As more and more classics of literature and film enter the choppy waters of public domain, low-rent features like new horror-comedy It’s a Wonderful Knife will sadly become the norm rather than the exception, the type of project that screenwriter Michael Kennedy has readily admitted in interviews was born title-first — isn’t it so clever? For those who need the pun explained, it’s a play on Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s also a horror slasher, and guess what weapon the killer uses. But actually, the assailant utilizes multiple instruments to inflict mass destruction, including, at one point, a giant light-up candy cane; if you’re going to go this route, at least give him a special knife or something, or your title is even lazier than it seems, though that description is pretty accurate of the film as a whole.
In the picturesque town of Angel Falls, skeezy mayor Henry Waters (Justin Long) wants to buy up all of the community’s land and properties in order to build luxury condominiums and shopping centers. Naturally, he encounters one hard-nosed owner who refuses to sell, seeing Henry’s vision as a betrayal of the small-town way of life its inhabitants have come to know and love. This sends Henry on a Christmas Eve killing spree, taking out those individuals who stand in the way of so-called progress. A local teenager by the name of Winnie (Jane Widdop) ends up stopping Henry’s rampage by way of electrocution, but one year later, the PTSD-riddled high school senior is understandably unable to let go of the horrors she endured, while her family finds newfound success in the town and resents her inability to let go, at one point screaming at her, “Move on!”
Thanks to this profound lack of empathy, Winnie, seeing the Northern Lights in the sky on Christmas Eve, naturally wishes she was never born, and subsequently gets a front-row seat to the fresh hell she has unleashed on Angel Falls as a result. Turns out, the Angel of Death — the name given to Henry Waters in this timeline — is alive and well, having killed 26 people over the course of a year, including Winne’s brother, Jimmy (Aiden Howard), which has torn the family apart. Winnie finds an ally in local “weirdo” Bernie (Jess McLeod), and the two team up to stop Henry’s rampage and hopefully get Winnie back to the old life she knew — the one where her family found her PTSD to be a nuisance.
It’s a Wonderful Knife‘s biggest problem is that Kennedy and director Tyler MacIntyre are unable to settle on a tone, the film ping-ponging between Christopher Landon-style quips and kills and the weighted dramatic themes that fueled the original yuletide tale. Taken out of context, a moment where Winnie’s father (Joel McHale) tearfully discusses the pain of losing a child is emotionally effective, but far less so when it’s buttressed by scenes where the mother’s alcoholism and infidelity are bafflingly played for laughs. The movie is also strangely and glibly obsessed with classism: Waters has succeeded in building a gated community that caters to the rich but has brought only misery to the lower-class, who are now left to fester in the crime-ridden slums, where the Angel of Death can strike at any moment to literally take away life. Unfortunately, such thematic posturing only results in harmful stereotyping, such as the fact that everyone in the town now smokes crack. The idea of crossing Parasite with Happy Death Day might sound intriguing on paper, but you’re going to need more than 87 minutes to accomplish such a challenge, especially when you are simultaneously working through a checklist of references and plot details from a third influence, and a beloved classic at that.
MacIntyre shoots the proceedings to resemble a run-of-the-mill Hallmark Channel holiday cheapie — a lot of gauzy lighting butting heads with flat digital photography and minimal set dressing — and it’s impossible to determine if it’s meant as a joke or the byproduct of sheer laziness. At times, the film comes across as a satire of one of those basic cable staples, yet the absurdity needed to consistently be dialed to 11 in order to reach such lofty heights is conspicuously absent. Long is at least certainly having a good time, spray-tanned orange and wearing huge, fake white teeth that make him resemble the long-lost sibling of Baby Billy Freeman from The Righteous Gemstones. The performance most evokes that of a Scooby-Doo villain, which is no doubt fun in spurts, but reflects only one of the myriad tones found in this imbalanced hodgepodge. His Angel of Death costume is undeniably sick though and the film’s strongest aesthetic choice, flowing white robes capped by a featureless mask of sleek ivory purity that most resembles a snow angel come to life. It’s too bad all of the kills that accompany his rampaging are rendered in lousy CGI and lack anything resembling tension. It’s this lack of investment in developing the film beyond its referential title that makes It’s a Wonderful Knife less a missed opportunity than just blatant brand recognition posing as nostalgia, coal in Capra’s stocking.
DIRECTOR: Tyler MacIntyre; CAST: Jane Widdop, Justin Long, Joel McHale, Jess McLeod; DISTRIBUTOR: RLJE Films/Shudder; IN THEATERS: November 10; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 27 min.