Friday, September 19, 2008

Satan's Little Helper (2004)

Possibly due to his extremely low output, writer-director Jeff Lieberman is hardly a household name among genre fans, despite the fact that at least two of his past titles—Squirm (Trailer) and Blue Sunshine (Trailer) (both 1976, the latter starring a young Zalmon King)—are well known if not legendary cult favorites. Moreover, his 1981 slasher Just Before Dawn (Trailer) is regularly acknowledged as one of the great unjustifiably unknowns of the Golden Age of the genre, while another film that he himself refers to as his worst (due to studio interference), 1988’s Remote Control, also continually receives good mouth propaganda by those who have seen it. His theatrical releases are generally pegged as well-made, offbeat and creative horror films that usually take a less beaten path to reach their ends.
In that sense, Satan's Little Helper (2004), his first cinema film in over 15 years is no exception. (Though the film did actually go straight to DVD, it was obviously made for the bigger screen.) Regrettably, as unusual and well-made as the film is, it also suffers enough flaws to disappoint even as it manages to intrigue. Satan’s Little Helper is definitely an idiosyncratic and original project, with a basic premise that promises a lot, but due to the miscasting of an integral role and a few (probably intentionally) unresolved aspects of the story, the film (at times) becomes a bit more disagreeable than it should be.
Just like in his entertaining anti-drug film Blue Sunshine, Lieberman attempts to endow Satan’s Little Helper with a moral or two—the main one probably something about the evil influence of video game on young impressionable minds—but unfortunately the rather quaint concept of the evil influence of pop entertainment (an argument that has gone from EC comics to Tom & Jerry to (the original) Starsky & Hutch or even the Teletubbies and onwards) suffers immensely due to the acting if the little brat playing Dougie, "Satan's Little Helper" (Alexander Brickel): he seems less ruined by the violence of the game than simply retarded. Indeed, his total lack of any ability to grasp reality and his continual stupidity is what ruins the film; had Lieberman managed to make the character just a little more likeable and far less unbelievably intellectually handicapped, the movie would probably have been a genre treasure. (In this sense, the film might have been more effective had Lieberman cast a child with Down's Syndrome instead of a normal kid acting as if he had it.) Still, in all truth, any film in which a character (Dougie's stacked sister Jenna, played by blonde babe Katheryn Winnick) logically and rightly deduces at one point that "Jesus is Satan" can’t be all bad. And Satan's Little Helper isn't: aside from its general quirkiness and odd humor, the cinematography is great, there are a few true scary and/or shocking moments (as well as few blackly funny ones), and some of the acting is truly effective (Amanda Plummer deserves special kudos for being such a believable mother to the unbelievable son). It’s just a shame that for every good aspect of the film, there seems to be a bad one (or two), too.
Dougie Whooly is a mentally under-developed kid with an obsession for a handheld video game called "Satan’s Little Helper" in which you gain points by helping Satan kill people. When his older sister comes home from college for Halloween with her new boyfriend (Stephan Graham as Alex), the incestuously inclined brat ("Jenna’s my girlfriend; I’m gonna marry her.") throws a hissy fit and storms out the house. Wandering the streets of the obviously New England island community, he sees a big man wearing an impressive Satan's mask and a long coat putting (real) dead bodies in decorative Halloween poses. Thrilled by what he sees (and believes is just make believe), Dougie convinces the silent Satan (who never speaks once throughout the whole film) to let him be his Little Helper. Throughout much of what follows, Dougie is there and cheering on as Satan slices and dices or even runs people (including a pregnant woman) over with a shopping cart, never once realizing that the death and destruction is real. (As mentioned before, Dougie is playing with an obvious less than a full house.) One of the most effectively disturbing scenes in the whole film is when Dougie brings Satan home and everyone thinks it is Alex playing the part, so Jenna isn't exactly repelled when he starts feeling her up. (There’s also a nasty scene with a cat that will definitely upset cat lovers.) Things change a bit when Daddy Whooly (Wass Stevens) shows up and promptly gets disemboweled in front of the whole family, but by then there seems no way to stop Satan's trail of bloody chaos, for he has already killed the only five cops on the island. Nonetheless, even as the island falls into anarchy, Satan takes Momma Whooly (Pumber) to the big party being thrown by the town mayor to continue his carnage (another at times highly effective and truly blackly humorous interlude of the film). But from there, despite some truly inspired concepts—a secondary moral to the film seems to be that everyone wears masks so you have to look beyond the face you see—the film devolves to a disturbing and disappointing ending.
To move away from the intellectual third-person form and into the personal first-person, when we were watching this flick at our weekly "bad film night," the three of us guys were groaning all the time. (Normally we are four, but the engineer is currently in Afghanistan doing reconstruction work. He, like I, likes a broad spectrum of films; the lawyer prefers trash like Samurai Werewolf I and II or Nikos, while the architect tends towards films that surprise, such as Coffy, Nicotina or Sars Wars.) Among other things that made us want to throw pretzels when watching Satan's Little Helper other than Dougie being way too stupid was that who the fuck Satan was or why he chose that specific island community is never explained; that the mayor on the hill—or, for that matter, anyone at the party—never gets word that the town down below is falling into chaos is unbelievable, as was the fact that no one at the party realizes that people are dying there and that Momma Whooly isn't performing a joke; that Jenna never gets naked; that Satan covers distances requiring a car in mere minutes; and a variety of other petty complaints (including the disturbing end). But that all said, and although we left that night screaming "raspberry," when we got together the next week again we all had to admit that we found ourselves thinking about the film over the week that followed—and believe me, we don't exactly watch films that lend to thought. All of us had to agree that as much as the film aggravated us while watching it, in retrospect it was something totally different and, as a whole and despite its flaws, a pretty good film.
Sounds, I guess, like a typical Jeff Lieberman genre film. You might not like it, but Satan's Little Helper is definitely a truly one-of-a-kind and original film. And if for no other reason than that, it is a film definitely worth watching. Why doesn't this guy make more films?

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