Wait Till Helen Comes: My Favorite Childhood Book Got A Movie?!
When I was ten or eleven, I discovered a book at our local library that changed my life forever. I know I’m probably supposed to be noting a classic of some sort - Dickens, Doyle, Austen - I don’t know what classics a ten year old would read. But no, for me, the life changing book was a YA novel by Mary Downing Hahn. Wait Till Helen Comes was one of my early doorways into horror and ghost stories, and by walking through it, I was be forever changed.
I fell so in love with the story that I soon bought my own copy - a copy that would become well-worn and tattered over the years. I would sit in a chair behind our Christmas tree and read the haunting tale of a young girl who befriends a lonely and dangerous ghost (because yeah, I was that kid). I would reread that book a number of times before finally graduating to Fear Street, Christopher Pike, and eventually Stephen King. This early exposure to ghost stories sparked an interest that would continue to grow until I became the full-on horror obsessed freak I am today.
As formative as this book was, I confess that I hadn't really thought about it in years - until recently, when it unexpectedly crossed my path again. While browsing IMDB, I discovered a credit on Maria Bello’s page that brought it all back. In 2016, she had starred in a screen adaptation of my beloved Wait Till Helen Comes. How had this happened without my knowledge? I needed to watch this movie and revisit the story that captivated me so many years ago.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading this book, it tells the story of a newly-formed family struggling to start anew. Molly and her brother Michael are trying to adapt to life after their mother Jean remarries, bringing into their lives not only a new father figure in Dave but also a new sibling, with the seven year old Heather. Though Molly genuinely wants to make an effort at getting along, Heather, having lost her mother in a fire, makes it exceedingly difficult. She lies, lashes out and is generally as unpleasant as possible as she, in turn, struggles with the realities of her new life. Jean and Dave move the family out of the city, to an isolated home in a renovated church.
A small cemetery sits at the edge of the property and Heather uncovers a lonely grave. Marked only with the initials H.E.H (coincidentally, Heather’s own initials), the grave becomes a point of obsession for Heather, as she begins insisting that a ghost named Helen has befriended her and will make the new members of her unwanted family pay for any slight against her. While Michael and her parents brush this off as mere fantasy, Molly believes not only that Heather is telling the truth, but that the ghostly apparition has more in mind than simply befriending a lonely girl.
It’s a fantastic story - haunting and appropriately creepy, but thoughtful and wise at the same time. It addresses the guilt and pain that comes with dealing with love and loss, and offers a way of moving forward when faced with the challenges of a changing family dynamic. I was curious to see how this story would translate to film. Would it be as creepy as my ten-year-old self found it? Would the family dynamic at the heart of the story remain intact?
The result was honestly pretty satisfying. Directed by Dominic James, it retains its young adult roots, in that it isn’t an overly scary tale. There are some haunting moments, but this really is horror-lite, as opposed to a full-on fright fest. Which is fine. It might not be what a more seasoned horror vet is looking for, but it really hits the mark in offering something ghost-centric but making it palatable for a younger audience.
Most interesting are the changes made to the characters and the family dynamics at play. In the book, Heather is portrayed as little more than a bratty kid - angry and manipulative at every turn. Here, screenwriter Victoria Sanchez Mandryk develops her into a character that is a bit more emotionally scarred from the sudden death of her mother several years before. Unable to handle her withdrawal, her father (Callum Keith Rennie) has placed her into a children’s hospital until his marriage to Jean (Bello). The Heather we see now is very reserved and off-puttingly quiet. Isabelle Nelisse plays the character well, giving her the right amount of sympathy, while still managing to keep the audience at arm’s length. We know that something is up with her, but we are not allowed close enough to discover exactly what it is. Heather is mysterious, and that sense of mystery lends itself well as the story begins to unfold.
The character of Molly (Sophie Nelisse) is also a bit of a departure from the novel. Hahn wrote her as a romantic and imaginative personality, with a keen intuition that allowed her to sense that the things Heather was experiencing were out of the ordinary and potentially dangerous. The fact that she was easily frightened allowed her parents to brush off her concerns about Heather and the property as being reflective of an overactive imagination.
In the film, this sixth sense is a bit more defined. Rather than simply getting a feeling that something is wrong, she is able to see specific moments and images that make her realize that something sinister is happening to her family. Additionally, her backstory is filled in a bit to include the loss of her father. Here, he committed suicide following a depression that included numerous hallucinations. Molly had her own struggles with mental illness following his death, and there is a persistent fear that what she has been seeing and experiencing in the new house is related to her mental health, and possibly to something that she may have inherited from her father. Nelisse embraces these complexities, giving Molly a vulnerability that is 100% relatable.
It was so much fun to go back and reacquaint myself with this story again, and seeing it brought to life by a talented cast was something that I had never expected. It was surprising to see a book originally published in 1982 serving as the inspiration for a new supernatural film, and overall, it's a solid adaptation. Though it could have been shot differently to bring it a more intense sense of fear, it would have risked betraying the source material. Wait Till Helen Comes certainly scared my ten-year-old self, but never so much that I was unable to continue reading, which is important. The heart of this book is this family and seeing them trying to forge a path forward after unspeakable loss. There are a few bumps in the adaptation that could have seen a bit more character development or could have flowed a little smoother, but ultimately, it is a solid film experience.
If, like me, Wait Till Helen Comes was a part of your childhood reading list, I highly recommend checking out the film. It is always fun to catch up with an old friend (even when that friend happens to be a ghost).
Horrorellla has been writing about the genre for years. In addition to this guest contribution on Talk Film Society you can find her work over at Bloody Disgusting, Daily Dead, and Bitch Flicks. You can also follow her on Twitter!