What’s the Matter With Helen?recommended viewing

We don’t talk about my mother. She’s bad.
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1971
Director: 
Curtis Harrington
Starring: 
Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters, Dennis Weaver, Agnes Moorehead
The Setup: 
Two women are in a bizarrely symbiotic relationship.
Discussion: 

From director Curtis Harrington, who gave us one of my favorite bizarre little movies, The Killing Kind, comes another tale of disturbed, psychotic mothers. I’m going to have to check out what else is in this guys’ oeuvre, as so far he really is pumping out interesting little films with an entrancing, disturbing directorial style. Go Curtis!

This one begins with newsreel footage setting this story in the time of Roosevelt [it’s a period piece], and quickly moving to these notorious murders that were committed by two boys—who were the sons of Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters, who will be the main characters of this film. There may be [there MUST be] some connecting tissue between what happens in the rest of the movie and the murders by the boys that happen before the film begins… but I really can’t piece it together.

Anyway, it seems that Debbie was this former showgirl [think more “Rockettes” than “Showgirls,” however] and Shelley Winters is her total BFF. They receive a threatening phone call, then decide, what with the media frenzy surrounding the trial and all [we are told that the mothers became as notorious as the sons, though not really why], decide to open up a school for young girls who wish to be little Shirley Temples, where Debbie will train them to dance. They are also going to take on new names and identities—though Debbie chooses to bring along and display the life-sized cardboard cutout of herself. That’s okay, no one will recognize THAT.

So the next thing you know there’s a room full of little baby janes and their Hollywood showbiz mothers learning to dance, which leads into a strange and apparently uniquely Harrington sequence highlighting the creepy bond of mothers and daughters and aging and old women and sexual mores. Debbie goes out to talk to the mother of a girl whose father insists that she wear a RED uniform, even though the rules state that all the girls must be dressed in the same blue uniform. Debbie mistakes the nanny for the mother, prompting the girl to say: “We don’t talk about my mother. She’s bad.” Then we abruptly switch to another, kind of ugly girl, who stares rudely at an older, ugly woman in the Tammy Faye mold. Soon after this we have a juxtaposition of Debbie’s face cutting to a similarly posed doll… and we pull back to see another doll that is very similar to Shelley Winters. You see what I mean when I say that this Harrington dude has some shit going on?

So by now it’s beginning to become apparent that Shelley’s character is a bit on the strange side [I mean, so is Debbie, but Shelley more floridly and dangerously so], and harbors more than just a friendly affection for Debbie. Around this time Debbie cuts Shelley’s mother-dyke hair to make it more like her own, and during this time Shelley tells the story of finding the body of the women their sons had killed. Only it’s difficult to pay attention to the story when you’re watching what a horrifically phony job Debbie is doing of pretending to cut Shelley’s hair.

I should also mention that this film features hair creations by Sydney Guilcroft. You might have thought that they were mere hairstyles, but no, they are in fact HAIR CREATIONS.

Meanwhile Debbie has begun to notice the rich, mustachioed Southern gentleman [played by Dennis Weaver, who just died last week] who is the single father of the young brat he makes dress in red. Let’s review: the absent mother is “bad” and they don’t talk about her, and he thinks his daughter is so special he demands that she dress in red, against the rules of the school, and against her will. Are you picking up some issues? Debbie, seeing an obvious potential mate in this guy [as well as a way to escape her rather trapped existence with Shelley], decides at this point that SHE must demonstrate a crucial dance routine to the kids, requiring her to shake it provocatively in front of the Southern gentleman whilst wearing tiny shorts and revealing top. I gotta hand it to her—the girl’s got it down.

It works, and the gentleman asks her to dinner. They go, and have a wonderful time, and it becomes more than obvious that Debbie is eyeing this guy as an escape from Shelley, which is also apparent to Shelley. The Debbie character’s psychosis becomes most apparent here, as she clearly still considers herself quite the little hottie, and is most natural in a narcissistic element where she is the center of attention—which is another aspect that pulls this film into Baby Jane territory. Her smug, oblivious expression in these scenes is priceless, and Debbie Reynolds persona and history make her perfect for this role.

All of this comparison to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? should not be all that surprising, as Henry Farrell, who wrote the screenplay here, also wrote the novel that Baby Jane [and Hush… Hush… Sweet Charlotte] came from. And, as mentioned earlier, Harrington seems to have a bit of a specialty in films about crazy, overbearing mothers, starring famous actresses in the waning years of their careers. Bring ‘em on, I say.

So anyway, to add to the general weirdness and bizarre sexual vibe, on a date with the Southern gent Debbie obviously wants to tango [I mean actually dance the tango], gets a little grumpy when she finds that the Texan doesn’t dance, and begins cruising this guy across the room! Then the Texan holds up some money and PAYS the other guy to dance with Debbie, which leads to a long tango sequence. I tell you, they sure got their money out of Debbie Reynolds here, and it’s one of the few things where all the dancing makes sense within the context of the story. This is immediately followed by two sequences [two FULL sequences] of child performance in the context of the big show that the school puts on. The first stars the Texan’s daughter singing a sort of Shirley Temple-type number [about teacups or bunnies or something? I can’t recall], but the second child comes out in this very adult dress, adopting a sort of Mae West-like persona of constant come-on and sexual innuendo, and sings a song chiding “Oh, you big, bad man.” Is that appropriate?! What kind of school is this?

Meanwhile, the stalker from back east may or may not have followed the two women out to California, and Shelley has a late-film revelation that the women their sons killed looked just like her and Debbie: “Our sons wanted to kill us. Our sons HATED us.” It all builds up and builds up, adding ever-more elements to the potent brew—and then it kind of drops them all and settles on one. I sort of thought maybe I had missed some crucial information as to how this all fits together, but was relieved to see that a bunch of reviewers on the IMDb also state that a lot of it falls apart at the end, and many of the elements end up as red herrings. What does last through to the end is potent [but maybe a bit tired], and the final shot has terrified many an 8-year-old in the years after this was released.

What’s there for the first hour is fascinating enough, however, with all for its disturbing elements. First we have these two women who behaved in such a way in the past that their sons were driven to murder a woman. Then you have their relationship, this love/hate thing with a slightly Sapphic quality, perhaps more on one side than the other. You have Debbie Reynolds, trapped in this role of empty narcissistic lust object, training young girls to be empty narcissistic lust objects just like herself. You have the Southern gent, who send his “bad” wife away and now watches over his little girl, who he thinks is special and different, and the quick sequence of the plain little girl staring rudely at the over-made-up woman… overall, 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. I’d much rather a madly ambitious movie that can’t hit all its targets than one that’s modest and underachieving.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s pretty interesting and disturbing.

RELATED FILMS:
WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? Is another Curtis Harrington / Shelley Winters movie, and comes on the same DVD as this one. And is nowhere near as good.
THE KILLING KIND is a later Curtis Harrington movie about a mother [Ann Southern] who has a vaguely incestuous relationship with her rapist son.