What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

The sons of two very different women are convicted of murder. Fearing for their safety in their small town in 1930s America, star-obsessed Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) decides to get a fresh new start in Hollywood, and convinces the quiet and religious Helen (Shelley Winters) to join her. They exploit the Shirley Temple craze by running a successful instructional school that teaches child actresses singing and dancing. Things seem to be going well for both until Helen starts to have crazed flashbacks about her “former life.” But things have never looked better for Adelle, so What the hell is the matter with Helen?!

This movie is a hoot! Debbie Reynolds looks like a classic Hollywood starlet (fantastic costumes and makeup), and it is hilarious and sickening fun watching Shelley Winters in a downward spiral. Agnes Moorehead has an amusing cameo as a Radio evangelist with whom Helen becomes obsessed. The major drawback of the movie is the musical sequences. There are several, and while they do serve as a contrast to the more explicitly twisted elements in the film, showing entire song and dance routines is unnecessary (the scene where Reynolds tap-dances comes to mind here). It is also unfortunate that the film does not take advantage of the themes it presents. A deeper exploration of Helen’s psychosis might have proved fascinating, scary, and even amusing.

Overall, What’s the Matter with Helen? is an entertaining psychological horror/thriller that does its job but gets weighed down by filler drama and musical sequences. Recommended to fans of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and anyone who entertained by Shelley Winters going crazy.