What hath Robert Aldrich wrought? When Aldrich's gothic masterpiece WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? was released in 1962, no one expected it to be the beginning of a cycle of films that would run through the rest of the decade and into the early 1970s.
We speak of course of the, you'll excuse the expression, "horror hag" films, thrillers in which the leading ladies were all a bit past their prime and "slumming" in low budget genre and exploitation films. These actresses had long and sterling careers behind them, but major roles in A movies were becoming few and far between. They took the work that was offered and gave it their best.
The Horror Hag filmography includes HUSH...HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) (also by Aldrich). Bette Davis, who appeared in both JANE and CHARLOTTE, went on to headline DEAD RINGER (1964), THE NANNY (1965), and THE ANNIVERSARY (1968). Her co-star in JANE, Joan Crawford, starred in STRAIT-JACKET (1964), I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1965), BERSERK! (1968) and TROG (1970). Joan Fontaine did THE WITCHES (1966), Tallulah Bankhead terrorized Stephanie Powers in DIE! DIE! MY DARLING (1965) and Olivia de Havilland was menaced by James Caan in LADY IN A CAGE (1964).
Which brings us to WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971), a late entry in the Horror Hag cycle which paired fading stars Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters in a thriller set in the 1930s. Helen Hill (Winters) and Adelle Bruckner (Reynolds) are mothers with something grim in common. Their sons have been tried and convicted for the murder of a woman in a small town in Iowa. Beset with vitriol from the townspeople for the deeds of their sons, the two decide to leave town together and head for Hollywood. Adelle, a dance instructor, has dreams of making it big in Tinsel Town while Helen, a deeply religious woman, appears to be slightly disturbed and hiding something behind her placid features. Adelle finds a sugar daddy in the form of rich Texan Linc Palmer (Dennis Weaver), but as Adelle begins to find happiness, Helen starts to become unhinged and the bodies begin to mount up.
The poster image gives away a major plot point but there's nothing to be done about that now. It's provocative and I'm sure it helped sell some tickets. Reynolds has a chance to showcase her dance skills in a few scenes and she's generally good. Winters, on the other hand, is crazy from the get-go and it's no surprise when her dark side surfaces. There's a murder scene in which a man goes plunging down a staircase that recalls a similar sequence in PSYCHO (1960). The supporting cast is good with Agnes Moorehead playing a radio evangelist, Yvette Vickers in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance as a stage mother and young Pamela Ferdin as one of Adelle's child dancers. The cinematography by Lucien Ballard gives everything a slightly hazy, gauzy look. It is the past after all, while the production design is by Eugene Lourie, who directed such genre classics as THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (1958), THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) and GORGO (1961).
Director Curtis Harrington does a good job with Henry Farrell's screenplay. Harrington was a genre auteur whose filmography includes NIGHT TIDE (1961), VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET (1965), QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966), GAMES (1967), WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO? (1971, with Shelley Winters), THE KILLING KIND (1973) and RUBY (1977). WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN isn't great by any means. The script holds no surprises and the shocks are minimal. Fans of Reynolds and Winters will enjoy seeing these two square off but don't expect anything as outre as BABY JANE.