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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Evil Hides in Plain Sight on Halloween Night in ‘Satan’s Little Helper’ [Formative Fears]

Formative Fears is a column that explores how horror scared us from an early age, or how the genre contextualizes youthful phobias and trauma. From memories of things that went bump in the night, to adolescent anxieties made real through the use of monsters and mayhem, this series expresses what it felt like to be a frightened child – and what still scares us well into adulthood.

As summer fades and leaves change colors, both the young and young at heart start to anticipate Halloween. October inevitably becomes a month of horror movie marathons, macabre décor, and other seasonal routines that honor ol’ Samhain. As for the child at the center of Jeff Lieberman’s Satan’s Little Helper, he’s found a new and unique way of celebrating the holiday. This year will be one that neither he nor his family will ever forget so long as they’re alive – and based on what lies ahead in this dastardly tale of horror, they might not even make it to next Halloween.

Ten-year-old Dougie Whooly (Alexander Brickel), who’s wearing a homemade devil costume crafted by his eccentric mother Merrill (Amanda Plummer), has been reunited with his sister Jenna (Katheryn Winnick); she’s returned home from college to spend Halloween night with her brother. The unexpected arrival of Jenna’s new boyfriend Alex (Stephen Graham) causes a disappointed Dougie to then wander off and mistakenly team up with a murderer. Due to the boy’s fixation with “Satan’s Little Helper” – a crude video game characterized by simulated violence at the behest of the player’s eponymous master – he innocently believes the stranger’s heinous crimes are nothing more than make-believe. In time, Dougie’s new friendship puts those around him as well as everyone else they encounter in immediate peril.

From an early age, we’re taught the distinct difference between good and bad, and adults often use religion to illustrate this point. When young Dougie asks his mother early on if Satan really exists, Merrill nervously answers: “For man, Satan represents evil, and evil occurs here and everywhere in the whole world. And so, in that sense, Satan does exist, except that he doesn’t look like anything; he doesn’t go running around with horns and a tail.” Dougie is immediately disappointed because he idolizes Satan – or rather, the notional version of him as depicted in his favorite video game – but his mother quickly adds, “Unless, of course, he’s wearing a costume.” It’s possible Dougie wasn’t raised to be God-fearing, so his obsession with a game about Jesus and the Devil could be his roundabout way of understanding something he didn’t grow up with. Nonetheless, Mrs. Whooly’s diplomatic explanation about evil leaves room for generous interpretation, as viewers soon see.

As far as movie siblings go, Dougie and Jenna get along quite well. It’s also obvious the Whoolys are very close – maybe too close – and have never cared much for personal space or orthodox parent-child and sibling relationships. Before he and his mother pick Jenna up at the ferry slip, Dougie earnestly proclaims he’s going to marry his sister. This is when Merrill jests about the school not having yet taught third graders about incest, which Dougie mishears as “sex.” Upon meeting Alex for the first time, Merrill jokingly says of her son’s negative reaction, “He’s had his heart set on marrying [Jenna]; now [Alex is] his competition.” Once at home, the family’s dynamics come out in full force: Merrill loans her daughter her old “Renaissance slut” outfit for Halloween that draws attention to Jenna’s chest, or “boomies,” as Dougie likes to call them. As visibly uncomfortable as Jenna is about her costume at first (“I can’t believe my own mother’s trying to turn me into a whore), she succumbs to the image’s allure and releases her inner “lusty wench.” As a result of having a free-spirited mother like Merrill, it’s understandable if Jenna is more conservative about her appearance and behavior. In a way, her being so uninhibited for once in her life is why she doesn’t catch on to the killer’s incognito act even sooner. It’s not until Jenna returns to her former self – practical and objective – does she realize what’s really happening and how she’s the only one who can stop it.

Jenna may come off as more sensible and modest due to her mother’s occasional bohemianism, but Dougie is entirely impressionable and far too trusting. Halloween already has a certain way of removing our natural wariness of strangers, and unlike other major holidays where people stick close to home, Halloween is a chance for stepping outside comfort zones. Dougie, with the hazy wisdom his mother shared earlier about evil, ventures outside his own safe space, unchaperoned, and immediately befriends a masked killer. Now, this isn’t a simple case of parental neglect or a sermon on the ill effects of violent video games. There is no concrete answer as to why Dougie aids “Satan” in his quest for mayhem other than the questionable fact that he thought the guy was merely role playing a game character. To say Dougie isn’t remotely prepared for the real world is a massive understatement.

Moral panic about stranger danger has not only been a source of inspiration for many classic horror movies, it defined an entire generation’s childhood. Given Dougie’s disposition, audiences have to wonder if he or Jenna were ever instilled with the same basic rules of safety that keep others alive. Dougie hails from a picturesque and naïve New England town where Halloween is observed by the masses; the residents are so immersed in the day that they don’t even realize a spree killer is among them, hacking neighbors up and displaying their corpses like festive decorations. Lieberman made a point of having “Satan” be a flesh-and-blood person wearing a mask rather than an actual monster mistaken for someone in costume. His murderous activity doesn’t set off any alarms because the town’s universal enthusiasm about Halloween is far too potent. “Satan” hangs an old lady on her front porch as well as viciously slays a cat in broad daylight; passerbys either think these are elaborate gags, or they ask to take a photo. All of this speaks to our fear of evil hiding in plain sight on top of the concern that people have become desensitized, maybe even less motivated to stop the bad things they see happening every day.

While the “Satan” seen in the movie isn’t the real thing, his influence over the town is authentic. From the moment his presence is detected, an insidious force moves throughout the movie and affects everyone. Jenna’s boyfriend Alex has his own childhood scars, physical and emotional ones, that keep him from visiting his abusive father who he later suspects to be the killer. Then there’s the notable public chaos that ensues in “Satan” and Dougie’s wake; the police station is set on fire, and the other residents gradually become more disorderly as the film progresses. “Satan” has come to town and everyone’s souls are in danger.

Jeff Lieberman went out with a bang with Satan’s Little Helper. As weird and oftentimes inappropriate as his last movie is, it’s undeniably hard to forget even for those who can’t see past the low-budget aesthetic and don’t eye the film’s scattered and subversive charms. Lieberman conically illustrates evil and its pull in storybook America; he uses a child to propose honest questions about the presence of something wicked in familiar surroundings. Ultimately, this unseemly coming-of-age story is about a boy celebrating a holiday that so many of us once enjoyed or still do. And the threat of it being undone or taken away by an uncontrollable force isn’t lost on anyone, especially these days. There are greater worries at stake in the world, but for a ten-year-old boy like Dougie, the thought of no more Halloweens and no one to spend them with anymore, is pretty scary.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3637660/evil-hides-plain-sight-halloween-night-satans-little-helper-formative-fears/

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