Review: ‘Satan’s Little Helper’

Helmer Jeff Lieberman returns to his cult roots with a nifty little Halloween horror flick wherein a kid, believing he's play-acting his favorite video game, unwittingly goes trick-or-treating with a masked psycho killer. Horror buffs will delight in ingenious twists and perverse satire. "Satan" may unearth a hell of a niche following come 'Ween.

Helmer Jeff Lieberman (“Squirm,” “Blue Sunshine,” “Just Before Dawn”) returns to his cult roots after a long absence with a nifty little Halloween horror flick wherein a kid, believing he’s play-acting his favorite video game, unwittingly goes trick-or-treating with a masked psycho killer. Madly uneven, “Satan’s Little Helper” delivers more than its share of exquisite creepy/funny bits but ultimately rests too much on the chubby little shoulders of a 9-year old. Still, horror buffs will delight in ingenious twists, perverse satire and gleefully off-kilter Amanda Plummer/Katheryn Winnick mother-daughter team. “Satan” may unearth a hell of a niche following come ‘Ween.

Douglas (Alexander Brickel), dressed in a Satan’s Little Helper costume his mom (Plummer) fashioned after the handheld video game that he is addicted to, is excited about the arrival of his older sister, Jenna (Winnick), home from college in time to accompany him on his Oct. 31 rounds. But he becomes jealous when she shows up with new boyfriend Alex (Stephen Graham), so he takes off alone.

Admiring the mise en scene of a masked figure (Joshua Annex). who artfully arranges his victims’ limbs in a grisly front porch tableau, Douglas follows the satanic figure, volunteering to play helpmate and offering sis’ beau as the next sacrifice. Once Satan has disposed of Alex, the kid brings his newfound friend, who never speaks and whose face is never seen, back to his house where mother and sister assume that he is Alex in disguise.

Pic’s grotesque humor hinges on the power of assumption. Thus no matter how out of character the masked “Alex” behaves, the others assume he is just really getting into the role of his costume character. The reactions of Jenna, costumed as a buxom medieval wench, to the silent, sinister “Alex” — a magnificently designed leering toothy mask with bulging, staring eyes that read as scary and absurd at the same time — veer between fright and seduction, while kooky mama’s open hospitality remains unfazed by any social oddity. Thanks to Plummer’s breathlessly endearing weirdness, and the touch of naughty schoolgirlish collusion between mother and daughter, these scenes resonate with a truly original pathos beyond the scripted comedy, terror and obtuseness.

When the Satan-garbed killer absconds with Plummer to the town’s big costume ball, he mummifies Plummer in her Carmen Miranda getup with multiple layers of plastic wrap that make it impossible for her to move. But, none of the oblivious, self-centered partygoers pay the slightest attention to the frantic eyes above the saran-flattened features or find it particularly strange that she should fall over whenever her demonic “husband” lets go of her.

Suspension of disbelief proves more problematic when it comes to the young Douglas, though. Brickel has trouble fully conveying his 9-year-old character’s persistent naivete or making it totally believable. To his credit, Lieberman never really buys into the cliche of video games desensitizing children to violence, but that leaves him with little rationale for Douglas to watch with uncomprehending glee as old ladies are hung from second story windows or grocery clerks stabbed in back alleys.

Lieberman seems to shy away from the darker implications of Douglas’ actions or from presenting a truly child’s-eye-view of horror. An exhilaratingly anarchic scene, set in a parking lot, where Douglas “teaches” Satan how to play his own game, navigating a shopping cart to crash into pregnant women, baby strollers and blind men to score bonus points, suggests all manner of directions the film might have gone, had either the concept or Brickel’s thesping possessed more rigor.

The 24p-lensing by Dejan Georgevich does justice to the garish holiday trappings, normalizing a town full of monster-headed citizens. Jack Chandler’s homey production design is plussed onscreen as the killer smashes a cat against a house, using its oozing blood to write “BOO” in big red letters above a group of lolling corpses.

Satan's Little Helper

Production

A Satan's Little Co. /Intrinsic Value production. Produced by Jeff Lieberman, Mickey McDonough, Isen Robbins, Aimee Shoof. Executive producer, Carl Tostevin. Directed, written by Jeff Lieberman.

Crew

Camera (color, 24p), Dejan Georgevich; editor, Jay Mathews; music, David Horowitz; production designer, Jack Chandler; sound, Aaron Rizzuto. Reviewed on videocassette at Tribeca Film Festival (Midnight), May 9, 2004. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Amanda Plummer, Alexander Brickel, Katheryn Winnick, Stephen Graham, Joshua Annex, Wass Stevens.
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