What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

Fifty years ago today, the film What’s the Matter with Helen? Premiered. It’s a cult classic, but you know me, if Agnes Moorehead is in it, it’s worth watching.

Title: What’s the Matter with Helen?
Directed by: Curtis Harrington
Produced by: George Edwards
Written by: Henry Farrell
Starring: Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters, Dennis Weaver, Agnes Moorehead, and Micheál MacLiammóir
Music by: David Raksin
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Edited by: William Reynolds
Production Companies: Filmways Pictures and Raymax Productions
Distributed by: United Artists
Release date: June 30, 1971
Running time: 101 minutes
Country: United States
Language: English

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 they open a dance academy for little girls who want to be the next Shirley Temple.

Soon after arriving, Hamilton Starr (Micheál MacLiammóir), an elocution teacher, offers his services to Helen and Adelle’s school, and Adelle takes him up on his offer, much to Helen’s chagrin, as Helen is frightened of the menacing man. Soon, the phone calls resume and Helen believes a strange man is watching their home. She has hallucinations, especially at a show where she think she sees Starr with a knife.

Adelle falls in love with Lincoln Palmer (Dennis Weaver), the father of a student (Sammee Lee Jones), and Helen grows jealous of the budding relationship. Helen takes solace in her faith, listening to a radio show hosted by evangelist Sister Alma (Agnes Moorehead).

Helen’s jealousy of Adelle’s romance with Lincoln leads to a fight, at which point Adelle demands that Helen move out. Adelle then heads for her date with Lincoln. As Helen readies herself to move out, a mysterious intruder enters the house, walks up the staircase, and calls her real name. Helen reacts by pushing him down the stairs. When he lands at the bottom, his head is gashed open, blood is seeping onto the floor, and Helen envisions her late husband, who was mutilated by a plow, and the dead Ellie Banner.

Adelle arrives home to find the dead stranger and, fearing publicity, decides to dispose of the body. As the rain pours, she and Helen drag the dead man into the street and dump his body into an open hole, adjacent to their home, where crews had been doing construction. The body is discovered the next morning and it is presumed that the man fell into the hole to his death.

Helen’s guilt builds and she visits the church to see Sister Alma and to atone for her sins. Sister Alma offers her forgiveness, but an irrational Helen creates a spectacle and is dragged away by Adelle. Helen is later ordered to take bedrest by her doctor.

Adelle goes to a miniature golf course with Lincoln, where he proposes. He drives her home to make preparations to elope that evening. Arriving home, Adelle notices that Helen is not in her room and follows a trail of blood out the back door and down to a rabbit cage, where she finds Helen’s pet rabbits slaughtered. Helen steps out of the shadows and reveals that she killed them and that she pushed her husband off a plow to his death. Adelle leads Helen into the house and is phoning Sister Alma when she lets it slip that she plans to wed Lincoln. Helen then pulls a knife from her robe and stabs Adelle in the back. As Adelle falls dead, the doorbell chimes.

Helen answers the door, finding a detective who shows her a photo of the man she pushed down the staircase. When she claims not to recognize him, the detective reveals that the man was Ellie Banner’s boyfriend, who came to California with plans to murder the two women.

Later, Lincoln arrives, expecting to whisk Adelle away. From the street, he can hear someone pounding out “Goody Goody” on the piano. He enters the house, calling Adelle’s name, and follows the sound of the piano up to the rehearsal hall. There, he finds Helen giddily playing the song with Adelle’s corpse, dressed in her signature dance costume, tied to a ladder on stage.

Helen laughs, completely unhinged.

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