de facto film reviews 1.5 stars

The emerging trend of “classic family movie gets a campy slasher adaptation” continues with its first blatantly Christmas-themed entry, It’s a Wonderful Knife, a spin on Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday staple, It’s a Wonderful Life. Unlike its inspiration, however, It’s a Wonderful Knife undercuts any attempt at telling a comparatively emotional story about positive relationships and belonging with a hokey horror plot and cliches galore. Yet, director Tyler MacIntyre’s latest effort has its moments, and looking past the arduous script, one can find a reasonably entertaining Christmas horror film with several flashes of brilliance.

Having co-written one of 2020’s standout slashers in the creatively-charged Freaky, Michael Kennedy finds himself in his element again. In It’s a Wonderful Knife, much like Capra’s beloved Christmas classic, protagonist Winnie Caruthers (a marvelous Jane Widdop) struggles with a guilty conscience over the deaths of her best friend and two others at the hands of Henry Waters (Justin Long), AKA The Angel, one year prior in the small town of Angel Falls. Despite killing Waters, Winnie feels underappreciated and traumatized, and one night, she wishes under the Aurora Borealis that she was never born. Like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, Winnie gets her wish. She finds herself in an alternate reality where she never existed, resulting in Waters’s unfettered murderous rampage and hostile takeover of the town as its new Mayor.

Conceptually, Kennedy’s experience with this niche take on spinoff horror plays well, introducing far more significant stakes than Capra’s sentimental film by positing the idea of a politically and criminally immune serial killer running rampant, causing the population of Angel Falls to not only slip into degeneracy but resort to hard drugs and dronelike obedience to curb their continued suffering. However, Winnie’s place in this alternate reality never becomes as emotionally meaningful as Bailey’s, as chronologically out of place and humorous as Jamie’s in the similar Totally Killer, or as gruesomely ironic as Millie’s in Kennedy’s previous project, Freaky.

Sure, there is a lesson to learn about appreciation, but it feels like Winnie merely exists to complete the story and see this movie to its natural conclusion. Kennedy provides little insight into Winnie herself to make the audience care about her journey and even less about the movie’s other empty and pointless characters who all embody tired tropes. The collectively poor characterization is a shame considering the excellent cast, including Joel McHale and indie horror darling Katherine Isabelle, who admittedly do their best with what they have—which is not much.

This element is only one example of why the It’s a Wonderful Knife script feels like a step down from Kennedy’s Freaky; the movie’s seemingly random mystical elements are inconsistent at best, the pacing is all over the place, and the all-important suspense for a slasher is practically as nonexistent as Winnie in the (literal) Wish version of Angel Falls. And I would be remiss to avoid criticizing the Hallmark movie-style dialogue, which is remarkably on-the-nose, cheesy, and contrived.

While It’s a Wonderful Knife becomes more bearable as the runtime elapses and its identity becomes self-evident, it lacks the poignancy, precision, and polish needed to compete with its similarly conceptualized betters: Freaky, Totally Killer, and the progenitor of this new horror style, Happy Death Day. Still, The Angel’s kills and the respective special effects are fun enough to witness, the normalized gay representation is respectable (though given no fundamental importance), and the two most important characters receive the film’s best performances. Widdop is magnetic, and Justin Long’s Henry Waters is the perfect murder-happy iteration of Joel Osteen, a capitalistic bad-faith boomer with an impossibly offensive set of veneers and a scheming, unsettling smile.

It’s a Wonderful Knife will certainly entertain this holiday season thanks to these factors, but one has to wonder if its source of inspiration is too difficult to twist into a sordid horror tale and whether MacIntyre and Kennedy bit off more than they could chew with the sheer amount of disbelief and patience this movie demands.

It’s a Wonderful Knife is now playing in limited theaters.