Vague Visages’ It’s a Wonderful Knife review contains minor spoilers. Tyler MacIntyre’s 2023 movie features Jane Widdop, Jess McLeod and Joel McHale. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
The festive season doesn’t truly begin until the release of a Christmas horror movie. This year, Tyler MacIntyre’s hotly anticipated It’s a Wonderful Knife arrives just in time to splash blood and guts all over Halloween decorations. While not as essential as other festive fright-fests, such as Krampus (2015) or Better Watch Out (2016), the Michael Kennedy-scripted holiday slasher is a perfectly agreeable way to spend your time, whether you’re looking to get in the spirit or refusing to accept that spooky season is over.
Loosely based on the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, It’s a Wonderful Knife takes place in the town of Angel Falls (as opposed to Bedford Falls), where the villainous Henry Waters (Justin Long) rules with an iron fist and a demonstrably fake tan. Suffice it to say, the bonafide horror actor almost runs away with the whole movie, so spare a thought for poor Jane Widdop (Yellowjackets), whose Final Girl Winnie Carruthers is tasked with going toe-to-toe with Henry and his horrifying creation, The Angel.
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As Winnie learns in It’s a Wonderful Knife’s satisfyingly lengthy opening prologue, Henry is actually a knife-toting slasher, clad entirely in white to match the angel at the top of the town’s monstrous Christmas tree, and he’s willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. Much like It’s a Wonderful Life, the plot’s inciting incident surrounds the elderly resident (William B. Davis) of a house that Henry wants to demolish so he can build a mega mall. Reluctantly helping him in this cruel endeavor is Winnie’s father, David (a miscast Joel McHale). However, the real problem, naturally, is the masked murderer.
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It’s a Wonderful Knife takes its time establishing Angel Falls and how everybody fits into the town, to the extent that the first act is unavoidably exposition heavy and thus a bit of a slog. It’s arguably way too much setup for not nearly enough payoff, since Winnie is then magically sent to a parallel universe where she doesn’t exist after wishing not to be born in the first place. It’s a Wonderful Knife doesn’t justify this desire either, in Winnie’s character motivations or her various interactions with otherwise well-meaning family members. Mainly, she’s pissed that her brother got a car for Christmas, while her parents inexplicably gifted Winnie an all-pink velour tracksuit.
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Revealing the killer’s identity early on is an interesting choice, one that notably goes against slasher conventions, but Kennedy, who also penned the winning Freaky, is savvy enough to keep some secrets up his sleeve. Whether they work or not will depend on how much mileage ones gets out of the setup itself and Widdop’s performance in general. While a committed actor, she’s somewhat one-note, failing to find much nuance in Winnie’s internal struggle. There’s little reason to root for the protagonist to even get home, since life isn’t that much worse in the alternate dimension, aside from the fact that Winnie’s brother is dead.
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Jess McLeod fares significantly better than Winnie as the tortured Bernie, an outcast in distractingly harsh makeup whom the other teens refer to as “Weirdo” and who Winnie befriends out of sheer desperation once she realizes what’s happened to her. McLeod has already demonstrated her impressive chops in the criminally underrated Netflix series One of Us Is Lying (itself a stronger, more layered, slasher than this one), but she dials it way back in It’s a Wonderful Knife to give Bernie a sad, mouselike affect that’s as heartbreaking as it is endearing. It’s obvious why Winnie is drawn to her, less so why Bernie should care about her considerably better off, whiny schoolmate. Still, every scene that Widdop and McLeod share sparks with electricity.
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There’s more than one token gay in It’s a Wonderful Knife, which is wonderful albeit not altogether surprising coming from an openly queer screenwriter. However, the principal cast is predominantly white, with Winnie’s Black BFF dispatched annoyingly early on. It’s a step forward for representation that feels like a missed opportunity, especially when considering that McHale struggles with believably playing a kindly father (he did much better as a sleazy groomer in Assassination Nation). Meanwhile, horror icon Katharine Isabelle receives little material as a character knowingly named Gale Prescott.
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Scream references abound throughout It’s a Wonderful Knife, from a well-placed music cue to Winnie’s haircut and white sweater combo, which directly references Drew Barrymore’s doomed character from the iconic opening sequence of the 1996 film. A standout scene also evokes Scream 2 but loses points for being the only truly scary moment. Elsewhere, a movie theater advertises I Know What You Did Last Christmas — a faux film that sadly sounds like it might be a more exciting horror movie overall. There’s plenty to like about It’s a Wonderful Knife, but this is the kind of horror production that’s easier to appreciate than love. It never really takes off, with a candy cane through a character’s head standing out amongst a variety of otherwise vanilla, run-of-the-mill kills.
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Despite a smudgy color palette, It’s a Wonderful Knife isn’t nearly nasty enough. That’s disappointing, especially when coming from the director of the hyper-feminist Tragedy Girls (2017), a wild slasher that makes rooting for the villains deliciously fun. And considering that It’s a Wonderful Knife was scripted by the writer of Freaky — which is easily one of the best modern slashers around — the toothless nature of the movie makes it even more baffling. Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski frames the action beautifully in a snowy mountain range, but Angel Falls doesn’t feel like a real place. Plus, the sense of geography is off. However, at least there’s a winning use of festive music throughout It’s a Wonderful Knife (which is a must in Christmas horror).
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Likewise, The Angel’s all-white costume is well-conceived and ideal for blood splatters, even if It’s a Wonderful Knife doesn’t play with the juxtaposition between purity and pollution nearly enough. This seeming reluctance to get properly down and dirty speaks to MacIntyre’s strangely timid approach overall, which extends from the gore and jokes — both of which are lacking — to Widdop’s anemic central performance. It’s a Wonderful Knife has a terrific premise loaded with potential, but there’s nothing to differentiate the movie from a plethora of by-the-numbers slashers, aside from that clever title tie-in, which serves mostly as set dressing. It’s a Wonderful Knife is watchable but slight. And considering how popular Hallmark Christmas movies continue to be, maybe that’s all horror fans will really expect.
Its a Wonderful Knife releases theatrically on November 10, 2023.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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