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What's the Matter with Helen? is a 1971 horror thriller film made to cash in on the growing trend of mentally unstable older women horror stories — usually starring a now-aged leading lady from The Golden Age of Hollywood. This film's candidate is Shelley Winters, co-starring alongside Debbie Reynolds.

The plot concerns two women in the 1930s - ambitious Adelle Bruckner (Reynolds) and mild-mannered Helen Hill (Winters). Their sons have just been convicted for the murder of another woman. The two decide to flee the gossip, change their names and start over. Adelle opens a dance school for wannabe child actresses in Hollywood, where Helen plays the piano. At first everything seems to be going great; plenty of students, lots of exposure, and Adelle even makes a love connection. But then of course we find out what's really the matter with Helen.

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Tropes:

  • Accidental Murder: Helen accidentally kills a stranger by pushing him down the stairs.
  • Advertised Extra: Agnes Moorhead's name is on the poster, and she only appears in one scene towards the end. Aside from her voice being heard on the radio.
  • Affably Evil: Helen is so cheerful and happy as she performs the routine with Adelle's dead body.
  • Ambiguously Gay:
    • According to the director and actress, Helen is meant to be a repressed lesbian, but it was toned down at the request of the censors. Given what happens towards the end this makes her a Psycho Lesbian too.
    • More superficially Mr Starr - the camp, flamboyant elocution teacher at the school.
  • Big Fancy House: Linc naturally has one.
  • Bloodier and Gorier: This film was (for its time) more graphic than What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte, which relied more on Gothic Horror. It would have been even more graphic but it was toned down at the request of the censors.
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  • Crazy Cat Lady: Helen keeps a lot of rabbits in the back yard behind the school. Adelle comes home to find them all slaughtered in the climax.
  • Dark Reprise: Adelle occasionally comes home singing the song "Goody Goody" after her dates with Linc. Helen plays the song at the end with Adelle's body propped up on stage.
  • Downer Ending: Just as Linc is about to get married to Adelle, Helen officially goes mad and stabs her to death. Linc finds her attempting to prop Adelle's body on the stage.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Helen goes from sweet old lady to crazy serial killer after all the trauma she's been through.
  • Fangirl: Adelle is one of Jean Harlow.
  • Foreshadowing: Adelle says of the murder her son took part in that Helen's son was the real ringleader. Helen later murders someone, and Adelle helps cover it up.
  • Gold Digger: Helen accuses Adelle of trying to marry Linc for his money.
  • Important Haircut: Adelle bleaches her hair platinum blonde when the women get to Hollywood to evoke Jean Harlow. She later persuades Helen to let her cut her hair short.
  • Intimate Haircut: Adelle giving Helen a makeover is another example of the lesbian subtext between the two.
  • It Runs in the Family: Helen turns into a serial killer just like her son.
  • The Lost Lenore: Helen has been traumatised ever since the brutal death of her husband in a farming accident. Although since she's apparently a repressed lesbian, it is probably more the physical death than the loss of a loved one.
  • Madness Mantra: Helen recites Sister Alma's religious teachings over and over when she's having a bad moment.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Helen kills a man by pushing him down the stairs. She and Adelle dump the body in a sewer, making it look like the man fell down there. They get away with it.
  • Meaningful Rename: Adelle changes her last name to Stuart, and Helen changes hers to Martin.
  • Missing Mom: Winona just says they're not allowed to talk about her mother.
  • Mummies at the Dinner Table: Linc comes into the school at the end to find that Helen has propped Adelle's body on the stage in her show costume while she plays "Goody Goody" on the piano.
  • Nice Hat: The girl performing "You Nasty Man" takes the cake with this one. It's impressive that she manages to dance in it.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Just look at some of the gowns Adelle wears on her dates with Linc. And some of the costumes the girls wear at the big recital.
  • Pretty in Mink: Adelle dons fur wraps for some of her dates.
  • Red Herring:
    • Mr Starr is hinted a couple of times to be behind the threatening letters. He isn't.
    • On Linc's first date with Adelle, he pays a guy to take her for a tango, pretending he doesn't know the man. Nothing comes of this and it makes Linc look needlessly suspicious.
  • Romantic Two-Girl Friendship: Adelle and Helen at first, though according to the filmmakers it may be actually romantic on Helen's part.
  • Sanity Slippage: Both Helen and Adelle suffer this as a result of their trauma.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: The man behind the threatening phone calls and letters turns out to be the very one that Helen pushed down the stairs earlier in the film.
  • She's Got Legs: Adelle notably performs an elaborate dance routine for the mothers (and of course Linc too) with her legs on full display.
  • Stage Mom: A whole army of them as the parents of Adelle's training school.
  • Title Drop: Adelle asks "what's the matter with Helen?" after the recital.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Promotional material spoils the end where Adelle is murdered and dressed up in her stage costume. What's more is that Helen doesn't go mad or at least turn into the film's antagonist until about halfway through, but the promotional materials spoiled that too.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behaviour: One of the girls at Adelle's recital performs a routine based off Mae West.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: Both the protagonist's sons, or at least that's what they say.
  • Welcome to the Big City: Adelle and Helen move to Los Angeles to start a new life.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Mr Starr is last seen helping Helen upstairs after she's slaughtered her rabbits and isn't around when Helen stabs Adelle. It's unknown if he simply went home or Helen killed him too.

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