TV-14 87 mins. Dominic James Canada 2016
Despite themes ranging from suicide to mental illness, Wait Till Helen Comes is ostensibly a horror film geared toward the PG set. Drawing heavily from its source material, Mary Dowling Hahn’s 1986 YA classic of the same name, the film deserves credit for trusting its audience to follow a somewhat complicated narrative structure. While there have been some exceptions, most notably the brilliant Lady in White(1998), horror films marketed toward younger teens have often relied upon jump scares and gross out shock scenes to move the plot. For example, the moment when the witches peel off their human masks in The Witches (1990) or when the maggot covered meat is revealed in Poltergeist (1982). Wait Till Helen Comes does the complete opposite. It is slow moving and picturesque with a sensibility that is more implied horror. And the end result is a very mixed bag.The film centers on a newly blended family who decide to move to the countryside to renovate an old church that is coincidentally situated next to a decrepit graveyard. While the eldest daughter Molly (Sophie Nélisse) suffers from nightmares, her younger troublesome step-sister, Heather (Isabelle Nélisse), begins to spend her time in the ruined remains of a nearby home playing with her imaginary friend Helen (Abigail Pniowsky). Following a series of bizarre events, Molly realizes that Helen is actually real and is harboring a sinister plan involving Heather.
One of the more interesting subtexts to the film is the line between neglect and agency. In far too many films, horror and otherwise, children and teens often seem to exist in a world in which no adult is seemingly ever present. While the children in this film receive a tremendous amount of agency, the parents are present-at least in body. Molly, Heather and Michael (Liam Dickinson) are given carte blanche by their distracted parents to run about the countryside unsupervised in what feels very much a throwback to the days when children weren’t scheduled to within an inch of their lives with parental approved activities.
Yet, whether this approach to parenting is ultimately a good thing is very much up for debate. Not only does Molly have to assume the role of caretaker for her younger siblings to her own emotional detriment, but the children’s tacit understanding that no one-even their parents-is coming to save them when events reach crisis proportion with Helen is ultimately empowering. But it’s an empowerment thrust upon them via parental neglect. It’s telling that the film’s conclusion makes no note of the parents nor their reaction to the events that have just transpired. This is a fascinating departure from the book in both how the story ultimately reads as well as for what it implies about the essentialness of parental involvement.
Despite some narrative weaknesses, this film ultimately worked for me and much of that reaction is owed to its haunting and evocative cinematography. Long range shots showing the expansiveness of the desolate countryside combined with medium shots hinting at a growing sense of isolationism for Molly tell a story in their own right. The film also takes it time in revealing its mysteries and while I am a fan of this slow burn approach to storytelling, I’m not quite sure that younger audiences will find enough reason to stay with the story. Given the trajectory of Wait Till Helen Comes, it is a flaw I suspect filmmakers were aware.
The release of this film has been a saga in and of itself. Initially shown at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, the film initially was given a limited release in a handful of Canadian theatres. It ultimately made its way to the United States where it appeared on Lifetime TV under the name Little Girl’s Secret. That latter association is an unfortunate one as it’s likely horror fans will write off this film as just another movie of the week when in reality it is an effective, if lightweight, horror tale.
Look for the DVD to be released later this month.