Yes, I know there are a lot of high-profile releases out right now. Yes, I’m fresh off hiatus and I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. But this is a slasher riff on It’s a Wonderful Life made by the director of Tragedy Girls and the writer of Freaky. No way could I pass this one up.
For It’s a Wonderful Knife, we lay our scene in the idyllic town of Angel Falls. The town’s wealthiest resident (Henry Waters, the latest in Justin Long’s ongoing “insufferable asshole” phase) is doing his best to scoop up real estate and drive out his business competitors so he can build some kind of supermall in town. Coincidentally, a masked slasher pops up out of nowhere to kill the last few residents standing in the way.
(Side note: Henry also has a dipshit brother named Buck, played by Sean Depner. I have no idea why the antagonists were named after Buck Henry, I don’t see any sign that he was connected with It’s a Wonderful Life in any way, but we’ll roll with it.)
Enter Winnie Carruthers (Jane Widdop), whose father (David, played by Joel McHale) works for Henry. Winnie has the grievous misfortune to watch her best friend since childhood (Cara, played by Hana Huggins) murdered right in front of her on Christmas Eve, shortly before Winnie kills the slasher right back. Even though it technically shouldn’t count as a spoiler and I’m sure you’ve already guessed who the slasher is, I won’t confirm anything here.
Cut to a year later. Understandably, Winnie hasn’t gotten over the trauma of watching her best friend get brutally slain on the same night she took someone’s life. The fact that it’s Christmas only serves to remind her of the terrible incident and sours her on the holiday entirely, in open defiance of how quickly and easily everyone else has apparently moved on. Oh, and it also doesn’t help that her college application got rejected and her boyfriend is cheating on her.
Distraught beyond hope, Winnie makes the earnest wish that she had never been born. And her wish is granted… with the side effect that she never killed the slasher. Thus our killing machine has continued their reign of terror, killing roughly 30 more people in the year since and turning Angel Falls into a hellhole. Thus Winnie has to find a way to stop the killer and restore the timeline. Hilarity ensues.
To start with the horror slasher aspect, it’s not that bad. The knife itself has a pretty sweet design, and the costume has this pure white angelic look that’s simple yet iconic. I might add that this is a slasher in the Ghostface tradition, such that our masked killer is distinctly mortal and can be injured, but keeps going through sheer force of will. I like it.
That said, it bears mentioning that the kills are few and far between. It’s not a consistently scary film, but the filmmakers are quite adept at throwing in some bloodshed at an unexpected moment right when the proceedings need an adrenaline boost. Even so, anyone who comes to this movie expecting a horror slasher might be disappointed to find that the gore is a condiment and not an entree.
Instead, the vast majority of the scarce 90-minute runtime is focused on Winnie’s character drama. In keeping with the spirit of the original holiday classic, this is very much a film about Winnie sifting through the shattered remains of a world that’s so much worse without her in it. This is very much a movie about grief, community, and the incalculable impact that any one unsuspecting life can have on the world.
My personal favorite example concerns Winnie and David. Early in the film — before the change — Winnie and her dad have a painful disagreement about how Winnie is stuck in grief and her dad isn’t helping her through it and it’s outright cruel that David is so flippant about moving on. Cut to later in the film, after the change, a year after Winnie’s brother (Jimmy, played by Aiden Howard) was murdered because his nonexistent sister wasn’t there to stop that from happening. So it is that David has been inconsolably heartbroken for a solid year, and Winnie has to try and help him move past it while also reconciling herself to the fact that she wasn’t there to save her brother. It’s a deeply heartfelt reversal that advances the themes and develops both characters in a novel and ingenious way.
The only problem is that the father is played by Joel McHale. I love Joel McHale, he’s great at what he does, but “grief-stricken father” is well outside of his wheelhouse and he doesn’t have the range to sell it.
Elsewhere, while Widdop certainly has the chops to play a passable Final Girl, her big emotional outbursts aren’t quite big enough or pained enough to really land the way they should. Oh, and let’s not forget that we’ve got Justin Long playing a two-dimensional smarmy jackass and pretty much everyone else in the supporting cast is playing a broad stereotype as well. This is unfortunately necessary, as the pattern of who gets killed and who stands to benefit from the murders would be enough to tell anyone with a functional brain cell who the killer is.
Put simply, we’ve got a plot that can only function if the characters are blithering idiots, and we’ve got character drama and themes that can only work if the characters are sympathetic and three-dimensional. It’s a tough balance, and the filmmakers can’t find a way to square that circle. The “comedy” side of the equation tends to work better, because this cast was very much built for comedy, but that doesn’t help the shrill grinding noise of all the tonal inconsistencies.
Oh, and I’d be remiss not to mention the inclusivity angle. We’ve got the openly queer Cassandra Naud in a supporting role, playing a character in a same-sex marriage, her massive facial birthmark is kept in plain view, and the film treats all of this as perfectly normal. Winnie’s aforementioned brother is gay, he gets a same-sex relationship complete with an onscreen kiss, he’s on the freaking high school football team, and everybody treats this as normal.
Then we’ve got Bernie, a possible love interest and Clarence stand-in, played by the non-binary Jess McLeod. While it’s never explicitly stated what Bernie’s deal is, she’s coded as trans or at least non-binary. And everybody else only ever calls her “Weirdo.” Though Bernie is a genuinely sweet character and she gets a delightful arc on par with Winnie’s, so there’s that.
On the one hand, this inclusivity angle feels genuinely earnest and I’m not picking up any intended antipathy. I’m sure it helps that screenwriter Kennedy himself is queer. On the other hand, the film is loaded with so many broad characters and lazy stereotypes that I can’t be sure if this really is authentic or respectful. I’m not the cis-hetero guy to make a judgment call on this, but I’d be fascinated to hear an LGBTQ+ perspective on the film. If you’ve got such an informed take, please leave a comment.
Ultimately, It’s a Wonderful Knife is one of those unfortunate cases in which all the pieces are here, but they don’t quite fit together. Blending so many genres like this is a high-risk/high-reward maneuver, and I can respect what the filmmakers were going for. They certainly got the intended themes across, I’ll give them credit for that.
The tragedy is that there are just enough brilliant and enjoyable moments in here to show what this movie could have and should have been. Such a damn shame that the filmmakers couldn’t find a more effective way to make the comedy, drama, and horror all balance out. It’s a charming little romp that might be worth a look on home video if you’re curious, but you’d be so much better off with Violent Night or Anna and the Apocalypse.