Inspired by the constant encroachments of Christmas upon the rightful Halloween season, Mondo Vulgare has declared a full two months of extra spooky times with The Nightmare During Christmas. From October 31st to December 31st, they will feature wall-to-wall Halloween-themed content, and I have graciously been allowed to participate! My first contribution to The Nightmare During Christmas is a love letter to Satan’s Little Helper, an overlooked Halloween flick that I once featured for Monster Monday. Go check out the other Nightmare During Christmas posts at Mondo Vulgare, and be sure to check back here for future contributions to the extended Halloween fun!
Consider this an open letter to add the delightfully mean-spirited slasher Satan’s Little Helper to your regular Halloween viewing. Writer-director Jeff Lieberman’s independent horror-comedy mixes pitch-black humor with bright red blood and guts to produce a wickedly fun piece of Samhain entertainment. It doesn’t have the relentless terror of Halloween, the twisted justice of Trick ‘r Treat, or the chilly mischief of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but this nasty little gem has its own holiday ethos: the devil’s coming for you no matter what, and if you’re foolish enough to invite him in, you’ll only be getting what you deserve.
This low-budget treat opens with 9-year-old Dougie (Alexander Brickel) playing a video game called Satan’s Little Helper, wherein he aids the Dark Lord by punching old ladies and blowing up dogs with mysteriously supercharged basketballs. Dougie and his mom Merrill (Amanda Plummer) are driving to pick up his college student sister Jenna (Katheryn Winnick) so that the siblings can go trick-or-treating together. When Dougie discovers that Jenna has brought along her new boyfriend Alex (Stephen Graham), he’s furious, because he thinks that Jenna is his girlfriend and believes that they will get married one day. Merrill takes all in stride, joking about an elementary schooler’s dubious understanding of incest. But between this and the impromptu mother-daughter spank fight later on in the movie, we see that things are just a little off in this vision of the world.
Deprived of his sister-bride, Dougie sulks off to trick-or-treat on his own. He runs across a man in a black coat and a demon mask who is posing a freshly murdered victim on a porch to add a little panache to the dearly departed’s homey Halloween display. Dougie assumes that this is his master Satan from his favorite video game, so he offers up his services as a dutiful helper. The Satan Man (played with an incredible combination of humor and menace by Joshua Annex) accepts, and Dougie leads him back to his house to find fresh victims.
Lieberman and Brickel strike a canny balance with Dougie: he’s likable enough to make him a sympathetic main character, but he’s also annoying enough to allow you to root for the Satan Man guilt-free. It’s not always clear how much Dougie understands about life and death, and as Satan and his little helper rack up a hefty body count, the movie turns into a video game where the viewer gleefully anticipates the next kill. It’s a satirical look at the bloodthirstiness of horror fans, the stereotype of gamers who can’t differentiate between video games and the real world, and the blurring of fantasy and reality that happens around Halloween.
Sharpening this satire is the surreal tone that permeates the film — other than the Satan Man, all the characters inhabit a bizarre alternate universe of oblivious cheeriness. Even when Jenna and Alex uncover the true nature of the Satan Man and encounter two victims who drank a little too much of his Drano-spiked punch, the young lovers nonchalantly step over and walk away from the victims’ bodies as they writhe on the floor with foam coming out of their mouths. Amanda Plummer’s twitchy, erratic energy is perfectly suited for this tilted version of reality; rather than being an eccentric outlier, her daffy mom character actually grounds the film, giving the strange proceedings a cohesion that a more sedate performance just wouldn’t be able to provide.
The movie revels in its weirdness and in its low-budget glory. When Dougie and the Satan Man hit the grocery store for some Halloween candy and a good old-fashioned murder kit, the prominent BIG HUNK off-off-brand candy display hilariously underscores the film’s lack of funding. And while most movies that heavily feature technology become dated even before they hit theatres, Satan’s Little Helper‘s low budget actually works in its favor here. The animation for the namesake video game is so cheap and silly that it becomes impossible to date the movie. No video game (that I know of, anyway) has ever looked like that, so instead of immediately identifying the movie as a product of 2004, it simply adds to its campy charm.
If you need some new blood in your Halloween viewing schedule, this movie is the ideal choice. Where else can you find disembowelment, philosophical discussions on the personification of evil, and Amanda Plummer baking a quiche while wearing a Carmen Miranda costume? Granted, Satan’s Little Helper probably isn’t going to earn a spot in the pantheon of horror’s greatest Halloween movies. It’s uneven at times, and the ending falls a bit flat. (And there’s an unfortunate moment when the word “n***a” is used — it’s unclear whether the person speaking is Black because their skin is completely covered by a costume, but the cast of the movie is predominantly white). But is this darkly hilarious, bloody horror flick worth your time when you want to celebrate the weirder, seedier side of Halloween? HELL yes. So go check it out — Satan commands you.