WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971) Reviews and overview

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‘So you met someone and now you know how it feels. Goody, goody’

What’s the Matter with Helen? is a 1971 American horror-thriller ‘psycho-biddy’ film directed by Curtis Harrington (Ruby; Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?; Night Tide; et al) from a screenplay by Henry Farrell (How Awful About Allan; Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte; author of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? novel).

The film stars Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters (The Visitor; Tentacles; The Tenant), Dennis Weaver (Don’t Go to SleepDuel), Agnes Moorehead (Bewitched, Dear Dead Delilah) and Yvette Vickers (The Dead Don’t Die; Attack of the Giant Leeches, Attack of the 50ft Woman).


Leonard Hill and Wesley Bruckner are seen being loaded into a paddy wagon to face life sentences in prison for the Iowa murder of Ellie Banner. Their mothers, Helen Hill (Shelley Winters) and Adelle Bruckner (Debbie Reynolds) fight a crowd to their car.

In the car, Helen reveals that someone in the crowd cut the palm of her left hand. Soon at home and tending to her wound, Helen receives an anonymous phone call from a man, “I’m the one who cut you…. I wanted to see you bleed.” This caller threatens to make the mothers pay for the sins of their sons. Helen and Adelle change their names, leave Iowa, and head to Hollywood, where both Helen and Adelle opens a dance academy for little girls who want to be the next Shirley Temple…

The film is released in the United States on Blu-ray by Scream Factory on March 28, 2017.

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  • New High-Definition Transfer from the interpositive
  • Original Theatrical Trailer
  • Original Radio Spot
  • Still Gallery


“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.” Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image

What’s the Matter with Helen? doesn’t push the movie far enough.  Shelley Winters might go crazy (and crazy Shelley Winters is good), but it takes too long to get there.  The movie needed to boost the psychological thriller aspect of it and ease back on some of the story.” JP Roscoe, Basement Rejects

” …a steaming bouillabaisse centering around the idea of women’s attractions, both upcoming, vibrant, and faded, and the way men treat them as commodities. Which is not to mention the whole current about motherhood, relations between women…. This one throws a bunch of stuff up in the air and can only hit a little bit of it, but that’s fine for me.” CdM Scott, Cinema de Merde

“Despite fine complex characterizations by Reynolds and Winters – and wonderfully monstrous ones from The Bat’s Agnes Moorehead (as radio evangelist Sister Alma) and Tom Jones’ Micheál MacLiammóir as the appropriately theatrical elocution expert – everything feels a bit too familiar, and most of the hysteria is shoved to the last twenty minutes.” Eric Cotenas, DVD Drive-In

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” …United Artists released an ad campaign that gave away the ending. Blatantly. Critics complained and the film was more or less forgotten. Today, it plays like a Baby Jane rip-off (which is odd, when you consider Farrell created both) and thanks to Curtis Harrington’s rather pedestrian direction, the end result is more curiosity than creepshow.” Bill Gibron, DVD Talk

” …spends quite as much time making sappy fun of the 1930’s period — through things like Ovaltine ads and the self-conscious use of period slang—as it does on its not terribly mysterious plot. The thing that’s the matter with Helen is that she’s a religious nut and definitely loony, which is obvious so early in the movie that What’s the Matter With Helen? never has much place to go.” Vincent Canby, The New York Times, July 1, 1971

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” …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.” Liz Smith, Dreams Are What Le Cinema is For…

“More Baby Jane melodramatics, quite lively and with interesting period detail.” Leslie Halliwell, Halliwell’s Film Guide

“It blows up, by way of some time-honoured shocks, into a hugely entertaining and gory ending which remembers to pay homage not only to horror but to Hollywood.” Phil Hardy (editor), The Aurum Film Encyclopedia: Horror

“You can imagine my horror when I saw the cheaply produced poster for Helen. It used the very image that I had not wanted to reveal anywhere! People instantly knew the ending of the film before they even saw it. I asked myself what idiot in the UA publicity department had decided to do this […] The brutal truth was that Helen was simply being sacrificed by UA upon the altar of what they refer to as “summer cash flow”. Any money that in was profit since they didn’t have any investment in the film.” Curtis Harrington, Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood

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