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  What's the Matter with Helen? Face The Music And Dance
Year: 1971
Director: Curtis Harrington
Stars: Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters, Dennis Weaver, Micheál MacLiammóir, Agnes Moorehead, Samee Lee Jones, Helene Winston, Yvette Vickers, Timothy Carey, Robbi Morgan
Genre: HorrorBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: In the 1930s a sensational murder case results in two young men being put behind bars for life, but their mothers, Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) and Helen (Shelley Winters) become the victims of the public's anger and decide to move to California to open a talent school for little girls. All goes well until Helen believes that the threatening phonecalls they experienced back in their home town are starting again - could someone be out for revenge, or is the pressure getting to Helen?

This melodramatic Hollywood shocker was written by Henry Farrell, the author of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and like that film features two ageing stars in a psychological horror plot. While it doesn't reach the heights of Baby Jane, lacking the resonance and leaning too heavily on its murder-flavoured storyline, it is one of those films that plays on the sick side of camp, with musical numbers, tap dancing little girls, dolls and a look at the less glamorous areas of showbiz.

The trials of motherhood weigh heavily on the two lead characters, both women having to share the guilt of their sons' inability to reciprocate their love for them, and feeling that they've let them down somehow, rather than the other way around. Helen actually has more guilt about her son hating her for accidentally killing her own husband in a farming accident than for the act itself, and sees this as the reason he and Adelle's son have carried out the murder - to get back at their mothers.

All the way through the drama the shy, prim Helen shows signs of not being quite right in the head: maybe it's the way she holds sharp implements like scissors, or perhaps it's her religious obsession (she listens to firebrand preachers on the radio). Whatever, this gives us such darkly humorous scenes as the one where Adelle and her pupils are putting on a show for the talent scouts and have to nervously smile their way through a routine that is being undercut by Helen's offstage screams.

Adelle and the pushy mothers of the little girls are all looking for an easy route to success: the mothers through their children turning into the next Shirley Temple, and Adelle through marrying a rich millionaire (Dennis Weaver) who has taken an interest in her. But Helen, a symbol of her previous life, holds Adelle back all the time and ultimately ruins her chances of putting her past behind her. Finally, if it ends the way you expect, at least the film provides enough thrills and sly chuckles. Watch for: Shelley's manic piano playing, Debbie sharing a scene with Timothy Carey. Music by David Raksin.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Curtis Harrington  (1928 - 2007)

American cult director who graduated from experimental films (he was an associate of Kenneth Anger) to working as an assistant on Hollywood films like Peyton Place and The Long Hot Summer. He made several distinctive B-movies during the 60s and 70s, before turning his hand to mainstream American TV. His most notable films were Night Tide, starring a young Dennis Hopper, Queen of Blood, Games, the twisted thrillers Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and What's the Matter with Helen?, and possession horror Ruby.

 
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