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What's the Matter with Helen? / Who Slew Antie Roo?

MGM // PG // August 27, 2002
List Price: $14.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted September 6, 2002 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An interesting director, Curtis Harrington came from a slightly experimental short-subject background, and wrote one of the earliest critical essays on classic horror films back in 1952 (see The Horror Film Reader). Starting under the tutelage of Roger Corman, his early features bounced between interesting Val Lewton-style weirdness Night Tide) and commercial necessity (Queen of Blood). He made a critical impact with the psychodrama Games, which probably lead to his being typed as a director of macabre movie stories with knowing references to Hollywood lore.

This pair of mystery/horror films continues the line started by Robert Aldrich with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? back in 1963. Aldrich produced a followup film in '69 called What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? that did well. Produced separately, one of the titles on this MGM Midnite Movies Double Feature disc is written by the original Baby Jane author, Henry Farrell.

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?
MGM Home Entertainment
1971 / Color / 1:85 flat letterbox/ 91m. / Street Date August 27, 2002 / $14.98
Starring Shelley Winters, Mark Lester, Chloe Franks, Ralph Richardson, Lionel Jeffries, Hugh Griffith, Rosalie Crutchley, Pat Heywood, Judy Cornwell, Michael Gothard
Cinematography Desmond Dickinson
Production Designer
Film Editor Tristam Cones
Original Music Kenneth V. Jones
Written by Jimmy Sangster and Robert Blees
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Louis M. Heyward, James H. Nicholson, Jimmy Sangster
Directed by Curtis Harrington


1920's England. Wealthy widow Rosie Forrest (Shelley Winters) pays fake medium Mr. Benton (Ralph Richardson) to try and contact her lost daughter Katherine, killed in an accident years ago. Her own servants (Judy Cornwell and Michael Gothard) conspire with Benton to fake voices from beyond the grave, splitting Benton's hefty fee. Rosie is pathetically deranged - she invites orphanage children to her house every Christmas and lavishes attention on them. Punished for their lack of cooperation, little Christopher (Mark Lester) and his sister Katy (Chloe Franks) stow away to the party too, where the emotional Rosie confuses Katy with the lost Katherine and formulates a plan to substitute one for the other. Clever Christopher, well aware of the story of Hansel and Gretel, takes it upon himself to investigate, and discovers that Rosie is hiding a macabre secret in the attic.

The more straightforward of the two titles, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is a fairly tame retelling of Hansel and Gretel with Shelley Winters getting a nice opportunity to play a monstrous mother desperate not to be left alone. With a mummified daughter in the attic (revealed in the title sequence, so this isn't a spoiler), ex- Floradora girl Rosie otherwise just seems an expansive widow with a desire to brighten the lives of some orphans.

The Grimm Fairy Tale elements are nicely presented. Rosie even talks about fattening up little Katy by feeling her finger through some cage-like bars. Christopher plays his role of brother/protector by the book, stealing Rosie's 'treasure' just as did little Hansel. There's even a tiny nod to The Wizard of Oz, when we cut to an hourglass while Rosie threatens her little prisoners.

But there are a lot of uneven elements in the mix of this nicely-produced melodrama. Ralph Richardson's mountebank is colorful, and Lionel Jeffries and Hugh Griffith are perfectly fine in bits, but none of them are central to the core story. When menacing butler Michael Gothard disappears from the tale, we expect him to turn up later, even as a corpse, but he doesn't. Little Chloe Franks is fine, but Mark Lester doesn't communicate much beyond some feeble smiles, as if he didn't fully understand the part. Little Christopher is written as a brave & clever hero in a hostile world, and we should identify with him. As directed, he comes off as a nasty little sociopath.

With nothing heavy to justify it, the theme of children in Jeopardy can get unpleasant. At one point the kids come across an illogically working guillotine in one of Rosie's outbuildings - trigger-ready to chop. Katy sticks her head under it, a rather dumb and cheap suspense gag that doesn't lead us to expect that more sophisticated thrills later.

Ms. Winters has her moments in what looks to have been a rushed shooting schedule - handling all those kids is no easy task. There's a moment that simply doesn't work as intended, where her sobs are revealed as laughter. But she shows restraint in her self-pitying tirades, and since she actually means no malice at all to her 'guests', our sympathy is maintained.

The transfer of Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is flat 1:85, which gives it a disadvantage on a bigger widescreen monitor, but otherwise it's in fine shape, with the interiors of Rosie's 'gingerbread' mansion nicely lit. The only extra is a rather hyped trailer, that makes the film seem far trashier than it is.

What's the Matter with Helen?
MGM Home Entertainment
1971 / color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 101 m. / Street Date August 27, 2002 / $14.98
Starring Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters, Dennis Weaver, Agnes Moorehead, Micheál MacLiammóir
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Art Direction Eugène Lourié
Film Editor William Reynolds
Original Music David Raksin
Written by Henry Farrell
Produced by George Edwards, Edward S. Feldman, James C. Pratt, Martin Ransohoff
Directed by Curtis Harrington


The Midwest, 1934. Adelle Bruckner (Debbie Reynolds) and Helen Hill (Shelley Winters) flee the notoriety of both of their sons being imprisoned for murder, by going to Hollywood and opening a talent school for kiddies. Jean Harlow imitator Adelle is romanced by the wealthy Lincoln Palmer (Dennis Weaver), but Helen thinks a heavy-breathing man who blames them for their sons' crime, may be vindictively stalking them. Though the school flourishes, Helen begins to deteriorate mentally, and she tries to ease the guilt over an earlier crime by appealing to radio evangelist Sister Alma (Agnes Moorehead). Vocal coach Hamilton Starr (Micheál MacLiammóir) joins the talent school and behaves suspiciously, further rattling Helen's nerves. Looking forward to marriage to Lincoln, Adelle resents Helen's growing possessiveness.

This is the more ambitious and complicated of the two shows. Back in America, Harrington splits his attention between the psycho- drama and fairly accurate recreations of 1930s Hollywood kitch. This closest of all the imitators to the Robert Aldrich source movie, What's the Matter with Helen? isn't about movie stars, but it's soaked in stage mothers, bratty child actors, and fan adulation.

As in Baby Jane?, we have a diabolical pairing of 'aging' female stars. Neither are particularly old, but Shelley is sufficiently heavy to make us forget she was ever a starlet. Reynolds is just on the far side of a well-maintained 40, and seems to have decided to look the same as she did when she was 30 ... in the scenes when she's supposed to show some wear, it looks like they had to put old-age makeup on her. Adelle's new career teaching tots to tap dance (affording several showoff moments for Debbie - one can't help of thinking of Postcards from the Edge here) would be untroubled if not for Helen's meltdown - Winters has Hitchcockian visions of knives, imagines that strange avengers are tracking her down, and obsesses over her rabbits while attaching her emotions to Adelle. When things get violent, Adelle becomes an accomplice in crime, but otherwise stays out of the central mystery. The result is that Helen's problem becomes kind of an inconvenience that keeps a plot going, but doesn't lead to any great character developments between the women.

The look of the film is a slightly subdued Singin' in the Rain artificiality, and is interesting in itself, as are the constant insider references, such as the 'Joan Crawford gardenia' gag. A constant flow of '30s hit songs help make the story seem more like a fantasy, than a period picture. Some mayhem and suspense work in a melodramatic sense, but the picture never delivers the shocks or the delirious extremes of acting that might make it stand out. The plot twist at the end has some slight irony but is rather inconsequential.

All the acting elements are fine, but again, the story doesn't organize them to play upon the central premise. Dennis Weaver is interestingly cast against type as a sophisticated dream date for Debbie, but the picture cuts off just as he finally gets involved in the mystery. Likewise, the colorful Micheál MacLiammóir character functions as a red herring and not much else. Timothy Carey does a down-and-out bit that we also know won't develop into anything. Agnes Moorehead's short scene is nice, but again very minimal... and its effect is to make us wonder how both films would play, with Moorehead in the Winters roles. Like Auntie Roo?, Helen seems to have been a pre-sold 'crazy old actresses' project with a predictable script that the stylish Harrington did his best to enliven and embellish.

MGM's DVD of What's the Matter with Helen? has a bright and colorful transfer that gives it more punch than Roo?. The show-bizzy moppet dance revue, with its weird Mae West imitation, is a standout. The trailer makes the show look much gorier than it is.

The original Baby Jane? had a definite sordid aspect. Curtis Harrington brings an overall artistic seriousness to both of these derivative shows, which make them much more interesting than their borderline trashy scripts. He downplays the violence, which makes no attempt to be convincing, at a time when mainstream horror was just beginning to run wild with gore. The films are more like shallow character studies than they are Horror pictures, with a spoofy willingness to celebrate the fame of Winters and Reynolds. For a 'campy' director, Harrington doesn't play up the potential perversity in either film - Shelley Winters is weird in both stories, but her attraction to Debbie is desperate hysteria, and not sexual.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 5, 2002

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, What's the Matter with Helen? rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 5, 2002

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