This review of It’s a Wonderful Knife contains some spoilers.
It’s an ambitious task to make a slasher version of a movie as iconic and beloved as the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. And the new Christmas slasher It’s a Wonderful Knife (lol, no really), now available on streaming, sure does take a stab. But despite a few fun kills, a promising premise, and a few performances that really hit the right tone of the film, it doesn’t live up to those ambitions, a redundant and contrived script holding it back from true slasher glory. The cast almost makes up for the lacking script though. And there’s a queer love story that’s stocking stuffer candy sweet if not as developed or sharp as I tend to prefer my queer relationships on-screen.
Nonbinary actor you may know and love from Yellowjackets Jane Widdop plays protagonist Winnie, a teen who early in the film stops a masked killer during his Christmas Eve rampage in the small mountain town where she lives but not before he kills several people, including her best friend Cara (Hana Huggins). Right away, our killer is unmasked, revealed to be the town’s capitalism-loving monster Henry Waters (Justin Long) whose real estate empire schemes have a murderous bent. Long really understands the type of movie he’s in, his smiley-sinister and campy performance easily a highlight.
We jump a year to the following Christmas. Winnie is depressed. I mean, obviously. Her best friend died. She’s the weirdo who murdered a masked killer. And the whole town seems to have just simply moved on. What I love about It’s a Wonderful Life is how gloomy of a movie it really is, even if it does have an uplifting ending. It’s still about a man contemplating suicide at Christmastime, and it doesn’t shy away from its characters’ internal struggles. But part of the problem with this slasherified version of the story is that it never fully commits to sincerity or satire, bobbling between the two haphazardly. Winnie’s depression is understandable but also hastily established. When she wishes she was never born, it triggers a major plot drive for the story, but the film never satisfying grapples with it on a more emotional level.
After she wishes she was never born, Winnie is transported to an alternate universe where she was, in fact, never born. This means the masked killer is still on the lose, the town having come to accept his sporadic rampages as a fact of life and Henry Waters billing himself as a savior against the terror he himself is manufacturing. There’s an obvious metaphor in there for capitalism and politicians preying on fears of their own making, but It’s a Wonderful Knife never cuts all that deep. And hey, I don’t always require depth from my slashers, but there does seem to be so much thematically It’s a Wonderful Knife could be working with when it instead just uses its dialogue for exposition and re-exposition.
Right away, the film does fuck with the slasher formula a bit, revealing its killer early on and introducing a sci-fi element in the parallel universe setup. There are glimmers, too, of unconventional storytelling, as seen in Winnie linking up with her high school’s “weirdo” (other students quite literally call her the weirdo) so that the two function almost like co-Final Girls. Plus — spoiler alert! — that relationship takes a turn for the romantic. But there’s a difference between gradually establishing a relationship and genuinely developing it. We see some foreshadowing as to Winnie and Bernie (weirdo’s real name) getting together. But we don’t get enough specificity to either character to make the relationship feel fully earned.
I’m most interested in the dynamic between Winnie and her gay aunt Gale (certified scream queen Katharine Isabelle, who like Long really has a grasp on the type of movie she’s in and does actually slay). Gale (whose full name is Gale Prescott, a mashup of Scream‘s Gale Weathers and Sidney Prescott) has a wife (played by Cassandra Naud, who is great but who I wish had more to do here!), and she and Winnie do seem to have a close aunt-niece relationship, and I’m a big fan of queer aunt dynamics. Alternate universe Gale becomes key to Winnie’s survival, too, and while that relationship adds some texture to It’s a Wonderful Knife, I couldn’t help but feel like some of the queerness in the film is downplayed or softened for more commercial appeal. The screenwriter is queer, and according to an interview, the studio was supportive of adding more queer characters (originally, only Winnie’s brother was supposed to be gay). Winnie and Bernie were originally supposed to have a platonic arc together before changes were made to make their romance more prominent. But sometimes I feel like adding in more gay characters is not the same as adding in more queerness. As a queer viewer, it was easy for me to extrapolate on Winnie and Gale’s closeness as that between a queer elder figure and a young person coming into their queerness, but that’s never touched on in even a cursory way in the film, which again seems more caught up in explaining its mythology than its characters.
Perhaps due to the relationship’s evolution from platonic to romantic during the film’s production process, some viewers will read Bernie/Winnie as a nuanced relationship and dynamic, but to me it just sort of came off as underbaked. I’m left wondering what it might have looked like for the two characters’ queerness to have been established textually while also following a platonic arc. Queer romance isn’t required to establish queer characters. Romances for a protagonist are rare in slashers, and while I can see why this sweet love story tucked into the movie might satisfy some viewers, I indeed feel like it’s just sort of added in as an easy way to establish the characters as queer when really that could have been done so without it.
But also, it’s possible all of this would have been resolved with more character development of Winnie up top. It’s the emotional stakes that are difficult to discern throughout It’s a Wonderful Knife, even though Widdop does deftly portray Winnie’s anguish and desperation. Fewer magical celestial event details and more development of interpersonal relationships would have gone a long way. While a fun watch for this time of year, It’s a Wonderful Knife doesn’t quite slay all the way.