It's a Wonderful Knife (2023)

This seems to be one of the most divisive Christmas movies to come along in a while - I've seen reactions ranging from declaring it an instant holiday horror classic to it landing on people's worst-of-year picks. My own opinion isn't anywhere near as extreme one way or the other, though after watching the movie... I can kind of see where both camps are coming from. This one's weird and quirky, with an interesting premise, great performances and characters, a visually iconic killer, some really effective moments, and notable representation for LGBTQ+ horror fans. At the same time, the pacing falls off a ledge in the second act (and never recovers), the fantasy elements are clumsily integrated, and the second half features a chain of bizarre twists that left me at a loss to determine what the movie was even trying to accomplish or say. Depending on what different viewers want out of this, I don't think it's unreasonable to excuse the stuff that doesn't work or to write off the stuff that does.

Let's try and reframe that into something potentially useful to perspective viewers: if you're looking for LGBTQ+ representation in a genre movie that's not just a metaphor for that representation, this is something you might want to see, preferably without spoilers (that's your cue to hold off on the remainder of this review until you've watched it). On the other hand, if a lack of narrative coherence or a believable setting are deal-breakers for you in this genre, you might be better off steering clear of this one. If you fall in the overlapping portion of the Venn diagram encompassing both of these... well... I've got nothing - you're on your own. Sorry.

The movie's initial premise is essentially "what if It's a Wonderful Life was also a slasher?" It's a fun idea for a campy horror/comedy, which - to be clear - is precisely the niche It's a Wonderful Knife is trying to fill. The problem (or at least one of the problems) stems from the fact that's only the initial premise. The movie builds on that in various ways to mixed results.

The protagonist of this is Winnie, a high school student who watches her best friend get murdered at a Christmas party by a serial killer dressed as an angel. She manages to electrocute said killer before he's able to murder her brother as well. The temporarily deceased villain is Henry Waters, a businessman and mayoral candidate best described as Mr. Potter crossed with Donald Trump (kind of stepping on Biff's toes there).

A year later, everyone in town seems to have moved on except for Winnie. Well, everyone else except Bernie, a geeky outcast everyone except Winnie refers to as "Weirdo," but we'll circle back to her in a moment. Winnie's family is doing well in the aftermath of the tragedy, but they aren't giving her the space to grieve. They outright berate her for dragging down the mood on Christmas Eve after giving her a tracksuit and her brother a new truck. Unbeknownst to them, she's also just received word that she hasn't been accepted into the college she wanted to go to. As if that's not enough, Winnie circles around to a Christmas party to find her boyfriend and discovers him making out with a girl he's secretly been seeing for the past year, all of which....

Okay. Let's pause for a moment to acknowledge what the movie's attempting to do and why it's a misstep. The takeaway here is that Winnie's got good reasons to be depressed this year, similar to how George Bailey was depressed in It's a Wonderful Life. We need to believe she's in a mental state to make the wish that kicks off the rest of the film, after all.

The problem is, even with a campy tone reminding you that you're not supposed to take any of this seriously, it's all a bit hard to swallow. Winnie - a high school junior at the time - killed a costumed serial killer who turned out to be a rich, powerful man. Shouldn't she be a local hero? Scratch that: shouldn't she be internationally famous? Even setting that aside, the fact her family is less than supportive at a time naturally traumatic for her kills any real hope of them garnering sympathy later, an issue because we're of course going to see them picked off in the tangent universe.

And that's not even touching on the issue where the context should have her angry with everyone else and wishing they'd never been born, as opposed to herself. But George Bailey's framing has to be maintained, so she makes that wish, unaware there are magical Northern Lights possibly empowered by the spirit of the deceased serial killer, so she's transported to the alternate timeline. She almost instantly witnesses the killer murder another victim. She calls for help, and the police - now run by Henry's brother - show up and sort of stumble around the crime scene. Henry himself, now mayor of the town (which is called Angel Falls, by the way - cute) shows up, too. Of course, no one recognizes Winnie, because she'd never been born. But everyone's used to the Angel killer frequently murdering people in the town, including Winnie's brother the year before (because she wasn't there).

She goes to her family for help, but it's no different there. Same with her friends - no one knows her, and almost no one will help her. The exception is Bernie, who Winnie quickly befriends as they evade the killer together. Soon it becomes obvious they're destined to be more than friends (it was pretty clear where this was headed back when Bernie was introduced in the original timeline), and Bernie comes around to believe Winnie and (by virtue of being a nerd and movie geek) sheds some speculative light on the situation.

Together, they circle back to Winnie's family, reasoning they'll need backup if they're going to kill the bad guy before the Northern Light magic dissipates, locking in the darkest timeline forever (don't ask - that's more or less as much explanation as the movie offers, too). This plan hits a snag when it's revealed the actual killer is now Winnie's dad, rather than Henry.

See, Henry now has mind control powers. Or he broke Winnie's dad by killing his only son. Or both - again, none of this makes sense, but it's how they justify the reveal that the man currently committing the murders is Winnie's father under orders (or something) from the mayor.

Did I mention that in addition to Back to the Future Part II, the villain seems to be inspired by Maxwell Lord from Wonder Woman 1984?

Moving on. In addition to all this, Winnie and Bernie's relationship develops. Eventually we learn that Bernie was thinking of ending her life, but Winnie's appearance has given her a reason to reconsider. This inverts a Clearance/Bailey dynamic that had been forming between the characters (as in, they have conversations about those characters by name).

At any rate, they kill Winnie's dad and are surprised to learn that wasn't enough to wish Winnie's way back (I'm not sure why they expected otherwise). So they go for the mayor, who's giving a speech to a crowd of people who are transfixed by him (literally transfixed - their eyes are fogged over with some kind of psychic power). During the speech, the mayor executes his brother and has his body strung up, draped in one of the angel suits. The mayor then has his guards bring the girls on stage and immediately dismisses the guards, reasoning he's in no danger from them. Winnie and Bernie then kick his ass and eventually kill him.

Winnie wishes her way home, she makes amends with everyone, and goes to see Bernie, who remembers their adventure from the parallel timeline for some reason. So everything ends happily ever after, except for the first people who the mayor killed back at the beginning.

The movie's strongest aspects are its leads, both in terms of characters and performers. Jane Widdop does a fantastic job selling Winnie's despair and pulp adventure abilities, while Jess McLeod is great as Bernie. It's fun to see their relationship develop along a fairly conventional holiday romcom template despite contrasting horror conventions. Some good casting choices help alleviate writing shortfalls around several characters, as well (for example, Joel McHale basically just plays Winnie's dad as Jeff Winger, but that does some heavy lifting towards establishing how tongue-in-cheek all this is supposed to be).

It's also worth noting the slasher stuff is handled well, particularly in the first act. It's not all that scary, but there are some solid jumps and the angel costume looks good. The horror elements are camp, but this isn't parody (at least not in the farcical sense).

On the comedy side, the jokes are uneven. A lot of this falls flat, but there are a couple memorable moments. More than that, the camp aspect is fun in itself.

But the pacing and story issues are hard to ignore. I assume they got bogged down with various ideas and references they wanted included and wound up tangled into their own plot. You can sort of make out the edges of how they wanted the villain's plan - he's killing the children of business owners to drive those businesses under and take over the entire town - to resonate with Wonderful Life's Potter. If they'd left it there and just continued treating him like a conventional serial killer, I think this would have worked a lot better. It's the decision to reveal he's been outsourcing the dirty work to Winnie's dad and the subsequent last-minute reveal he's got some kind of mind manipulation powers in this timeline that causes the whole thing to unravel. Somewhere along the line, this stopped feeling like the mashup it set out to be and instead became something closer to what you'd expect if the script to a decade old SyFy TV movie got a decent budget and a professional director.

Again, depending on what you want out of this, that may or may not be a deal-breaker. This kind of representation is still hard to come by, and the stuff the movie does well really is worthy of praise. But the movie's detractors have real grievances this time, too. Take all that however you'd like.