By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
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The first clue that Matthew Helms is not your average thirteen-year-old boy lies atop his pre-pubescent head. Long, flowing and cut with rough bangs that fall unevenly over dark blue eyes, his blond hair cascades over shoulders that are strong and toned, an anomaly of adolescent physiology. Another clue.
Clues three through one hundred include the following: By age nine, Matthew had won nine consecutive world titles in a competitive sport-karate circuit. He's hung out with both Mel Gibson and Martin Lawrence and prefers the company of the former. Because he is a certified weapons expert, proficient in everything from a spear-like staff to nunchakus, Matthew has to register with law-enforcement agencies in some states before he can legally enter them. An Elvis fan, he's prone to quoting Bruce Lee, speaks French, has a photographic memory and knows how to swashbuckle. And he just officially became a movie star, a featured character in the Hollywood grossout Cabin Fever, which went into wide release last week.
"Some people I meet are intimated to think that a thirteen-year-old boy can know all of the things that I know," he says. "I can't worry about that. 'Cause you know what? I've just got too much that I want to do."
Cabin Fever is a low-budget, independent film directed and co-written by a young filmmaker named Eli Roth, who crafted the story while on the set of Howard Stern's Private Parts. As Stern's production assistant, Roth had to stay up all night to make sure Stern got up in time for early-morning calls to the set, and he used his downtime to write. Cabin Fever is an homage to classic horror films of the '70s, a campy gorefest in which a group of comely college students meet their doom in a rural Southern town teeming with a flesh-eating virus. The cast includes Rider Strong, former star of the television series Boy Meets World, and Jordan Ladd, daughter of Cheryl. For approximately nine minutes, it also stars Lakewood's Matthew Helms.
Matthew plays the small but pivotal role of Dennis, a delusional backwoods boy who flies into a fit of rage and nearly gnaws off the hand of a principal character after he mistakes it for breakfast. Dennis doesn't talk much: His sole line in the film is a growling mantra of "Pancakes, pancakes."
"Dennis is a psycho, demented kid who communicates by biting people," Matthew says. "As my dad in the movie says, 'He's like a mongrel who will give you tetanus.' There's a sign that's been posted by my dad character, and it says, 'Don't sit next to Dennis.' When you watch my scene, you find out why.
"I like horror films, but I prefer the classics, like Dracula and The Thing and other movies no one has ever heard of," he adds. "I know when we see it in the theater, my mom is going to have to cover her eyes for a lot of it."
Matthew scored the Dennis role after impressing Roth with his martial-arts skills -- and his haircut -- during an audition in his home state of North Carolina two years ago. While reading for the role, he performed segments of a martial-arts routine that involved lots of high kicking and hair-flailing. Eventually, both elements were worked into the Cabin Fever script.
"When we were filming, we went through the scene a few times, and then Eli said, 'Show me some of that crazy stuff you did during your audition,'" Matthew says. "So I thought about it for a few minutes, and then I came back with an aerial-kick routine. I just brought some personality to it.
"It's like Bruce Lee said: 'You take an idea, develop it and make it better.' And that's what I did, with Eli's full approval. It was fun."
It's been nearly two years since Matthew and his mom, Becky, spent three days on the set with Roth, Strong, Ladd and the rest of the crew. But they have the distinct sense that Cabin Fever fever is about to catch on.
"We don't know exactly where it's going to lead, but we hope it leads to something," Becky says. "We just know that when people see this movie, they're going to get some idea of what this child can do. But you see so many things in this business, you never know. We're always just waiting for that next call."
Matthew and his parents have been waiting for that call for a while.
In May, the family moved from St. Pauls, North Carolina, to Colorado when Tony, Matthew's dad, found a job in the claims office of an Evergreen trucking and transport company. After settling in Lakewood, they quickly got back to work on Matthew's career. Tony mans the e-mail list and keeps up with Web sites on which Matthew is featured, while Becky routinely sends photos, press releases, videotapes and resumés to talent agencies and media outlets in Denver and, occasionally, to big shots in Hollywood.
"Anything with Wilshire Boulevard in the address line, you know it's not going to get to that person," she says. "But it's still better than nothing. I just sent one off to Quentin Tarantino. I have a feeling he would like Matt."