“It’s a Wonderful Knife” is a Mixed Bag of Holiday Horror

Holiday horror seems to be having a bit of a moment. After years of schlocky pun-tastic B-movies and the endless debate over Die Hard as a Christmas film, the success of Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat and Krampus seem to have sparked a new generation of big-budget seasonal horror films with A-list stars and stylish effects. Genre fans love nothing more than to sit down with a steaming mug of hot chocolate and watch a sinister Santa tear through the naughty. Or perhaps it’s a murderous snowman spraying blood all over a pristine winter wonderland. Whatever the gimmick, it seems this irreverent vehicle for holiday cheer is here to stay. Tyler MacIntyre’s It’s a Wonderful Knife is the latest in the exciting trend, a snarky teen slasher heavily indebted to Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Exciting treats abound in this joyfully gory slasher including a delightfully villainous performance from Justin Long and some stylish Christmas kills. Unfortunately, the cumbersome concept often overtakes the plot and It’s a Wonderful Knife turns out to be a cheeky title looking for a coherent story. 

It’s Christmas Eve in Angel Falls. Winnnie Caruthers (Jane Widdop) is looking forward to spending a picturesque evening with her parents and brother Jimmy (Aiden Howard) when her father’s manipulative boss Henry Waters (Long) pulls him along on a nefarious mission to take over the town. Later that night Winnie and Jimmy are attacked by a killer dressed as a tree-topping angel. When Winnie saves her brother’s life by taking down the killer, she vastly improves the lives of everyone in town. Fast forward to a year later. Life is good for everyone but Winnie who can’t seem to move past the trauma of the last holiday season. With a depressed wish under the aurora borealis, Winnie finds herself trapped in a world in which she was never born. Her parents don’t recognize her, Jimmy is dead, and worst of all the Angel Killer is still running amok. With her lesson quickly learned, Winnie must find a way to save the remaining citizens of Angel Falls and get back to her life before the fading northern lights trap her there forever.

Like its namesake, MacIntyre’s story revolves around Winnie discovering that she wants to live. Mixing this classic narrative with slasher tropes is a fun idea and offers some interesting horror set pieces, but unfortunately, the concept falls apart very quickly. It’s difficult to believe the only one capable of stopping a series of brutal murders is a plucky high school student or that the Angel has been slaughtering citizens with no opposition for an entire year. It’s also fairly obvious that Waters is the killer and ludicrous that no one has yet to figure out the mystery. MacIntyre flirts with giving this sinister mayor some ill-defined mind control powers, but this feels like a halfhearted attempt to explain away a gaping plot hole. 

MacIntyre glosses over these fuzzy details with a dazzling roster of genre talent. Long leads the adult cast, clearly having a blast with the larger than life character. Third-act problems notwithstanding, his performance is easily the highlight of the film and it’s unfortunate that we don’t get to spend more time with this two-faced killer. Playing with seasonal iconography, MacIntyre gifts us with a series of holiday-themed kills each more grisly than the last. The sparks fly, the blood splatters, and the candy canes impale, fulfilling the unspoken promise of every holiday slasher. The Angel Killer’s all-white costume proves especially effective in this regard with its faceless white mask and snow-like robes. Never mind how he manages to get the blood out of that pristine fabric so effectively. Those are the kinds of details we can let go. The film soars during these killer sequences, but falls apart when it tries to contextualize any of Waters’s murderous actions. 

Though Long is the face of the film, he plays a relatively minor role in the story. Widdop helms the younger cast as the discontented teen Winnie. She’s aided by Bernie (Jess McLeod), the local outcast and the only person in town she can convince to help her. Both actresses do the best they can with what they’re given, but a flimsy script often leads to overwrought emotional beats. Erin Boyer has fun poking at her squeaky-clean TV Movie persona, but the rest of the adult cast feels essentially wasted. Joel McHale has a disturbing ability to find the razor-sharp line between hero and villain, but his character is so inconsistent that it’s difficult to know how we’re supposed to feel about him. Katharine Isabelle and Cassandra Naud add a snarky kick to the story, but they also have very little to do. Naud in particular feels especially superfluous and MacIntyre seems to forget she exists halfway through the film. 

In the 77 years since It’s a Wonderful Life first premiered, audiences have turned more attention to the film’s sensitive treatment of suicidal ideation. With a script from Michael Kennedy, MacIntyre attempts to reckon with this element of the story as well with characters naming their depression and actively speaking out about helpful alternatives. It’s a laudable effort especially given a likely teen audience, but the concept of suicide feels like an afterthought. Characters bring the subject up with shocking ease and then solve what seem like surface-level problems in the blink of an eye, making the entire topic feel more like lip service than the heart of the film. 

It’s a Wonderful Knife feels like one of those ideas dreamed up over a long night filled with holiday karaoke and stiff eggnog. The story sounds good on paper and the puntastic kills are thrilling, but the details leave much to be desired. Among the horrific holiday treats, there are large lumps of coal that no amount of creative outlining can resolve. Despite a killer performance from Justin Long and a mostly fun mashup of slasher tropes and seasonal flair, the concept barely hangs together and this cinematic tree topples fairly easily.

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.