Review: Queer Christmas slasher 'It's a Wonderful Knife' has a ho-ho-hollow ring

Try as it does to mash slasher and Christmas picture together into some kind of a yuletide “Scream,” “It’s a Wonderful Knife” so badly miscalculates both genres that you count down the minutes, wishing for a guardian angel to save its likable young stars from the movie they’re stuck in.

You can see how it got greenlit with that easily marketable, punny title. And to its credit, few horror movies feature as many queer central and supporting characters. Yet a tongue-in-cheek twist on Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which a final girl wishes to undo her trauma should be infinitely smarter and more entertaining than what writer-producer Michael Kennedy (writer of 2020’s “Freaky”) and director Tyler MacIntyre (“Tragedy Girls”) cynically serve up here.

Teen Winnie Carruthers (“Yellowjackets“’ Jane Widdop) has a bright future ahead of her as the holidays descend on idyllic Angel Falls, a Hallmark Channel-ready town described, without further explanation, as the “Christmas capital of the world.” That’s until a masked killer in a snow-white robe murders her best friend Cara (Hana Huggins) one festive Dec. 24 before Winnie does him in, unmasking him as Henry Waters (Justin Long), the ruthless real estate tycoon her dad (Joel McHale) has been toiling away for in a sinister land-development scheme.

One presumably untherapized year later, Winnie is depressed, has been rejected from art school and discovers her boyfriend’s been cheating on her. Mostly, she can’t fathom how everyone else is able to blissfully move on. “No school, no best friend, no boyfriend — no one cares,” she sighs, wishing she was never born. Like Capra’s suicidal hero, she gets her wish, only to find herself in an alternate reality where, without her, the “Angel” killer has claimed dozens more victims and turned Angel Falls into a dystopian hellscape owned by Waters.

So begins the real story in this low-budget horror-comedy, which mostly consists of Winnie running around trying to convince her family and friends that she knows them while the killer keeps striking. In this timeline, her beloved brother Jimmy (Aiden Howard) is a victim, leaving their father and mother Judy (Erin Boyes) grieving, messy shells of their former selves. But her cool aunt Gale (“Ginger Snaps”’ Katharine Isabelle) and school misfit Bernie (Jess McLeod) believe her. They team up to stop the killings, get Winnie back to her real life, and … what was the point of all this, again?

Like this fall’s much better-conceived and executed “Totally Killer,” “Knife” takes a stab at injecting a well-known premise into the slasher genre. But as its poorly-paced plot meanders further off course, throwing random elements at the wall (a mystical aurora borealis mystery, a mind-control twist, a late-breaking romance), it not only becomes increasingly tedious but completely forgets the reason why Winnie makes her death wish in the first place. (Which is ironic, since her justifiable distress was partly due to how everyone around her stopped caring about the violent murder of her BFF, one of the only significant non-white characters in the movie. The film doesn’t seem to care either.)

MacIntyre, a genre filmmaker with a story credit on the recent “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” decks the halls with gore and blood splatter (a teen makeout forcefully interrupted by a giant candy cane is one vicious visual highlight). But “Knife” speeds through its horror setups without taking time to build actual dread or emotion, leaving behind a trail of cheap, meaningless deaths that hardly seem to impact its heroine, least of all anyone in the audience. Long enjoys free rein as a spray-tanned villain with fake veneers and Trumpian aspirations, but is less effective here than he was in “Barbarian,” which kicked off his recent genre run.

Even the design of the Angel — a slick all-white ensemble with a mask that obscures the entire face — falls short of menacing, as if it were created to look cool on a poster or mass-produced in Spirit Halloween stores, rather than add to the film’s lore.

Any bright spots are primarily due to the sweet chemistry between its leads. The versatile Widdop pluckily carries the film through its clumsiest tonal confusions, while McLeod brings a winning empathy, sensitivity and deadpan timing to the kind of standout turn that should attract more and better roles in the future.

The real shame is that “Knife” hampers them with winking exchanges like: “You’re George Bailey!” “Will you be my Clarence?” But the cast makes the most of what they’re given, with additional highlights from McHale as tortured dad David, Sean Depner as Waters’ bumbling brother Buck, and Isabelle earning MVP status as the wise-cracking Gale, one of the few adults who truly sees Winnie even before her Christmas wish goes wrong.

When it comes to isolated and vulnerable young people contemplating self-harm, the film’s muddled themes are at least rooted in good intentions. And when Ma Carruthers hangs a rainbow ornament on the tree for “my gay son” to Jimmy’s mortification, well, at least she’s trying?

But as effortlessly as it creates space for LGBTQ+ and nonbinary inclusion in this small-town picture of heightened Americana, it’s befuddling how much “Knife” relegates its few characters of color to the sideline and the victim pile as it bumbles its way to a superficially saccharine ending. (In fairness, the killer doesn’t seem to discriminate.) In Angel Falls we see some progress, but it’s another white Christmas, indeed.

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