Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Director Report Card: Jeff Lieberman (2004)

7. Satan’s Little Helper

During his seventeen year hiatus from the horror genre, Jeff Lieberman's reputation would only grow. Slasher fans would regularly single out “Just Before Dawn” among the best of the subgenre. Weirdo cinema fans would continue to love “Squirm” and “Blue Sunshine.” So, for a small audience of hardcore horror fans, Lieberman returning to the genre in 2005 was a big deal. I remember “Satan's Little Helper” getting a big write-up in Fangoria, Why Lieberman wouldn't return to feature filmmaking until this point, I don't know. Though I suspect the explosion of low-budget horror flicks on the DVD market had something to do with it. While “Satan's Little Helper's” reputation remains divisive, Lieberman fans received it enthusiastically.

Halloween is approaching the small community of Bell Island. Nine-year-old Dougie is obsessed with a video game called Satan's Little Helper, where a small demon assists the devil in reeking havoc. He's going as the Little Helper for Halloween. Mom Merill drives to pick up big sister Jenna, who is coming home from college just to take her little brother trick-r-treater. She's also bringing her new boyfriend, Alex, along. This infuriates Dougie. While moping through the town, he discovers a serial killer who is hiding his victims among Halloween decorations. Because of his demonic mask, Dougie believes the murderer to be his digital hero. He befriends the killer and involves him in a plot to murder his sister's boyfriend.

All of Jeff Lieberman's films have been low budget productions to varying degrees. “Satan's Little Helper” is no different in that regard and may, in fact, be the director's cheapest film. (Though the budget was apparently big enough to license Bob Dylan's “Man of Peace” to the soundtrack. Or at least enough to hire a very convincing Dylan cover band.) The movie was obviously shot with cheap digital cameras. This creates an overly bright and slightly washed-out look to the film. There's very few special effects in the film and those that do exist aren't very convincing. Just as with the sometimes awkward or goofy elements in “Squirm” and “Blue Sunshine,” you'll have to overlook “Satan's Little Helper's” low budget aesthetic in order to enjoy it.

Because there is a lot to enjoy here. Firstly, this is a Halloween-set horror film that truly embraces the spooky season. Trick-or-treating, costumes, and masks are all main components of the story. Candy is passed out, Halloween parties are attended, costumes shop are visited. More than just the plot elements, “Satan's Little Helper” also captures the feeling of the holiday. The movie's premise seemingly draws from urban legends about dead bodies being hidden in Halloween decorations and Satanic killers murdering black cats on the 31st. As the story goes on, Bell Island completely falls into chaos, the spirit of mischief taking over. Despite it's low budget, “Satan's Little Helper” is perfect Halloween season viewing.

Lieberman's very first film was a short called “The Ringer.” That film compared the startlingly similar ways toys, pop music, and drugs are sold to children. It seems the effects media has on children is a subject that still interested Lieberman in 2005. Dougie is supposed to be nine but acts much younger. His love of the titular video game – which looks like it was created in MS Paint – recalls the childish enthusiasm any kid follows their favorite show or game with. Except this game is about helping the devil murder people. Dougie is largely desensitized to violence. As the Satan Man goes on his killing spree, Dougie watches with approval. He even helps out at several points. The kid obviously isn't old enough to distinguish reality from fiction yet, a factoid the creators of violent video games clearly aren't too concerned with.

Despite the title, there's no blatantly religious or demonic elements to “Satan's Little Helper.” Dougie's family seems largely agnostic. When he asks early on if Satan is real, his mother doesn't realize he's talking about the video game character. She explains that the devil is a metaphor for the evil that men do. Dougie obsessively shouts about Satan and Hell while cursing God and Jesus. His family not only isn't disturbed by this behavior, they find it cute. Into this family that clearly doesn't take the idea of Satanic evil seriously, enters a human representation of the devil. Without getting heavy handed about it, “Satan's Little Helper” goes with the theory that you might not believe in the Devil but he believes in you. And, if not a literal devil, than the evil humans that carry out devilish deeds.

“Satan's Little Helper” is a slasher flick of sorts, as it does have a masked killer gorily offing victims. And a slasher film is frequently only as good as its villain. Luckily, “Satan's Little Helper” has an excellent one. Wearing what appears to be a store-bought Halloween mask, the killer never speaks or shows his face. Despite that, he's hugely expressive. The killer, hilariously, frequently flashes enthusiastic hand signals to Dougie. Actor Joshua Annex's body language suggests the youthful enthusiasm Satan Man pursues murder with. The film implies the killer may be a teenage arsonist, the son of the mayor, recently released from prison. He's even childish at times, when playing with Dougie's toy dinosaurs, cowering from the police, or looking dejected when the boy screams at him. Teenage hormones would explain the Satan Man's randy behavior. In a hilarious sequence, he huffs panties. He gropes several female characters and repeatedly attempts to seduce Jenna. I guess it should be unsurprising that Satan is a horny bastard.

The killer, and the film around him, is frequently hilarious. Lieberman frequently approaches the movie's mayhem from a detached, absurdist direction. After nearly murdering Jenna's boyfriend, and stomping a poor kitty cat, a mom cheerily asks for a photograph with the Satan Man. After a little old lady takes too long to answer the door, Satan strings her up by the neck as revenge. Probably the funniest sequence in the film involves Satan pushing Dougie in a shopping cart. As they ride through the parking lot, they encounter a pregnant woman, a baby in a stroller, and a blind man. The killer slams into each of them, the boy yelling excitedly each time! Beyond these sickly hilarious moments, there's the general absurdity of a little boy declaring love and admiration for Satan.

“Satan's Little Helper” is not always so flippant about its mayhem. The film's gorier moments are not played for laughs. Such as the Satan Man casually stabbing a grocery store clerk or graphically disembowling Dougie's father. As the island descends into chaos – the devil's will working through the entire community, it seems - “Satan's Little Helper” grows more serious. It seems an entire town rioting is not something to be taken so lightly. These scenes don't work as well as the funny ones, as the low budget makes the film's gore cheesy. Moreover, the movie zips back and forth between funny and serious on a whim, making the grimmer moment feel more out of place.

Also floating around inside the movie's head is the relationships between sons and their authority figures. Alex greatly resents his abusive father, a balding toupee salesman sleeping with a college girl. More than once, the film draws a direct parallel between Alex's asshole dad and the Satan Man. Dougie seems to have a good relationship with his own dad but he's never home. In his place, he looks up to the fictional Satan and his real life stand-in. The boy resents his sister's girlfriend for childish reasons. He expresses a naive desire to marry his sister and sees Alex as a romantic rival. When Alex attempts to dress-up as Satan, it's another reason for the young boy to see his sister's new boyfriend as a usurper. These ideas don't collect into something solid but they're interesting nevertheless.

The film's cast is fairly strong. Alexander Brickel, whose only other screen credit is Todd Solondz' “Palindromes,” is very enthusiastic as Dougie. His behavior sometimes borders obnoxious, but this still suits a hyperactive nine year old. Character actress Katheryn Winnick plays Jenna while Amanda Plummer, the only name actress in the film, plays her mom. Plummer and Winnick  have a really charming energy together. The two are constantly joking around and laughing with each other. The two feels like a real mother and daughter. Lastly, I'll mention Stephen Graham as Alex. Graham nicely embodies the role of a pretentious college kid way too invested in his own ideas and thoughts.

As fun as “Satan's Little Helper” is, it has tonal issues all throughout its run time. After the Satan Man murders Dougie's dad, the film really begins to wander. A sequence set at a grown-up Halloween party feels excessively corny, as it features a duct-taped Amanda Plummer walking into a stair banister and Jenna wearing a duck costume. The film doesn't have much of an ending either. The last ten minutes feel aimless. The Satan Man switches into an even more perverse disguise. He gets away, the police arrive, but evil still seems to win. It really feels like Lieberman had a solid movie but no decent concepts for an ending.

Despite some definite issues, I'd still consider “Satan's Little Helper” underrated. The film always makes me laugh wildly whenever I watch it. Like most of Lieberman's horror films, it wraps up some interesting ideas about our society within a wacky horror premise. It pairs this with some deliciously black humor and a truly gorgeous capturing of the Halloween season. In fact, I'd put “Satan's Little Helper” among my favorite horror movies set on Halloween. It certainly showed that Jeff Lieberman lost none of his quirky energy during his lengthy break from making horror movies. [Grade: B+]

Jeff Lieberman seems to have slid into an elder statesman of off-beat horror genre these days. Whether or not he has a new project coming soon is a question mark. (He's occasionally mentioned working on something in interviews.) A remake of "Blue Sunshine" was announced not too long ago, with Lieberman attached as a producer, but I don't know what its current status is. Whether or not Lieberman makes another movie, I'm still happy that he's created such a unique and amusingly weird set of films.

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