Adelle's porcelain dolls passively reflect both her external perception of her friendship with Helen (she's glamorous to Helen's dowdy) and her inner sense of their inherently unequal status (Adelle the sophisticate outclasses Helen the farm girl). 

From the first time I saw it, I've always felt What’s the Matter with Helen? had more in common with Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The horror is in these characters' pathetic quest for salvation and beauty in a world depicted as squalid and tawdry. I particularly like how the sub-theme of guilt as something shared, transferred, and possibly redemptive, infuses the film with a quasi-religious tone of doomed fate and predetermination.

A nice touch is how the film juxtaposes the neglectful mothers of two thrill-kill murderers (Adelle & Helen) with the exploitative moms vulgarly prostituting their daughters for a chance of becoming another Shirley Temple (whose precocious adult appeal always seemed to border the perverse and freakish). What’s the Matter with Helen? envisions Hollywood as a place of grotesque misfits lured by vague promises of happiness and  hope for renewal and regeneration. Stage mothers seek to reclaim their youth vicariously through their daughters, Helen seeks to redeem her damned soul through religion (as presented, just another arm of show business), and Helen strives to reclaim her lost youth and live the idealized life she's learned from movies and movie magazines.
It was true in the 1930s and it's true now: no one comes to Hollywood to face reality

Although it has been said that Debbie Reynolds was insecure about her ability as a dramatic actress during the making of What’s the Matter with Helen?, its actually Oscar-winner and Actors Studio alum Shelley Winters who seems to be going through the motions here. She's really very good playing a latent lesbian whose bible-thumping morality causes her to deny and suppress her nature to a psychopathic degree; but it's a performance I've seen her give so many times before, anything unique she brings to the character is lost in a haze of half-remembered stutters, whimpers, nervous flutters, and expressions of slack-faced befuddlement from other films.
If there's any complaint I have with her performance, it's that she pitches Helen's instability so high so soon that she leaves her character nowhere to go. This leaves Helen's feelings of attraction for Adelle, her mounting jealousy, and not-unfounded desire to persuade her "sane" friend to face a potentially dangerous reality, as the only compelling character arcs.
Sexually repressed Helen caresses (and sniffs!) Adelle's satin teddy.
The film's lesbian subplot is enhanced by claims in the rather nutty memoirs of Reynolds' ex-husband Eddie Fisher that Debbie Reynolds and Agnes Moorehead carried on a years-long affair

As the selfish and pretentious Adelle (her rinky-dink Iowa dance studio is christened, Adelle's New York School of Dance) Debbie Reynolds is surprisingly effective in a role originally offered to Joanne Woodward, Shirley MacLaine, and Rita Hayworth. With her girlish cuteness matured to a slightly brittle hardness, Reynolds creates a character who plays both to and against our sympathies. Her Adelle may harbor illusions of Hollywood stardom more appropriate and realistic to a woman half her age, but as she is revealed to indeed be a talented dancer and desirable beauty (enough to land the attentions of a Texas millionaire).
One can easily imagine her circumstances as being that of a woman feeling trapped in a small Midwest town, perhaps married and saddled with a child at too young an age. Her pragmatism looks like sanity, but it may be nothing more than a determination born of bitterness at feeling cheated in life, hardened into a resolve to have her reality match up with what she's been promised (and feels entitled to) from the movies.
In a rare, intoxicating moment when her real life briefly lives up to her fantasies, Adelle becomes the center of attention when she dances the tango at a speakeasy with a suave stranger. In keeping with the film's themes of  peeling away at Hollywood artifice, unknown to her, the handsome stranger is actually a gigolo surreptitiously paid for by her date.

The only Academy Award attention What’s the Matter with Helen? garnered was a well-deserved nomination for the splendid period costume designs of Morton Haack (nominated for Reynolds' The Unsinkable Molly Brown and The Planet of the Apes). In fact, for a low budget feature, What’s the Matter with Helen? is an atmospherically gritty looking film (suffering a bit from an over-obvious backlot set) with a fine eye for period detail.
Producer Debbie Reynolds engaged the services of William Tuttle, her makeup man from Singin' in the Rain; legendary hairdresser to the stars Sydney Guilaroff for those stiff-looking, but period-appropriate wigs; and Lucien Ballard (True Grit, The Wild Bunch) as cinematographer.
For those interested in such things, throughout What's the Matter With Helen? Debbie Reynolds looks striking and gets to model a slew of gorgeous '30s  getups and frocks. Ms. Winters..., not so much.

Openly gay director Curtis Harrington in his posthumously published book, Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood (Harrington passed away in 2007, the book published in 2013) wrote: “Of all my films, 'Helen' is the one I personally like the best.” And its not difficult to understand why. Its a darkly amusing, surprisingly gratifying film that works - perhaps only intermittently - as a thriller (those musical numbers, enjoyable as they are, go on far too long, wreaking havoc with suspense), but works most consistently as a macabre and off-beat melodrama with a unique setting and trenchant premise.
What’s the Matter with Helen? is a true favorite of mine, hindered chiefly by slack pacing and perhaps, in angling for a GP-rating over a boxoffice-prohibitive R, too much postproduction tinkering. Nevertheless, it is a movie I consider to be a good deal smarter than usually given credit for, and it boasts a memorable dramatic performance from living-legend Debbie Reynolds. (The supporting cast is also particularly good. Look for The Killing's Timothy Carey and Yvette Vickers of Attack of the Giant Leeches - a personal fave.)
So if you don't mind knowing the ending beforehand and are willing to risk having the Johnny Mercer song "Goody Goody" stuck in your head for days afterward, I'd recommend paying Helen and Adelle an extended visit. They're a scream.


That all-purpose backlot building
The Iowa courthouse in What's the Matter with Helen? (above) served as a Hospital in 1967s Hot Rods to Hell (below) and as a high school in a 1963 episode of The Twilight Zone (bottom)

Do It Debbie's Way
Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters reunited in 1983 for the laugh-a-minute home exercise video, Do It Debbie's Way (YouTube clip HERE). You haven't lived until you've seen an aerobics class in which a continually disruptive Shelley Winters (in a "I'm Only Doing This For Debbie" sweatshirt) cries out, "How many girls here have slept with Howard Hughes?" (a surprising number of hands go up), or hear Reynolds say aloud to no one in particular, "If I only had a hit record I wouldn't have to do this!" 

What's The Matter With Helen? Radio spot HERE

What's The Matter With Helen?: The entire movie is available on YouTube HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2014


  1. I think it was when you said "religion is depicted as just another myths-for-a-price opiate of the masses" that I wondered, "has Ken ever seen Timothy Carey's `The World's Greatest Sinner'?" And by magic, Carey turns out to be in the movie under review!

    I'm pretty certain this wasn't an unconscious linkage -- I really didn't know anything about What's the Matter with Helen coming in, though am quite intrigued now, as so often with your reviews.

    1. Allen!
      You always surprise me with the scope of films you're familiar with that I've never heard of! I did a Google read-up about Carey's "The World's Greatest Sinner" after reading your comment. It sounds every bit as eccentric and interesting as the actor. Now, off to see if clips exist on YouTube!

  2. Ken, I happen to have this movie in my collection--big surprise, right? I love the comparisons you make to Day of the Locust...it really is more of a companion piece to that film than to Baby Jane, Sweet Charlotte and the wonderful Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? with Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon...Like Locust, this film perfectly captures a grotesque funhouse image of 1930s Hollywood.

    You're right..Debbie acts Shelley Winters right off the screen (not an easy task) with her subdued underplaying. I am so glad Ms. Reynolds has had the opportunity to fulfill her dramatic promise in at least a couple of films--I too was delighted with her performance as Albert Brooks's mom in Mother. (And her wonderful portrayal of the mother of gay son Kevin Kline in In and Out also comes to mind.)

    Law of attraction is in action again, Ken. I too just posted a new story this morning...a Hollywood story starring none other than Miss Shelley Winters...

    Have you read Debbie's recent autobiography yet? Your amazing post makes me want to learn more about this unsinkable movie star!

    1. Hi Chris
      I haven't read the Debbie Reynolds book (yet) but I look forward to it.
      I forgot that she was in "In and Out"! She was wonderful in that Liberace film, as well.

      you nailed it in saying that it is her underplaying that works so well in "Helen". She comes off as so grounded that you see a glimpse of that toughness so many have written about (like her daughter, Carrie Fisher) but is nowhere to be seen in her talk show appearances. In fact, the whole neglectful mother stuff, combined with the lesbian angle always gave "Helen" an extra layer of interest for me. Always fascinating when performers take on roles that cause them to have to publicly work through things in their lives they keep hidden (like Dirk Bogarde in his films The Victim, Death in Venice, and The Servant).
      Looking forward to reading your post about the "Miss" Shelly Winters film on your blog! Thanks for commenting, Chris!

    2. I wasn't going to "go there," but now that you mention it, I too have always been fascinated by the Debbie Reynolds lesbian rumors...didn't she even live, between marriages, with Agnes Moorehead? They were both very churchgoing women (Agnes's Aimee Semple-like role in Helen was apparently close to the lady's real personality, I've heard) but I've heard this was a Hollywood church attended also by Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford and Shelley Winters, too...none of whom seemed to be to be devout Christians, and many of whom experimented with other women...I'm fascinated...

    3. Ha! Oh, but you MUST to go there! if only because those persistent lesbian rumors is one of the film's two reality crossovers adding to the film's appeal for me (the other being Reynolds casting herself as a loving but narcissistic mother who neglected her child...something Carrie Fisher always contended of her upbringing before the two mended fences in in later years).
      I read both of Eddie Fishers' memoirs so many ears ago, but in the second, he really lays into his theory that Debbie and Moorehead were involved.(perhaps these references were removed in subsequent editions?)
      I don't recall the living together thing, but it sounds familiar. But years ago, Reynolds' son weighed in on the veracity of it all, and of course Paul Lynde kind of outed the devoutly religious and closeted Moorehead in one of those Boze Hadleigh.
      Although this is all gossip (one of the things separating us from animals that I'm most grateful for), I bring it up because I don't think it sullies these stars so much as humanizes them.
      The whole "hidden in plain sight" side of Hollywood has always
      fascinated me, too!

  3. Oh Happy Day: the entire move seems to be on YouTube (search under title)! (Live link doesn't seem to post here.)

    I read "Unsinkable" and I remember Debbie saying that making this film was a nightmare primarily because Shelley insisted on staying in character (Method Actress, ya' know) as a homicidal psychopath throughout the entire filming. So glad they let bygones be bygones between that and "Do It Debbie's Way."

    Must watch this movie -- which I remember fondly from TV in the Seventies -- again and report back, but I know for sure it's 100% better than "The Singing Nun."

    1. Hi Peter
      Thanks for notifying us of the availability of this on YouTube. I look forward to hearing what you think of this. I think you'll get a particular kick out of Reynolds rather amazing 30's wardrobe (yet another thing factoring into Winters' tantrums).
      And yes, ANYTHING has to be better than "The Singing Nun"!

  4. This is certainly my favorite Debbie Reynolds film also, particularly because of its fashions and its under-the-rock look at Hollywood aspirations. The film's obvious back-lot appearance does make everything about its dream-factory milieu seem tawdry and second-rate, which I wonder may be deliberate; it does add to the film's creepy atmosphere ((I'm not surprised that Timothy Carey pops up midway through). I admit, for me the dancing-school pageant is a camp highlight, but it's camp as nightmare: the sight of all those ghastly Shirley Temple wannabes with their stage mothers is like a Fox musical dreamed up by Edward Gorey.

    1. Yay! Glad to hear someone ranks this as their favorite Debbie Reynolds film! It does indeed have a great look. Much like I always wished that I could live in a courtyard apartment like the San Bernadino Arms in Schlesinger's "Day of the Locust" (but in real life they are SOOO tiny), I once lusted after the living quarters Winters and Reynolds share in this film.
      And I love your very apt description of the pageant numbers in "Helen"...truly the film really needs them, and they punch up the overall bizarre feel of the film. I just wish a more skilled director (or editor?) had found a way to have the numbers add to the mounting tension. Something about them seems to bring things to a halt, and then the film has a hell of a time regaining its pitch.
      Thanks so much for commenting ( people always tell me how how smart and well-informed the people who comment on this site are!) and for the Twitter shout out, too!

  5. Hey Ken--

    I've always considered Debbie to be the female equivalent of Mickey Rooney--supertalented and also superhammy! But, here in "Helen"...Debbie plays it straight...and is great! And yeah, you get a glimpse of Debbie the tough cookie, as opposed to the sugary "on" persona that has long been a Reynolds staple...though in recent years, arch bitchiness has crept into her twinkly repartee...

    "Helen" used to be on the afternoon movie a lot when I was a kid, and we had my Mom in stitches imitating Shelley's range of snivels, stutters, and whining! As for off-camera Winters, I always thought Shelley was as nutty as Tony Curtis and Zsa Zsa in the "Sunset Blvd." school of self-delusion ; ) "Marilyn stole my 'smile'!" Uh, yeah, right, Shell!

    This movie is a ton of fun. Debbie's tango is terrific, and Dennis Weaver was pretty good looking out of his cowboy duds!

    And I see Curtis got the honor of directing Winters again the next year in "Who Slew Auntie Roo?" I hope he got a Purple Heart!

    1. Hi Rick
      That Mickey Rooney comparison is all too true, and more than a bit funny. Both seemed to have learned at the feet of those MGM coaches, and do marvelous "takes" when called for, but only rarely ever hit notes of authenticity. Reynolds though, seems to have improved so much with age.
      Funny you mention your imitating Winters' arsenal of tics as a child. My older sister was peerless at capturing Shelley's trademark whines as well. We was such a enduring camp figure to me when I was young, her actual talent came as something of a surprise to me when, as an adult, I discovered some of her earlier roles.

      And yes, her real-life eccentricity was legendary (she ALWAYS had a Marilyn story to tell. You'd have thought they were inseparable). Sometimes when I see interview clips of the kind of stars you mentioned, one gets the feeling that for a great many around during Hollywood's Golden Age must have spent most of their free time dodging the crashing egos.

      I have yet to read Curtis Harrington's memoirs, but I am curious as to how things went on that other picture with Shelley. Can't imagine it was anything he sought to do.
      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and memories of this film, Rick!

  6. Argyle, here. I feel like I saw this as part of a summer movie repertory program (marketing scheme) that cobbled together a bunch of ostensibly kid-friendly flops at a local theater that needed to fill seats on random summer mornings. You actually bought the tickets through your public school. They were little skinny perforated tickets for maybe 10 movies. A way for mothers to get their kids out of the house one morning of the week for a couple of months. So that’s: business for an empty theater, major concession sales, morning off for moms, added screen life for marginal or nth-run films in pre-video days, chance for unsupervised kids to run amok. Kind of an inverted Bible school. I loved those programs and I was not running amok. Sometimes I was finally able to see something I’d only ever heard of and dreamed of seeing like “Yellow Submarine.” And yes, a slightly (?) inappropriate movie like “... Helen” would not have been out of place. I wish I had a list - the only other film I can think of is “The Brass Bottle” with Burl Ives as a genie. Doing a little math, maybe I’m wrong about “... Helen.” I would have been 13 when it was released, so maybe a little old for “Summer Movie Magic!” or whatever it was called. But maybe not - I was a late bloomer - or I might have been taking my younger brother to run amok. It seems right to me. Unfortunately, that was a while ago so I don’t have many concrete recollections of the film, and it’s not a title that would jump out at me as a must-watch. That is, until now! In addition to your screen caps, that definitely show Ms. Reynold’s very worthwhile attention to hair and make-up, something that jumped out at me was the name Michael Mac Liammoir. I had just been googling him a few months ago and now can’t remember for sure why. I think it may have been his Orson Welles connections. I was reading "My Lunches with Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles" around that time, and he may have been mentioned in that. (That’s a good book, too.) He’s got an incredibly interesting bio - so another reason to re-watch “... Helen.” Long way around... Thanks, Ken!!

    1. That is so great you took note of the actor Michael Mac Liammoir (or however he spells it). I did some minor research on him when writing this and I was so surprised to find he seemed in real life,just as eccentric as the Victor Buono-esque part he plays to such great effect in "Helen".
      I have to get that Orson Welles book, it's been on my Amazon list for a while.
      And thank you for sharing the memory of those school-funded matinees. It doesn't matter if you remember all the details, what you've presented is a record of what was available to us kids in the days before cable/VHS/DVD.
      Here in L.A., where hothouse kids are lorded over by helicopter moms and dads, the idea of unsupervised kiddie activity is unheard of. Making your memories even more of a welcome blast from the past.
      What you described sounds so much like something they would have arranged at my schools (we're around the same age) but I was NOT ajoiner at all back then, so I never partook. In fact, i no doubt took myself so seriously as a kiddie-cineaste, I probably balked at the notion of attending the movies with kids my own age.
      I do hope your memory is accurate in that a movie as inappropriate as this was included in the pack. I love that! That's specifically WHY kids can't travel two feet without a parent in tow now.
      Always enjoy hearing form you Argyle. Like me, you link the movie with a personal recollection. I love that. Thanks!

  7. Ken, Another excellent post! This is definitely on my (short) list of favorite Debbie Reynolds movies although The Rat Race might show up there if only for Debbie's sunglasses. This post also reminded me of how many (and why?) 30s-era-Hollywood movies there were in the early to mid 70s: Day of the Locust, Won Ton Ton, Under the Rainbow, Gable and Lombard, WC Fields and Me, The Last Tycoon, The Girl on the Late Late Show, Phantom of Hollywood...and good or bad I was there for all of them. Thanks for the reminder about Harrington's book. I have to get that. I met him in New York at a showing of Games at the Anthology Film Archives and he couldn't have been more gracious and sweet. An embarrassing admission: in school I did an oral book report on the novelization of What's the Matter with Helen. What was I thinking? I did everything but act out all the parts. Despite my enthusiasm, the teacher was not impressed. Thanks again! Your posts make me want to watch my favorite movies all over again.

    1. Hello Max!
      I have never seen "The Rat Race" (I have an allergy to Tony Curtis), but your mention has piqued my interest. I am very jealous of your having met and spoke to Curtis Harrington (not to mention seeing "Games" on the big screen) , the snippets of his book available online make him seem like a very interesting man.
      And yes, the 70s were awash in a nostalgia craze. it is one of the true curiosities of the era that we somehow couldn't get enough of the 30s. From movies to theater to TV shows. The closest you ever get to an answer from sociologists is that the era was so bleak (Nixon and all) that going back in time was the culture's equivalent of wanting to go to one's bed and pull the covers over its head to avoid facing something.

      And now for the book report on "What's the Matter with Helen?" ...OMG, you would been a hero in my eyes at school!! Can't tell you how much I just love the idea, and my imagination plays over the look your teacher must have had on her/his face. Not an embarrassing admission at all. Given that i engaged in similar activity in my youth, it sounds like a triumph! Thanks for sharing such terrific memories in association with this movie.

  8. Me again.

    So I watched the movie yesterday and a few things come to mind.

    As excellent as Debbie Reynolds is in this movie, I think she's too young and doesn't have enough camp baggage for the role. Imagine Dotty Lamour or -- as you say -- Rita Hayworth, or Betty Hutton. Someone older, who had really skidded, that's what the movie needed, imo. Debbie has so much natural spunk and youthfulness, and also a twinkle in her eye: it's just hard to believe her in that situation. You can just imagine what was going through her mind playing dead tied to that ladder, with the trickle of blood streaming out the corner of mouth!

    Aside from the original poster giving away the ending, there's also a loss of shock value when we already know Adelle has been killed. Imagine if we didn't know what had happened until Linc enters the apartment and THEN we discover, along with him, what Helen has done to her.

    All that said, Debbie and Shelley are well teamed and the movie isn't at all dull. It's just uneven and, despite the excellent costumes, a little cheap feeling.

    1. Hey Peter
      Always feel so guilty that something I've written about inspires you to lose an hour or so of your life (makes me feel like Maleficent or something), so of course I have to imagine that it is all ultimately leading to some form of pop culture enrichment.
      I think you make a very good point, one obviously considered by the original producers, about the casting of someone who has already skidded somewhat in the role of Adelle. I think that certainly plays into why Reynolds was not approached for the part, but that it was one she acquired for herself. The camp baggage issue, too.
      Reynolds has nostalgia baggage, but as well liked as she was, she was never one whose beauty started to fade creating a ghoulish memory mask of what was.
      The film's themes of decay and inner rot would certainly have been put more to the fore.
      What I like about "Helen" is precisely what you cite in describing Reynolds; her natural spunk and youthfulness (to me) makes it all the more likely that her character is as convinced (as we are) that she was meant for better things, and with the appearance of Linc on the scene, its so clear she will be leaving Helen in the dust. But they are joined by similarity inside that doesn't match their outside differences, and that creates a marvelous tension for me.
      On a final note, it is indeed baffling to me why someone didn't put a halt to that ad campaign. As you mention, that ending would have been quite a "moment". As Reynolds has no doubt learned from her decades-long inability to ever mount a movie costume museum in Hollywood, the film industry sometimes shows so little respect for what it creates.
      Thanks, Peter, for an excellent mini-review, with your great insights. So happy you saw the film in such quick turnaround.
      When you give your take on a film I've written about, it's like you're the film correspondent from the coast that takes me back to the days when award shows would have announcements like "And the winner in New York is..."

  9. I haven't seen this film, don't even remember hearing of it, really, but it certainly sounds grotesque! Being incurably curious, I located an image of the poster online and now have an inkling of the ending. Hopefully, the Shelley Winters character was hauled off in a strait-jacket (to borrow a title from one of Joan Crawford's late efforts).

    That said, I'm a big fan of "Day of the Locust" and do think Debbie had more than "cute" and "spunky" in her (saw her in "The Rat Race" with Tony Curtis many years ago and was surprised by how good she was in a down-beat role). But, except for "Baby Jane," I don't much care for the "biddie horror"/"hagsploitation" genre...so, will I see it nor not? It may come back to and down to being "incurably curious." And being influenced by your sincere and eloquent praise for the film.

    1. Ok, you're the second one to bring up "the Rat Race", so perhaps i have to put aside my aversion to all things Tony Curtis and give the movie a try. Reynolds in serious mode is always interesting.
      As for "Helen", I'm not sure anyone is missing anything outstanding by not seeing it (with a more inventive director, say the fellow who made "The Honeymoon Killers", I might say otherwise) but if you do find your curiosity winning out, I think you'll be nicely surprised at how the film falls on the gentler side of the "biddy -horror" spectrum.
      Wonderful to see you here again, Eve, thanks for commenting!

  10. Serendipity alert!
    The seldom seen "What's the Matter With Helen?" will be shown on TCM on Friday, April 4 @ 545 pm ET. Goody, goody!

    Also, I am Team Liz, but have to admit Debbie's had her moments. Reynolds was especially good when a director was allowed to scrape away her sugary persona. Debbie was also good as working class girl in The Catered Affair with Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine.

    1. Yes, Ken's powerful post has called it into being!!

    2. Thanks for the heads-up!
      Hey! Now that's something that doesn't happen very often with the kind of movies I cover! I hope it attracts a few of the curious.

      And Rick, I saw Debbie Reynolds in "Divorce American Style" the other night and she reminded me why I don't have a very long list of favorite Reynolds movies. I think you're right about someone being able to crack all that MGM-learned schtick she can sometimes fall back on.
      And Chris...if only I had magical, powerful posts...I'd write about Robert Altman's H.E.A.L.T.H and call it into being! Thanks very much, guys.

  11. April 1 is Debbie's 82nd birthday and Thursday is Doris Day's 90! TCM is running an all-"Day" tribute to Hollywood's other perky blonde that day ; )

    1. Just checked out TCMs amazing Doris Day lineup! I get a chance to DVR one of my favorites - "With Six You Get Eggroll"

  12. Terrific write up, you found so much in the film. I think this is miscategorized as the humorously referred to biddie horror, although Shelley can be rather horrifying at times. It's too low key and serious minded for true horror, had it had a director with a surer hand and a better ad campaign it could have been a real sleeper hit.

    Debbie is very good, quite frankly better than the movie deserves. I wouldn't say she hurts the film but as you said her talent is too great to fill the confines of who Adelle is supposed to be. I can't really see the other actresses who were considered making sense in the role, maybe Rita Hayworth but by the time this was made she had been ravaged by undetected Alzheimer's. I think Betty Grable would have been an intriguing possibility. That's not a swipe at Miss Grable who I think is quite wonderful but by her own admission she was not the best dancer nor the best singer but a wholesome pleasant personality and that would have made sense for the proprietress of a rinky-dink dance studio. She also would have been closer to the proper age for the character.

    I think this is one of Debbie's better performances but not my favorite. I've become a completist of late trying to see as many of my favorite actresses films as I can, and to a lesser degree actors. Debbie is one I've had a lot of luck with, I've seen all her theatrical features excepting the elusive Mr. Imperium. I'm keen to see that one not only because it's the only one I've missed but also because of the amusing stories Debbie told about its making in her first biography. Lana Turner loathed Ezio Pinza who apparently reeked of garlic and Debbie flat out stated that Marjorie Main was in her words OFF. HER. ROCKER. Talking to her dead husband, walking off the set to use the facilities while still reciting her dialogue and the like but she was popular and knew her lines so the studio put up with her eccentricities.
    Picking my favorite was a bit tougher than I thought it would be. I love musicals but neither Singing in the Rain nor The Unsinkable Molly Brown are ones that I hold much affection for although she's fine in both. I do love her in Mother and thought she was quite fine in The Catered Affair, The Rat Race, This Happy Feeling and Mary, Mary but I think my favorite would have to be her performance as Lilith Prescott Van Valen in How The West Was Won. She's probably better in both Helen and Mother but since she's the character whose journey provides the through line of the episodic film she gets to show off all her talents in HTWWW and has a surprisingly simpatico chemistry with Gregory Peck. Also she shares several scenes with Thelma Ritter and that makes any film and performance better.

    One final thing, in her lastest bio Debbie confirmed that they had Geraldine Page ready to step in for the near psychotic Shelley but decided to stick with her because of budgetary reasons. I'm glad they did, Gerry Page could do anything and would have surely given a more contained true reading of the part but Shelley's all stops out work never fails to entertain.

    1. Hi Joel
      The whole mishandling of the marketing of “What’s the Matter With Helen?” reminds me of the similar fate of Raquel Welch’s “The Wild Party” (1975). Both films featured actresses playing against type in period films that the largely exploitation-minded studios behind them had no idea of how to sell. I think you’re right that “Helen” had the potential to be a sleeper hit had a less journeyman-type director been assigned to the project, and less attention made to keeping with the confines of a GP rating and letting the odd story be told with the shocking bizarreness it deserved.

      I think the idea of Betty Grable is a marvelous one, primarily because of the reasons you cite. Everyone else considered, from Blondell to Hayworth, set up the hag-horror dynamic too obviously.

      I’ve never seen “How the West Was Won” I tried once with that curved Cinemascope screen on TCM, but it made my head hurt. But I would like to see how Reynolds plays off of someone like Thelma Ritter. Like Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds seems to up her game when given something to shoot for.
      Thanks, Joel. Good to hear from you again, and I know readers of this blog get a kick out of your knowledgeable comments (I know I certainly do!)

    2. How the West Was Won can be a challenge both because of its length and the unusual format it was shot in. Although with the new technology that removed the terribly distracting lines it is much better. I love those big sweeping films and with this one's all star cast I'm in heaven the whole time.

      Debbie and Thelma Ritter were teamed one other time in a fluffy little comedy called "The Second Time Around" where Debbie through different plot complications becomes the sheriff of a small western town in the 1910's. It's much less ambitious that HTWWW but a cute little trifle that has Juliet Prowse in it as well as Thelma & Debbie.

      Also I can't believe that I forgot about Tammy and the Bachelor! Preposterous though it may be I love that movie, Debbie sprightly turn in it, the theme song and of course Mildred Natwick, another one of those great supporting actresses that improved whatever she was in.

    3. Ha! I always forget "Tammy and Bachelor" too! That's a great little light-as-a-feather movie. I'd rank it above "Molly Brown" as a favorite. It's good, but apparently easy to forget.

  13. What's interesting to remember is that when Debbie Reynolds filmed this movie in 1970, she was only 38, That's pretty young to be considered a "biddy" and be lumped together with 50 year old Gloria Swanson in SUNSET BLVD or 57 year old Joan Crawford in STRAIT JACKET (or 54 year old Bette Davis in BABY JANE). And I can one-up Max Frost--I did book reports on the novelization of WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN ...and KLUTE!

    1. Hi Kevin
      That's an excellent point about Reynolds' age in this film, something I tend to forget because while she looks terrific, as photographed she looks to me to be considerably older than her 38 years. (38-39 looks so DIFFERENT now...Angelina Jolie/Charlize Theron.).
      Lastly, who'd ever guess that there would be TWO people out there (are there more, perhaps?) to use the novelization of "What's the matter With Helen?" a film few people even know about, as book report subjects in school?!? And Klute, too? That is beyond wonderful. What cool kids you and Max Frost must have been.
      Makes me think that perhaps somewhere out there is someone who did a high-school book report on Susann's "Valley of the Dolls." I certainly hope so.

  14. For those of you who have Time Warner, Helen was just added to TCM On Demand. If you're like me and you prefer to watch films on TV rather than online, than I suggest you watch it quick before they remove it, (TCM takes adds and removes movies pretty quickly for some reason)!

    BTW, I too love that Helen seems drawn from the same mold as Day of the Locust. Something particulary offbeat and dangerous and mysterious about the 20's and 30's anyway, but something about movies in late 60's and 70's that seemed to produce the best movies about that whole era. A kind of nostalgia that isn't quite the same for our generation now looking back on the 70's or 80's.

    Should be watched with the following:

    They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
    Inside Daisy Clover
    Gable and Lombard
    Also Cabaret, even though set in Berlin, still captures a certain starry-eyed glamour

    1. Oops! I forgot to add The Last Tycoon, The Wild Party, and Valentino, though the latter is pure fiction, (not too mention disgraceful in the way it portrays a Fatty Arbuckle-like character).

      The first two are not great films either, yet they still manage to create that sort of dream-like nostalgia and tragedy that have always been synonymous with the 20's and 30's.

    2. You bring up a good point, and one I've noticed myself in 60s/70s films about the 20s & 30s: They often tapped into what was rather eerie about those eras in a provocative way. It's like they fed our romanticized movie glamour back at us through the dark prism of 70s realism. As evidenced by the films you list, the results were assertively anti-nostalgia and often intriguing comments on the dark underside of Hollywood. Thanks for your comment and excellent examples!

    3. Thanks for the reply Ken. You're perceptions are as usual right on point. That dark underside is both nostalgia and anti-nostalgia if you get right down to it.

      Case in point: "Once Upon a Time in America." Meant to be an opium-induced fever dream anyway, something romantic and tragic that almost makes you yearn for a past that you weren't even a part of, (I'm only 30). It reminds me of when I have dreams about my dad having never been dead, and showing up out of nowhere, and then waking up with that sad but odd feeling that it really happened. This longing for ghosts of the past, (or present, living and dead), and wanting to bridge that distance. Not only does that feeling remind me of OUATIA and watching the entire film, but it also seems to reflect Noodles' (De Niro) vision of Deborah having not aged a day in 30 years. I don't know if that makes total sense, but that eerie feeling somehow seems to reflect powerful drama like Leone's film, as well as musicals and horror about that era.

      Also, I think one reason for my creepy and mysterious view of these films has something to do with the 20's era ghouls who pop up in "The Shining." Silent, leering, and yet terrifyingly real. Even without blood and special effects, the scariest part of the film by far is the ballroom scene with a hundred jazz age ghosts staring at Jack. (That mystique is probably why the old Hollywood mysteries of Thelma Todd's possible murder, William Desmond Taylor's murder, Paul Bern's death, and even the Black Dahlia seem to haunt us more than any modern mystery of some husband suspected of killing his wife on every episode of Dateline)

      Two horror films that I forgot to add as well: Ghost Story and The Other. The old men in the former looking back in the 80's at their tragedy in 1929 has a different feeling that a 80 year-old man now looking back at the 1960's. The 80's and the 20's seems so much more distant than the 2000 teens and the 60's.

  15. Fun to see you column this, Ken..! Another one I remember seeing as a kid. I'd forgotten all about it 'til TCM showed it a couple years ago. I did catch most of it again last Friday! Agreed on the comparisons to Locust (a film experience I've commented about on your pages). The only thing I want to add is, it's fun to catch popular television actress Pamelyn Ferdin in Helen. (She was the classmate who innocently laughed at Jan's black wig wearing attempt to set herself apart from her sisters in The Brady Bunch, among many other tv sightings.) I always think it's so off-putting to see well-recognized tv actors in movies, e.g., Andy Griffith's Clara Edwards among the witch coven in Rosemary's Baby (and even weirder as the wife of the doomed Justice of the Peace in Homicidal). And, I just recently made it thru Shampoo and was stopped in my tracks when I saw Beaver's principal, Mrs. Rayburn (Doris Packer)…! Thanks for the memories, Ken..!

  16. ah...ps…….lol…the title reminds me of something John Waters says about film titles: he 'levitates' in theaters when the actual title is spoken by someone in the film…!

    1. Hi Jeff
      I agree with you about sometimes over-familiar TV faces in movies. Pamelyn Ferdin was all over episodic TV when I was growing up, and she really stands out amongst the unfamiliar, almost purposefully odd-looking children in "Helen." And don't get me started on William Castle stalwart, Hope Summers (Clara Edwards) in Rosemary's Baby. She stands out to me like a sore thumb. Sometimes it doesn't bother me (like Bewitched's Aunt Clara in Hitchcock's "strangers on a Train", but other times it yanks me out of my suspended disbelief. (And does the "Leave it to Beaver" principal in "Shampoo" appear at the election night dinner?)

      Funny that you saw this as a kid (as I wanted to, but had to wait).
      By the way, that's a very comical statement from John Waters! I know what he means. Thanks for an interesting casting observation and for stopping by again!

    2. Hey, Ken.
      I always wonder how Clara got cast in Rosemary's Baby. I do think it was bizarre but intriguing casting..!

      I suppose you know that 'Louise Tate' is in Strangers, also. Known as Kasey Rogers during her Bewitched run, but cast as Laura Elliott in Strangers. There's an interview with her on the dvd features. I hadn't known for years….!

      Yes, Doris Packer (Mrs. Rayburn) makes an unrelated announcement at the dinner right after Beatty and Christie exit the restaurant.

      Always a pleasure, Ken..!

    3. No! As many times as I've seen "Strangers on a Train" (and I must have the bargain DVD 'cause there are no extras to enlighten me) I never made the connection between the tough-talking wife and the rather invisible Louise on "Bewitched"! I love that! Thanks

      I interviewed a couple of the actors from "Rosemary's Baby" and it seems when it came to some of the small role casting, Paramount paraded almost every contract player on the lot in front of Polanski, and he made his picks mostly on how they looked and how they fit his drawings (Charles Grodin came out of one of the cattle calls). With "The Andy Griffith Show" a part of Paramount's TV division, my guess is that Hope Summers was trotted out with the rest.
      As a newbie in the country, I'm sure that Polanski had no idea of how "visible" an actress she was. I mean she's great in the part and certainly fits in with the other coven members...but she's Clara Edwards for crissake. :-) Thanks Jeff!

  17. I was on vacation in the Spain the other week and I could have bought this film on dvd! The spaniards appreciate old Hollywood classics and have a lot of titles available in stores. I wanted so many of them that I had choose between them and "What's the Matter with Helen" was not one of the ones I brought home. I wish I had though, after having read your fascinating review of the film. You made it seem like good fun. I'll try to Watch it on Youtube instead.

    I saw the cover art for the film and I got the same feeling about the fate of the characters in the film as you did. That has happened before and usually there's a twist ending that you could not know of, but not in this case, right?

    I wish they made more "hagsplotation" films! Maybe they still do? Was "Hush" from 1998 one?

    1. Hi Wille!
      I think you might have made the right choice in not purchasing the DVD. I love the film a great deal, but it's far from perfect. It just happens to have enough things about it that work spectacularly well.

      And as for the DVD cover art (movie poster)...it still blows my mind that any thinking individual thought it was a good idea.
      That film "Hhush" is not hagspoitation, but more like a cross between "Rosemary's Baby" and Patty Duke's 1972 film "You'll Like My Mother"
      I wasn't crazy about "Hush" beyond a terrific Jessica Lange performance.

      I too miss the absence of hag-horror films. Such great opportunities for camp. Horror is now so much a genre of the young, I can't imagine the Hagsploitation craze would ever be revised.

    2. Hush reminds me a lot of a that 1965 take on the grand guignol called Die Die My Darling! starring the great Tallulah Bankhead and Stefanie Powers, too....Miss Taloo was one scary hag in that one!!

    3. Chris, I think your reference is spot-on , and I'm surprised it didn't occur to me. Scratch the Rosemary's Baby similarity...I'd have to agree with you and say that "Die Die My Darling" is "Hush"s closest kin. Hmm...maybe it's hag-horror after all!

  18. Was so glad to read this, and then learn that What's the Matter with Helen? is available for viewing on Youtube (and in exquisite, glistening quality, too). Fascinating to finally see it. Very lurid and enjoyable psychological horror film with an overlay of Day of the Locust. It certainly was no el cheapo production: the 1930s sets and costumes are beautiful. And Shelley Winters in full throttle scenery chewing mode! Thought you'd be interested in this: Dennis Cooper giving an in-depth analysis of Curtis Harrington's filmography. I want to see Queen of Blood! Have definitely seen Night Tide (young, cute Dennis Hooper in a tight white sailor uniform falls in love with a mermaid!) and Killer Bees used to be on TV all the time when I was a kid in the 1970s.

    1. Wow! Thanks for the excellent link. Until reading it I hadn't been fully aware of how many Curtis Harrington films I had actually seen. Although I've never seen "Queen of Blood", I did get to catch "Night Tide" on TCM here in the states...it's an oddity to be sure. And who can forget "killer Bees"?
      Glad you got to see "Helen" on YouTube. Thought it might be to your taste. Thanks again for the great Dennis Cooper link...really the most info on Harrington I've yet to come across!

  19. Whoops - forgot to give link to Dennis Cooper blog:


  20. Ach, I loathe that "hagsploitation" tag. It's especially weird with What's the Matter with Helen? as Debbie is by no stretch of the imagination old still less a "hag". She's adorable (which probably sounds patronising but isn't meant to do so, just look at her!). It's weird that there was/no equivalent old geezersploitation genre. Imagine a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra (or later Tony Curtis and Charlton Heston, call it wigsploitation). I don't know if you've ever seen Gene Kelly in lamp klassic, Viva Knievel! but the horror would stick with you. Although, to be fair, Eugene's terrible performance as a dipsomaniac mechanic - whose behaviour is presumably controlled by the alien lifeform squatting on his head - is nothing compared to the terror of kreepy Evel Knievel, a kind of straight Liberace equipped a similar amount of acting talent; he managed to be out-acted by his straight outta 1956 hairdon't.
    "((...)an inset pic of Shelley Winters looking more demented than usual.) Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Difficult to imagine.
    Michael Mac Liammoir!
    Imagine if Dennis Weaver had been asked to play his character here as Chester B. Goode whiny voice, limp and all. That would have been scary. Or, okay, hilarious. To me. And nobody else.
    I can't help but be saddened when I see Ms Reynolds and am reminded of her fate after Carrie's needless death. (I sympathize with her son, Carrie's brother, to a possibly greater extent. Not that this is relevant to anything, of course.) Um, Happy New Year!

    1. Hi Robert! I know what you mean about the term “Hagsploitation” ..it has a horrible sound. But for me, I think it perfectly fits what the genre comes out of …America’s fear/hatred of grown women. The misogyny is built-in, as the “horror” of these types of movies is all about how monstrous we as a culture see women who have aged out of the primary gender roles movies have reinforced: lust object, girlfriend, mother, wife. All she has to be is single and over 30 to qualify as a “hag” in these movies.
      And the reason we don’t have a male equivalent is (as you can guess) that men have been running the show and writing the scripts that try to make it plausible that ancient icons like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra have women like Jaqueline Bisset interested in them.
      Men have always been infinitely more horrific than women (you would appreciate the 2022 horror film “Men”), but older guys were writing the myths and they have always been terrified of women their own age. I appreciate hagsploitation because it's a genre that gives a mask-off vision of Hollywood’s (and America’s) attitudes about aging and women
      Oh, and just the cast list of Viva Knievel! Is enough to keep me miles away...Albert Salmi, Red Buttons, AND Leslie Nielsen? (some sociologist will one day write an essay on what we ever did to deserve Marjoe Gortner).
      Thank you for commenting, Robert!

  21. O God. Marjoe Gortner! Sorry for reminding you of him! In Earthquake, it's a tossup as to what's scarier, the Earthquake, Marjoe, the notion that Lorne Greene was old enough to be Ava Gardner's father, Lorne's syrup, Victoria Orincipal's Afro wig (Oh white people hardly any of you can pull THAT off! Honourable exception for Art Garfunkel!), or Charlton Heston. Chilling.
    - Robert