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‘What’s The Matter With Helen?’ (or remembering Debbie Reynolds the DM way!)


 
Okay, where do I begin?

First my respects to the amazing and kooky Miss Debbie Reynolds, a great and truly iconic Hollywood star.

Although most obituaries chose to skip over this (in every sense of the word) incredible moment in Reynolds’ career, What’s the Matter with Helen? is definitely worth a look. The film was directed by the bizarre Curtis Harrington, who began and ended his career by making the same short film version of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The first when he was just sixteen years old in 1942, and the second at age 73 in 2000. Like Kenneth Anger, Harrington started making short experimental films in his teens in the 1940s. He befriended Anger and was featured in his 1954 film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome playing Cesare, the Somnambulist. Harrington would later shoot Anger’s Puce Moment.

The young Curtis Harrington was a charter member of the Hollywood underground which revolved around people like Anger, witchy artist Marjorie Cameron (the subject of Harrington’s short film “The Wormwood Star”), silent movie actor Samson De Brier and other druggy, gender-bending, rule-breaking free thinkers. Satanists, homosexuals, witches, freaks, drag queens, artists, murderers, millionaires and bums, the whole gamut of Hollywood Babylon as we know it today long before things of the sort became popular in the sixties. In the 1950s this was as far underground as Hell itself. The most amazing part of this is, of course, that so many of the biggest stars of the day were enamoured with these people, had to have them at their parties and had different levels of social (and sexual) involvement that will provide facts, info and weird stories to obsess on for decades to come. Unlike Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington headed for the hills (Hollywood, that is), and had a decent career making mostly odd horror films (and TV shows like Dynasty) while continuing to do his short experimental art films. What’s The Matter With Helen? is one of the best of his feature films.
 
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By 1971 there was a already an established trend in Hollywood horror films, dubbed the “Grande Dame Guignol Cinema,” it’s something that has also been called the “hagsploitation” or “psycho-biddy” genre. I refer to films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?. Although Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard could technically be said to be the first, the advent of the hag genre exploded of course with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? starring the aging Bette Davis and Joan Crawford letting their hair (and their faces) down. Way down. Which was the entire professional requirement other than being a former leading lady. Since Curtis Harrington knew so many big stars from the 1930s and 40s who were growing into their fifties and wondering what to do with their careers, he made a few hagsploitation movies himself.
 
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Another thing Curtis Harrington had in his pocket by 1971 was his choice of the cream of the crop of old Hollywood’s wildest, weirdest and campiest actors, as well as some of new Hollywood’s most annoying child freaks, especially since the plot of What’s The Matter With Helen? included Reynolds playing a children’s tap dance teacher in 1930’s Hollywood. So many cheese-eating hamster hambones in this one.
 

 
To quote Shelley Winters:

It’s about two women during the thirties who run a school to turn out Shirley Temples, and in my next scene I have to stab Debbie Reynolds to death. Poor Debbie — they’d better not give me a real knife.”

Harrington’s cream of the crop, being the eccentric that he was, was just incredible. A who’s who of a pop culture obsessive’s dreams. On the top end of What’s The Matter With Helen?‘s credits we have, of course, Reynolds, Winters and future McCloud actor Dennis Weaver joined by the very old time super actor Michael Mac Liammóir (whose name had at least three different spellings), described in a IMDB bio as:

... a theatrical giant who dominated Irish theatre for over 50 years. Actor, designer, playwright and brilliant raconteur he was very much his own creation. He cut an imposing figure under the spotlight and in real life dressed flamboyantly wearing full make-up at all times and a jet black hairpiece. When he died in 1978 aged 79 The Irish Times wrote that ‘Nobody can assess the contribution that Micheal MacLiammoir made to Irish theatre’....Sir John Gielgud commented “Designer, wit, linguist and boon companion as well as actor, he was a uniquely talented and delightful creature.”

 
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As What’s The Matter With Helen?‘s credits roll they further reveal a string of incredible characters: Agnes Moorehead (who had an unforgettable Hollywood career but is mostly remembered as Endora on Bewitched), wild fifties (very) bad girl Yvette Vickers (Attack of the Giant Leeches, Reform School Girl, Juvenile Jungle, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, and more), and Timothy Carey (possibly the single most out there Hollywood actor in the history of film, who saved his money from movies like The Wild One, East of Eden, The Killing, Naked Gun, Rumble on the Docks, Poor White Trash/Bayou, Beach Blanket Bingo, Head and so many more, to make his masterpiece, The World’s Greatest Sinner with soundtrack by a young Frank Zappa. [Carey spent his later years going on TV talk shows and shooting a movie with his son Romeo called The Devil’s Gas about the importance of farting. Yes that’s what I said]. But beyond them, it also features Pamelyn Ferdin, the most annoying fingernails-on-the- blackboard child actress of the sixties and seventies (who turns up in odd films like The Christine Jorgensen Story and was seemingly on every TV show ever made back then such as My Three Sons, The Monkees, The Paul Lynde Show, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and too many more to mention.)

What’s The Matter With Helen? was written by Henry Farrell who wrote both What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (most of these Hollywood hag films had titles that were full sentences or questions) the plot concerns a Leopold and Loeb-type thrill murder committed by the sons of two women who are drawn together by these horrible events. Destroyed by the trial, the shame and being attacked mentally and physically, they decide to run away to Hollywood, where they can change their names, reinvent themselves and start all over. There are quite a few amazing twists and turns in the story, gory murders (even a few bunny murders, the shame!), plus beautiful and weird cinematography that make it worth seeing more than once.
 

 
The insanity of some of the goings on behind the camera are legendary and hilarious. At first they couldn’t find a big name star to take the lead, but Debbie Reynolds eventually took the role of Adele. To quote her biography Unsinkable:

Eventually, Debbie Reynolds took the role of Adelle. She had a contract with NBC to be an uncredited producer of a film, so she chose this, taking no salary. “They put up $750,000 and hired Marty Ransohoff to be on the set, but I actually produced it.”

Incredibly—or not so incredibly considering who we’re talking about—Shelley Winters was in the middle of a nervous breakdown:

According to Reynolds, Winters’ psychiatrist advised her not to portray “a woman having a nervous breakdown because she was having a nervous breakdown! But nobody knew that, and so all through the film she drove all of us insane! She became the person in the film.” Reynolds witnessed Winters’s questionable mental status off of the set. The two had been friends many years before, and Reynolds offered to chauffeur Winters to and from the set. “I was driving one morning on Santa Monica Boulevard and ahead of me was a woman, wearing only a nightgown, trying to flag down a ride,” recalled Reynolds. It was Winters, who claimed, “I thought I was late.” According to a Los Angeles Times article published while the film was in production, Winters was so difficult on the set that the studio threatened to replace her with Geraldine Page.

More after the jump…

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Posted by Howie Pyro
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01.03.2017
02:09 pm
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‘Night Tide’: Moody, atmospheric 1961 killer mermaid film was Dennis Hopper’s first starring role
07.13.2016
07:17 pm
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The late Curtis Harrington’s darkly atmospheric Night Tide (1961) was the first film to star a young Dennis Hopper. The plot revolves around a sailer (Hopper) who has an affair with a mysterious and beautiful woman (the gorgeous Linda Lawson) who portrays a mermaid at a sideshow on the Venice Beach boardwalk. The sailor begins to suspect that his lover is an actual mermaid who commits ritual murders of her lovers during the full moon.
 

 
Witchy artist Marjorie Cameron, who memorably played the Scarlet Woman in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (Harrington shot Anger’s Puce Moment and appeared in Pleasure Dome as well) has a small but pivotal role as a super intense woman who seems to hold a strange and fearsome power over Lawson’s character. There is also a fantastic jazzy/beatniky soundtrack by David Raksin (who worked on the soundtrack to Modern Times with Charlie Chaplin and composed the haunting theme to Otto Preminger’s Laura which became one of the most frequently recorded jazz standards).
 

 
Night Tide—which many people place in same category as Carnival of Souls or Val Lewton’s Cat People (I can see that) was restored by the Academy Film Archive in 2007. A Blu-ray release of the film struck from a 35mm print came out in 2015 from Kino Lorber.
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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07.13.2016
07:17 pm
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Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman


 
Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art has announced the mounting of 91 artworks and ephemera relating to the life’s work of the eccentric LA bohemian legend Marjorie Cameron. The show goes up on October 11 at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center annex and will close on January 11, 2015. “Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman” will feature paintings, drawings, sketchbooks, poetry and correspondence between Cameron and her husband rocket scientist/occultist Jack Parsons, and with the great mythologist Joseph Campbell.

In recent years Cameron’s work has begun to be reassessed by the art world, in part inspired by her close association with artists like Wallace Berman and George Herms, actor Dennis Hopper and underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger. As interest in their work increased, so has curiosity about the odd, flaming haired creature from Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Sadly much of her work was deliberately burned by the artist herself in the 50s and can only be glimpsed at in Curtis Harrington’s short cinematic portrait of Cameron, “Wormwood Star.” (See below)
 

 
The show will highlight the recent publication of Songs for the Witch Woman, an absolutely stunning coffee table art book / facsimile reproduction of Cameron’s drawings and watercolors along with Parsons’ metaphysical and occult poetry produced by Fulgur Esoterica. (The book was printed in a very limited edition, and is available now. If this seems like the kind of item that you would like to own—it’s a knockout, finely published at a very high quality—buy it now instead of waiting until next year when it’ll be selling for $500 on eBay. If you like this kind of thing, I’ll say it again, it’s particularly nice. There’s a beautifully composed foreword by the OTO’s WIlliam Breeze, who knew Cameron, to recommend it as well.)
 

 
The exhibition is being organized by guest curator Yael Lipschutz with MOCA’s senior curator Alma Ruiz along with the Cameron-Parsons Foundation. The museum will produce a full color catalogue with 75 illustrations for the exhibit.

Below, Curtis Harrington’s “Wormwood Star.” Heartbreaking to consider how many of these paintings are gone forever.
 

 
And speaking of Cameron, her biographer, Spencer Kansa sent me this curious piece of 60s experimental filmmaking that Cameron was involved with:

Za is an early-70s cinepoem by Elias Romero, the underground filmmaker, and one of the main pioneers of the liquid light shows that he began projecting in the late-50s in San Francisco and at Ben Shapiro’s Renaissance Club on the Sunset Strip. Za was filmed in Big Sur and features the movie actress Diane Varsi, portraying an alchemist cum poet. Varsi had already runaway from the superficiality of Hollywood by the time this was filmed, in order to pursue a more artistic and meaningful life. And, interestingly, the raggy dayglo outfits she wears in the film were created by Cameron, no less. Cameron and Elias were old friends by the time this film was made. He had been married to Cameron’s confidante, the poetess Aya. In Wormwood Star Aya admits that: “For years, Cameron never forgave me for splitting up with Elias.”

Watching it today, the film is, er, interesting. I guess back then it probably helped that most of its original viewers were heavily dosed-up.

 

 
Thank you Lyvia Filotico!

Posted by Richard Metzger
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07.30.2014
03:08 pm
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The Wormwood Star: Extraordinarily freaky cinematic portrait of occult artist Marjorie Cameron


 
It’s certainly no slight to the late director Curtis Harrington to describe The Wormwood Star, his visually arresting 1955 portrait of occult artist/beatnik weirdo Marjorie Cameron as being “Anger-esque” considering that he’d served as the cinematographer for Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment and that it stars Cameron, one of Anger’s most well-known cinematic avatars (Cameron famously played “The Scarlet Woman” in Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome and Harrington himself portrayed “Cesare the Somnambulist” in that film. Additionally, Paul Mathison, who played “Pan” in Anger’s druggy occult vision was the art director of The Wormwood Star).

Until The Wormwood Star came out on DVD and Blu-ray recently via Drag City/Flicker Alley as part of The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection, it was very, very scarce and very difficult to see. You either had to be a friend of Curtis Harrington, probably, or have had a mutual friend with the late director (that’s how I saw it) or maybe see it in a museum. Now it’s on YouTube, of course.

So we’ve established that’s it’s, er, Angery, meaning that there’s more than a fair share of visual flair, drama and a hefty dollop of authentic occult creepiness. Cameron, for those who don’t know, was the wife of rocket scientist/wannabe Antichrist Jack Parsons and a participant in the infamous “Babalon Working” magical rite that also involved future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. She was a dedicated follower of Aleister Crowley and his occult philosophy of Thelema (“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”).

Curtis Harrington told Cameron biographer Spencer Kansa in his book, Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron:

Before I made the film I’d heard from Renate [referring here to painter Renate Druks] that Cameron had spent some time in the desert trying, through magical means, to conceive a child by the spirit of Jack Parsons without success.  Cameron never spoke of Jack directly, but I do remember feeling sometimes when I talked to her, of her going off into a realm that I didn’t understand at all. It was sort of an apocalyptic thing and it’s there in her poetry.

What you should know as you watch this is that the vast majority of Marjorie Cameron’s paintings were destroyed by her—burned—in an act of ritualized suicide. There are very few pieces by Cameron that have survived—a few paintings and some sketches—and The Wormwood Star is the only record of most of them (outside of the astral plane, natch. What does survive of her estate is represented by longtime New York gallerist Nicole Klagsbrun). Cameron has long been a figure of fascination for many people and I think I can say with confidence that this film meets or even far exceeds any expectations you might have for it.

As with Anger’s films, I deeply appreciate the careful aesthetic balance between beauty and evil and, as such, it’s an extraordinary document of both Marjorie Cameron Parsons’ very essence as a human being and of her creative output. As cinema, it’s a mini-masterpiece that can stand alongside any of Anger’s films, Ira Cohen’s magnificently freaky Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda, Jack Smith’s Normal Love or Yayoi Kusama’s Self-Obliteration.

Below, the seldom-seen short film, The Wormwood Star. If it looks this good on YouTube, it must look really amazing on Blu-ray. Order The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection on Amazon (I just did).
 

 
Curtis Harrington and Cameron would work together again on 1961’s Night Tide, one of Dennis Hopper’s first starring roles. Her role as the “Water Witch” was brief, but oh so memorable…
 

 
Thank you Spencer Kansa, author of Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron

Posted by Richard Metzger
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08.12.2013
04:06 pm
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Life with Kenneth Anger and ‘Charlie’s Angels’: The memoirs of Curtis Harrington
05.31.2013
02:28 am
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I’ve been an admirer of Curtis Harrington’s film making ever since discovering Night Tide (starring Dennis Hopper) many years ago. Night Tide has an eerie surreal quality that recalls the films of Val Lewton and B-movie mindfuckers like Carnival Of Souls. It’s an experimental movie in the guise of a horror film in which the horror doesn’t manifest in overt shocks as much as is in the unsettling sensation of the senses deranged.

Harrington’s film work has been getting increased attention over the years as critics and film buffs have come to the revelation that his vision was unique, compelling and subversively avant-garde. It was with great relish that I opened up the pages of his posthumous memoir, Nice Guys Don’t Work In Hollywood, which is being released on June 18 by Drag City. It’s a fascinating read that anyone who has tried to maintain their integrity and sanity while working within a corporate-controlled art medium will find both amusing and painfully familiar.

Here’s some background on Harrington from Drag City’s bio:

What other film director has a) created avant-garde films and was part of Kenneth Anger’s inner circle, b) directed critically acclaimed and cult-adored horror films like Night Tide and Games, and c) directed episodes of Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty? The answer can only be Curtis Harrington.

Starting in the midst of film’s 1940s avant-garde heyday, Harrington made two deeply intuitive and evocative films: Fragment of Seeking, and Picnic, which were heralded by the likes of Maya Deren and Christopher Isherwood. He became a Hollywood insider, working as assistant for Jerry Wald while still keeping a foot in the world of experimental film, collaborating with Kenneth Anger on Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. As a director, he made the cult classic Night Tide, worked in the Roger Corman stable, and helmed several distinctive horror films including Games and What’s the Matter With Helen? In the 1980s he began what he called his descent down the “slippery slope” of television work and soon found himself directing episodes of Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty. [I think they mean the 1970s]

His career was a constant struggle between his belief in the art of film and the demands of the movie business. He was one of the only directors who survived both worlds and lived to tell the tale.

For more info on Nice Guys Don’t Work In Hollywood check out Drag City’s website.

In this episode of 1980’s cable TV show Sinister Image (aka Cult People), film historian David Del Valle interviews Curtis Harrington.
 

 
And here’s the wonderfully wacked-out Night Tide with a semi-dazed Dennis Hopper wrestling with all kinds of mumbo-jumbo. In glorious black and white and featuring Marjorie Cameron in an extremely creepy cameo role.
 

Posted by Marc Campbell
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05.31.2013
02:28 am
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Dennis Hopper stars in creepy 60s Beatnik cult film ‘Night Tide’

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Yet another example of a once super obscure cult film turning up on the Internet, in this case, for free on YouTube’s OpenFlix channel. The late Curtis Harrington’s darkly atmospheric Night Tide (1961) was the first film to star a young Dennis Hopper. The plot revolves around a sailer (Hopper) who has an affair with a mysterious and beautiful woman (Linda Lawson) who portrays a mermaid at a sideshow on the Venice Beach boardwalk. The sailor begins to suspect that his lover is an actual mermaid who commits ritual murders during the full moon.
 
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Occultist/artist Marjorie Cameron, who memorably played the Scarlet Woman in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (Harrington shot Anger’s Puce Moment and appeared in Pleasure Dome as well) has a small but pivotal role as a super intense woman who seems to hold a strange and fearsome power over Lawson’s character. There is also a fantastic jazzy/beatniky soundtrack by David Raskin (who also worked on the soundtrack to Modern Times with Charlie Chaplin and composed the haunting theme to Otto Preminger’s Laura, which became a jazz standard).
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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11.03.2010
02:23 pm
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