Movie Review ~ It’s a Wonderful Knife

The Facts:

Synopsis: A year after saving her town from a psychotic killer on Christmas Eve, Winnie Carruthers’ life is less than wonderful — but when she wishes she’d never been born, she finds herself in a nightmare parallel universe and discovers that without her, things could be much, much worse.
Stars: Jane Widdop, Jess McLeod, Joel McHale, Katharine Isabelle, William B. Davis, Justin Long
Director: Tyler MacIntyre
Rated: NR
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Would Taylor Swift be where she is today if she hadn’t become a successful crossover artist? In a short amount of time, she was moving from country music to becoming a pop darling who is now the biggest artist on the planet. Due to that sustained crossover appeal, Swift has amassed many fans following her from one genre to another. That’s the ultimate prize for any consumer-based product released to the public: finding out if it can capture the attention of more than just its target audience, and it’s undoubtedly true in movies. Genre movies, horror specifically, can struggle to snag viewers who wouldn’t usually go for that type of entertainment. It takes uncovering a rare gem (an easy example is 1993’s A Nightmare Before Christmas) to find a new title to add to the list.

While I wouldn’t put It’s a Wonderful Knife on quite the same level as Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated holiday classic, I will give this creatively crafted twist on a perennial Christmas film major props for comfortably straddling two genres (slasher and Christmas) and representing both with an evident unbiased enthusiasm. Riffing on It’s a Wonderful Life is nothing new; Hollywood has been putting its spin on that Capra chestnut for ages, but it’s how writer Michael Kennedy (Freaky) approaches the material that sets it apart.

It’s Christmas in Angel Falls, and Winnie Carruthers (Jane Widdop) wants to party with her friends while her family finishes their celebration at home. Too bad a knife-wielding murderer in a white cloak and featureless mask has chosen that night to begin their reign of terror on the town. What Winnie doesn’t know is that the killer, known as the Angel of Death, is targeting their victims for personal reasons, and her own family may be at risk. Luckily, though the Angel racks up a decent body count, Winnie takes the killer down before they can murder her brother. 

Unmasking the predator should lead to a resolution, but a year later, life in Angel Falls has grown rancid for Winnie, who is treated as a pariah for her service or forgotten about altogether. In anger, she wishes to a night illuminated with the Northern Lights that she’d never even been born…and her wish is granted. Making that wish has changed the course of events throughout time, though. In this new reality, not only do Winnie’s family and friends not know who she is, but no one stopped the Angel of Death’s first rampage, and they’ve been routinely taking out townspeople ever since that first Christmas one year prior. Winnie knows who the killer is, however, and as she tries to convince her family that she’s their long-lost (unborn) daughter, she teams up with a loner (Jess McLeod) to make sure this Angel gets their wings clipped. But if Winnie’s wish changed the fabric of time, could it also have changed the killer’s identity?

Embracing the holiday spirit while finding new ways for a masked serial killer to slice and dice revelers in a time-hopping horror fantasy could have been too hefty of an undertaking for a low-budget, direct-to-streaming title. However, no filmmakers here should expect to receive a lump of coal in their stockings based on It’s a Wonderful Knife. This is fun, with an engaging cast that makes it easy to watch. It’s also made of strong(ish) stuff, with most of the far-fetched logistics thought through enough or skimmed over quickly not to leave you obsessing over the dangling plot threads. 

Carrying most of the film and its wrinkles in time on her back, Widdop was a strong casting choice by director Tyler MacIntyre. Obnoxious enough at the start to sell the angsty teenager vibe but able to quickly pivot to a young adult thrust into a crazy situation, Widdop is why many weightless shifts the film goes out on a limb with are given additional heft. She is also paired nicely with McLeod, a high-school castoff who suddenly becomes an essential figure in Winnie’s plan. There’s a fun supporting turn by Katherine Isabelle (Knight Moves) as Winnie’s aunt, and as Winnie’s dad, Joel McHale (Becky) continues his fascinating attempt to define his place in mainstream film. Then there’s Justin Long (Barbarian), who has been on a winning streak lately. I’ll say that Long opting to play his character with a voice like Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie was…a choice.

It’s a Wonderful Knife has a cheeky title that will catch the attention of the viewer…and who isn’t up for a little slasher whodunit with a twist? It comes out of the box ready to go with a built-in energy that keeps it moving with zip through its trim runtime. I can see this one working as a Halloween watch through the end of the year and beyond. That’s winning the crossover jackpot right there.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Messengers (2007)

The Facts:

Synopsis: An ominous darkness invades a seemingly serene sunflower farm in North Dakota, and the Solomon family is torn apart by suspicion, mayhem, and murder.
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, Evan and Theodore Turner, John Corbett, William B. Davis, Brent Briscoe, Tatiana Maslany, Dustin Milligan, Jodelle Ferland
Directors: Danny Pang & Oxide Pang
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: One thing I enjoy about these 31 days every year is the chance to revisit some of the films I know I’ve seen but may not remember with as much clarity to have a definitive opinion still.  Like yesterday’s selection, The Skeleton Key, I remember seeing The Messengers in the theater during its original run.  However, it has faded so much in my mind to just a faint shadow of a memory that scanning my wall of movies for a weeknight selection, I had to stop and think if I could tell my partner enough about it to know if it would pass his “too scary for me” test.  All I could say for sure is that it starred a very young Kristen Stewart in her pre-Twilight era…and that was good enough for him.  The rest…well, I hoped for the best.

Like The Skeleton Key, The Messengers was a genre film that arrived when studios traditionally slid this unpredictable box office fare into theaters and hoped something would stick.  Released in the first weekend of February 2007, it opened at #1 and made nearly its entire budget back (16 million) in those first three days.  Subsequent weeks saw the typical significant drop off for these kinds of films, with it being out of the top 10 before the end of the already short month and far outside the top 25 before mid-March.  That’s likely because the critics savaged the film, comparing it to the slew of other movies involving paranormal hauntings coming around that time.

I can’t say I blame the reviewers or the audiences for feeling this way, but that was then and far removed from the onslaught of what was seen as derivative features; viewed today, The Messengers gets the job done more often than it leaves you wanting more.  While it may start to stretch credulity as it strains at the limits of Mark Wheaton’s screenplay based on a story by Todd Farmer, it has built up enough tension and overall goodwill in the viewer that you’re more willing to buy what the cast and directors are selling.

Uprooting their lives to move to a farm in North Dakota, the Solomon family are Chicago transports looking to start fresh.  There’s a reason they want to get out of the city, a cause that’s brought up numerous times in hushed tones and obtuse vagueness but never entirely spoken of until far too late in the story for it to have the necessary payoff.  What you need to know is that daughter Jess (Stewart, Personal Shopper) has to gain trust back from parents Roy (Dylan McDermott, Steel Magnolias) and Denise (Penelope Ann Miller, Kindergarten Cop).  Along with toddler Ben (Evan and Theodore Turner, a marvelously serene and well-adjusted set of twins considering what the film puts them through), the family moves into the farmhouse that screams “move home!” even in broad daylight. 

The Solomons (well, the parents) ignore numerous warning signs and, later, pleas from Jess to get out of their new living space, even turning down a persistent banker (William B. Davis, The Tall Man) determined to help an unknown buyer acquire the land back from the family.  Just as Roy thinks the work of running a sunflower farm (I guess someone must grow them…and they make great visuals later on) will be too much, along comes the laid-back John (John Corbett, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged), a handyman looking for work and a place to stay.

The house continues to exhibit strange behavior, suggesting the presence of an entity trying to get at the family.  At first, only young Ben seems to be able to see them, but soon Jess is encountering the ghosts as well, creepy crawlies that are either slowly prowling out of focus behind the actors or scurrying around the ceiling just out of full sight.  At first, the effects of these scenes elicit nervous laughter, but it gets freaky quick.  Relying partially on jump scares but equally on old-fashioned prickles of fear, the directors know how to stage scenes that build creative suspense.

If the house is indeed haunted and what the goal of ‘the messengers’ get is a bit convoluted.  There seems to be a twinge of cheat filmmaking, with elements from the beginning repeated in the finale but changed to fit the solution.  That’s all well and good, but being deliberately deceived feels like compensating for a script that couldn’t make it across the finish line.  And yet, the movie is often scary thanks to the intelligent approach given to it by Stewart.

Perhaps it’s because we know her as such a deep-well actress now, but even at 15, we can see her talents are starting to fortify.  Our knowledge of the performances she’ll give likely influences our overall feelings toward what she’s doing with the character.  The writing is schlocky and a little trite, but Stewart is never less than 105% committed to believing in her teen struggling to adjust.  It goes far in making us feel what she thinks.  The adults are a mixed bag, each having good and bad traits.  I didn’t believe any of the family was a cohesive unit, despite the presence of Miller and McDermott, two actors I often like. 

Danny & Oxide Pang had been huge in China with their widely regarded horror films, so getting them for their first English-language movie was huge news.  Their visual style is evident from the ghostly apparitions resembling the pale terrors from The Grudge and The Ring, and they handle physicality well.  Is The Messengers an unheralded classic waiting to get its due?  No, I don’t think so.  It is a film far better than I remember it being, providing 90 minutes of agreeable scares and a chance to see how far Stewart has come since her early days before the Twilight films came a-calling.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Tall Man

The Facts:

Synopsis: When her child goes missing, a mother looks to unravel the legend of the Tall Man, an entity who allegedly abducts children.

Stars: Jessica Biel, Jodelle Ferland, William B. Davis, Samantha Ferris, Stephen McHattie, Jakob Davies, Eve Harlow

Director: Pascal Laugier

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  The biggest pain in the butt with movies is when a studio pulls a bait and switch move on you.  You know the feeling, the ads for a film indicate that a movie is going to be thematically one way and it’s only when you’re comfortable with your popcorn and beverage of choice you find that you are seeing a movie totally different than what you were expecting.  Most of the time this causes me rage to no end…and justifiably so.  In the case of The Tall Man, a drama masquerading as a horror film, it’s that very misdirection that makes it worth recommending.

If you were to watch the trailer for The Tall Man or peek at its poster…you’d assume you were in for a horror thriller pitting star (and producer) Biel against a force of evil that steals children.  Even the first ten to fifteen minutes including the opening credits up the ominous factor as we are introduced to the residents of a small rural town where a whole bunch of children have disappeared.  With the legend of the mysterious Tall Man blamed for the children vanishing into thin-air, Biel plays widowed nurse living in a cozy but creepy old house in the woods with her son (Davies) and live-in nanny (Harlow).  It isn’t long before the Tall Man inevitably appears again and takes Davies away into the night.

It’s at this point that the movies makes the first of two sharp left turns as Biel slips into SuperMom action woman mode as she miraculously tracks down our title character with a determination only a movie screenplay would allow for.  With a nice display of style, director/screenwriter Laugier films the first part of the movie with a chilly lens that gives the appropriate amount of shivers up and down the spine.  By setting the film in a mining community far from the hustle and bustle of city living, the audience gets a real sense of seclusion from the outside world.  On the dark mountain roads and damp forests where much of the middle part of the film takes place, a nifty film emerges.

Where some viewers might run into a roadblock is when the movie doubles back on itself and turns another corner.  A filmmaker has to have a lot of confidence in his work and commitment to their storytelling to pull this off and I think Laugier did a good job with it.  Upon reflection, the movie sets itself up nicely for this twist and doesn’t arrive at it by cheating the audience.  Furthermore, once the movie changes its direction it sticks with it and follows through ably to the end…something many similarly twisty films can’t claim to do as well.

This final twist is what moves the film further away from its advertised roots.  You see, The Tall Man is really a movie that’s more about parental responsibility than it is about a psychopath on the loose.  Its core values may have a sour taste to those that are sick of being preached to but it’s still a worthy message to hear in this particular genre and medium.

Biel has never been the strongest actress but she navigates the complexities of her role with nice verve that heretofore hasn’t been present in her work.  After her sleepy turn in Total Recall, it was nice to see another performance of hers where she was present and accounted for.  Since much of the film hinges on our understanding of her actions, she colors her work with just the right amount of strength and vulnerability.  It’s a strong performance from the new Ms. Timberlake.

The rest of the cast is populated with Canadian actors that lend the film a vibe of realism.  I bought that these people were residents of this town…they wear their exhaustion and sorrow on their faces and show it in how they carry themselves.  Everyone seems to be on the same page and even if the actual performances are television movie-esque, there’s an overall feeling that the casting is spot-on.

How much you enjoy The Tall Man is entirely dependent on where you set your expectations going in.  It’s not a full-blown horror film…though some of the themes/actions presented in the movie can be frightening.  There’s a fair amount of decent spooky set-up that may satisfying your thrill meter…but stick with it when it changes course and I think you’ll be glad you did.