Terror Trash is an ongoing series celebrating and delighting in some less-than-sterling entries in the horror film genre. After several years of highlighting great films in our Century of Terror and ABCs of Horror series, it’s time for a loving appraisal of some decidedly more trashy, incompetent, or enjoyably cheesy material.
It’s not often at this point that I watch the entirety of a feature film, sit back to consider what I just viewed, and decide that I’m really not certain how I was supposed to interpret any of it. Especially when it comes to the horror genre, a filmmaker’s intentions aren’t typically all that difficult to suss out. But in a perfect storm situation, like the one that exists within 2004’s Satan’s Little Helper, the questions just keep mounting more quickly than answers can possibly follow. It’s a horror comedy, sure, or at least a low-budget attempt at one, but it’s not often you find an entry in this little niche that is simultaneously “too lame to be scary” and “too cruelly incompetent to be funny.” Satan’s Little Helper possesses a curious power to be the worst of both worlds.
This zero-budget little piece of dreck comes to us as the final film from eclectically strange director Jeff Lieberman, nearly 30 years after his 1976, killer-worms-and-eventual-MST3K-episode debut Squirm. In the years that followed, Lieberman attained such dubious plaudits as “guy who wrote the screenplay for The Neverending Story 3,” and “director of 1988 minor cult VHS classic Remote Control.” To horror geeks, though, he’s probably most notable as the director of genuinely underrated golden age slasher Just Before Dawn, one of the few “outdoorsy” slasher films of the era to truly get the most out of the isolation of a beautiful wilderness setting.
It’s safe to say, though, that by the mid-2000s Lieberman wasn’t exactly awash in feature film directorial opportunities, or the kind of budget one would need to make a respectable-looking film of the era. And so, he went back to the well of what he knew to make Satan’s Little Helper, but calling the film a “slasher” or even a “satirical slasher” is missing how its uniquely clumsy execution somehow renders it neither of those things. It’s a horror film relying almost entirely on an admittedly unique premise to provide all of its intrigue, but it’s so undermined by its amateurish cast and shoddy production that what’s meant to register as “disturbing” instead becomes a total farce.
The central gimmick of Satan’s Little Helper is essentially Lieberman asking “what would happen if a little kid was unknowingly participating in a slasher movie’s killings?” Enter nine-year-old “Dougie,” a videogame-obsessed, truly pathetic little nerd whose problems go far beyond the sort of gullibility that eventually sees him helping out in a Halloween night killing spree. Personally, I’m rather more interested in the fact that he’s romantically obsessed with his own older sister. How obsessed? Well, the word “incest” shows up within the film’s first two minutes, if that’s any indication. Naturally, no one acts as if this is an at-all concerning character trait for a fourth grader—when college sister Jenna (Katheryn Winnick) brings her new boyfriend home for Halloween, mother Merrill (Amanda Plummer) casually informs the suitor that “Dougie’s had his heart set on marrying her, so now you’re competition.” Even Jenna seems unfazed by her little brother lusting after her, having no reaction to him pointing at her copious Halloween costume cleavage and referring to her breasts repeatedly as “boomies.” Boys will be boys, etc.
The point is, Dougie absolutely lives in a strange little fantasy world of his own devising, and the most recent subject of his fascination is the idea of “serving Satan,” thanks to his obsession with a handheld videogame by the name of Satan’s Little Helper. We see embarrassing snippets of this “game” throughout, all looking like they were drawn freehand by a grade-schooler in MS Paint, played on a mysterious handheld device that resembles no game system anyone has ever conceived. Again, Dougie’s mother and family see nothing concerning about this—when the nine-year-old announces his intentions to wander around the neighborhood in search of Satan, they cheerily wave goodbye to let the boy live out his dream. We all gotta make our own choices in this life, after all.
This sets the stage for Dougie to actually stumble across “Satan” on Halloween afternoon, and immediately pledge his undying devotion to the Dark Lord’s goals. The only problem? The person dressed as “Satan” is some sort of real-life serial killer or indiscriminate butcher, who Dougie discovers in the process of murdering neighbor families and dragging their corpses into the yard to pose as Halloween decorations. Dougie, developmentally delayed and overly imaginative simpleton that he is, interprets these clear murders as some sort of incredibly realistic and far-reaching roleplaying game, and doesn’t believe the killings happening right in front of him are real. How he’s able to doubt them is entirely unclear to the audience—at one point, he watches Satan stab a man to death from two feet away, shove the body into a dumpster, and they both continue on their merry way. Apparently Dougie thinks that the town is filled with NPCs or character actors who are all collaborating with Satan, in order to give him the perfect Halloween roleplay? We have to either believe this, or believe that Dougie is the single dumbest child character in the history of the genre.
The aspect of how Dougie is perceiving all this stuff is confusing enough on its own, but the behavior of the killer really helps the tonal confusion of Satan’s Little Helper ascend to the next level. From behind his mask he never speaks a single time throughout the film, communicating his will to Dougie exclusively through nods and excited hand gestures. He’s immediately on board with having a nine-year-old murder assistant, even though there’s no way he could possibly have expected to be granted such an understudy. We understand literally nothing about who or what the killer is—compared with a similarly silent villain such as Michael Myers in Halloween, he’s a complete cipher. At least in Halloween, you have Dr. Loomis to provide running commentary, context and theory behind what Michael Myers represents. “Satan,” on the other hand—the credits list him as “Satan Man,” FYI—is a total mystery on every level. Did he just snap and start killing people a few hours ago? Does he do this every Halloween? Is he targeting anyone in particular? Is there a supernatural aspect? We have no idea.
It’s not even clear, in fact, if Satan is supposed to be frightening or funny at any given moment. For brief snippets, it seems like the audience is supposed to be intimidated by his presence … and then he moves with the exaggerated silliness of a vaudeville villain, flips random cars the middle finger, and kicks an old woman with a walker across the room like he’s Black Dynamite. It’s as if you kept the goofy humor of something like Terrifier, but largely did away with the stomach-turning gore and ultraviolence, if only because you couldn’t afford decent effects. Thanks to those budgetary constraints, we’re not even sure what to think when we first see Satan. Looking at his lame costume and latex mask, are we supposed to think “there’s a human psycho under there”? Or a supernatural force? Or, are we supposed to believe that Satan is a literal demon, and that the people who see him are just assuming it’s a costume because it’s Halloween? This confusion hangs over the entire film, and only in the closing moments do you get something close to an answer.
We needed a montage of this guy getting dressed for his big day, and deciding that the monster mask and gloves are best accompanied by a Hefner-style smoking jacket.
More than anything, what Satan’s Little Helper actually looks like is a clumsily executed Halloween episode of a mid-1990s basic cable TV series, with its shot-on-video aesthetic and low-resolution cheapness. It’s like a feature-length introduction to an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger that steadfastly refuses to arrive, which is undoubtedly to its detriment. If Chuck Norris had breezed onto the scene to kick the killer out a window, into a stack of exploding barrels filled with toxic waste, perhaps Satan’s Little Helper could have been salvaged. As is, its most notable contribution to the genre is a little boy lusting after his sister’s “boomies,” when he’s not being pushed around in a shopping cart by Satan, bowling over blind men and pregnant women. I’m starting to understand why Satan’s Little Helper costumes have been poorly represented in the last 18 years of trick ‘r treaters.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.