Trigger Warning: There are two scenes in the film which feature either strobing or flashing lights which may prove problematic for photosensitive viewers. Neither are particularly long, both involve the killer’s activities, and nothing is generally lost by listening versus watching should sensitivity be an issue.
Horror films and holiday films overlap in that their narratives often involve facing something that they avoid, as well as a sense of renewal or closure through the confrontation. Films like Freaks (1932) illustrate that it’s not the so-called “circus freaks” who are the monsters in society, but those who would act as sheep when they are a wolf, while films like Halloween (1978) confront the danger that lurks within the presumed safety of suburbia. In 1996, Wes Craven’s Scream changed things by adding meta-elements, a horror film that acknowledges other horror films, utilizing the very rules of the films in order to pick off one victim after another before the final confrontation between killers and final girl, upon which the nefarious reasoning is unveiled. Since then, audiences have been treated to films like 2017’s Tragedy Girls (directed by Tyler MacIntyre) and 2020’s Freaky (written by Michael Kennedy), films that subvert expectations through the smart utilization of meta-narrative, framing, and social concepts. Now, these two creatives join forces in the Christmas-themed It’s a Wonderful Knife, gleefully stating the mechanism of the film that propels the protagonist so that the real surprise can be how it’s all executed. Time to put on “Carol of the Bells” as it’s time for a new-fashioned holiday slay-ride!
In the small town of Angel Falls, high schooler Winnie Carruthers (Jane Widdop) grapples with the usual teen problems, but those are exacerbated on Christmas Eve when a fun night out with her friends at a house party ends with the death of her best friend, the near-death of her brother Jimmy (Aiden Howard), and the execution of the person who sought to kill her, too. A year later, while her brother, mother and father (Erin Royes and Joel McHale, respectively), and the rest of the town seem to have moved on, she continues to struggle with what happened that night. Lost, alone, and not in the holiday spirit, she proclaims that she wishes she’d never been born and, in that moment, she’s heard and the statement is made true. Now, existing in a world where she was never born, the killer remains on the loose and she has to figure out how to set things right and get home before either time runs out or she’s the next victim of the proclaimed Angel Killer.
Running at a quick 90-minutes (with credits), Wonderful Knife wastes little time setting up Angel Falls and all those who live in it. Also, because this is an alt-reality “lesson” narrative akin to It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), we know who the Angel Killer is very quickly. In fact, the value of the identity is so little and inconsequential to this approach to the slasher, anyone who’s watched the trailer already knows. (While anything in the promo materials is typically fair game, I’m going to refrain from sharing that info in case you’re coming to this without seeing it.) Therefore, the tension in Wonderful Knife comes not from the unknown quotient of “who could it be?” but “how do I get to them before they get to me?,” creating a different kind of ticking clock, especially as a theory for a way back to Winnie’s original universe is formed. Add in the fact that she’s got no real safe ground to go to as no one in Angel Falls knows who she is means that there are too many things that make her vulnerable and not enough that give her solid footing, let alone space to breathe to formulate a plan. Enter Angel Falls outcast Bernie (Jess McLeod), the lone person that Winnie finds as an ally. Smartly, because this universe is one where the Angel Killer finds a new victim on the regular (an aspect of dark comedy used well for giggles but that also side-swipes all the do-gooder, ineffectual cops in horror history), Kennedy makes Bernie intelligent enough to question the existence of Winnie before teaming up. Another thing is that Kennedy is well aware that audiences are already in on how Wonderful Life alt-universe world works, as is MacIntyre, so there’s little time wasted in explaining anything more than needs to be, as well as making sure that we’re kept on our toes as to whether Wonderful Knife ends happily versus totally blood-soaked. In particular, the script finds multiple ways to let the blood flow while continually pushing Winnie into new, dark corners that seem impossible to escape or, alternatively, bringing out resolutions that would be final in any other horror film but this one. These choices constantly leave the audience wondering where the narrative will go next, upending expectation and creating a fun atmosphere (context notwithstanding).
Between MacIntyre and Kennedy, these two know what they’re doing to incorporate the kinds of deep cut references so that Wonderful Knife can be enjoyed as it exists or as an easter egg feast. There’s the obvious stuff like Winnie’s last name — Carruthers, the same as Rachel Carruthers of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989). Or the inclusion of Katharine Isabelle, a known horror icon whose work includes Disturbing Behavior (1998), Ginger Snaps (2000), and Freddy vs. Jason (2023), who plays Winnie’s scene-stealing spunky aunt. There’s one that I dare not mention because the discovery of it made me giggle, but anyone who happens to have followed Kennedy on Twitter will understand the significance when they find it. Your only clue, it follows a tradition he may have started with the Christopher Landon-directed Freaky.
Thankfully, though, Wonderful Knife isn’t just an excuse to have multiple references to *other* films in a scene, thereby reducing the whole of the film to “hey, this is referencing that other thing!” Rather, when it spends time going down the emotional rabbit hole of “does my life matter?,” it pulls out some rather interesting chestnuts. Admittedly, it does skimp on the interrogation a bit, letting a few folks off the hook for their shitty behavior prior to the universe jump, but never so much that it couldn’t be addressed in a follow-up. ::starts willing it into existence:: In that regard, Widdop bears the brunt of the emotional work incredibly well, convincingly portraying the confusion and devastation of an oft-handed remark coming true, losing even more agency in the process, yet never fully succumbing. As their frequent scene-partner, McLeod brings a lightness that anyone who’s been the outcast can recognize when they find a like-minded individual: energetic, yet calm; skeptical, yet optimistic; loyal to the end. McLeod not only makes Bernie feel alive on screen, they becomes an equal to Widdop’s Winnie in the eyes of the audience. The film is unapologetic in this, making their partnership something the audience roots for, whether the pair become more than horror film tropes or full-fledged characters. Credit to the filmmakers because neither of their respective past projects — Tragedy Girls or Freaky — reduced their central cast for the sake of emotional impact or humor…unless they were assholes, in which case, that’s ok. F’em.
To that end, It’s a Wonderful Knife feels like it could become staple Halloween *or* Christmas Eve viewing for some folks. It could serve either to bridge the gap between holidays or just give those who enjoy less traditional entertainment something else to brighten their darkest night. As someone who came to both horror films and Christmas late in adulthood, all I can see is opportunity brought on by a film that understands that darkness can always be filled with light and vice versa. So put on some comfy pjs, make some hot cocoa, and get snuggly (in the theater or at home when it hits Shudder), the yuletide massacre is about to begin and you won’t want to miss it.
In theaters November 10th, 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.