in Shocktober

Idle Hands (1999)

For me, Idle Hands is one of those movies that you vaguely remember coming out when you were a kid, but also left such a small cultural footprint that it almost feels like you dreamt it. Was this good? Was this bad? What’s the deal here? Well, for the most part, Idle Hands is pretty fun, even if it feels very much of that late ’90s period of mainstream high school comedies of varying quality that were flooding theaters. Still, combining this vibe with a horror movie aesthetic, filled with lots of blood and elaborate make-up work, makes for an enjoyable — if shamelessly silly — time.

The structure of Idle Hands is a bit odd, since the big twist of the movie actually happens in the first act, so it’s a little hard to talk about without divulging spoilers. So if you really want to go into this movie fresh (which is pretty easy considering its aforementioned obscurity), maybe skip to the fifth paragraph. Anyways, the film begins by focusing on Mr. and Mrs. Ray (Fred Willard and Connie Wray), who are about to go to bed one night, but start hearing noises within their house. They think it’s probably just their lazy stoner son Anton (Devon Sawa) pulling a prank, but then we see them bloodily killed off-screen before we cut to Anton waking up after having fallen asleep with his headphones on, having not heard anything in the night.

He then walks around his house, not finding his parents anywhere, while the news on TV is reporting that there’s a killer on the loose in Anton’s hometown. Meanwhile, miles away, a druidic devil hunter (or something) named Debi (Vivica A. Fox) deduces that some sort of evil is going down in Anton’s town, so she drives cross-country to get to the bottom of it. After not finding out what happened to his parents, Anton goes to hang out with his like-minded stoner friends, Mick (Seth Green) and Pnub (Elden Henson), who aren’t much use in helping Anton find out who killed his parents. He then returns home, and while making a sandwich, finds the knife he’s using is covered in blood, which leads to him finding his parents’ bodies inside Halloween decorations, spurring Anton to realize that he was the killer.

Anton’s stoner buddies then come over to the house, and Anton’s right hand (apparently possessed by Satan) takes on a life of its own, killing Mick by smashing a beer bottle on his head and chopping off Pnub’s head with a saw blade. Anton’s aggro hand then takes him across the street to the house of Molly (Jessica Alba), a girl Anton has a crush on but has been too shy to talk to except for an awkward earlier scene. Anton’s hand more or less forces him to put the moves on Molly in a scene that’s a little ick, but could be worse, since they only end up making out before Molly’s parents come home. When Anton returns to his house, he finds that his buddies Mick and Pnub have been resurrected as zombies, trying to help Anton stop his hand from continuing its killing spree, which doesn’t get any easier when Anton cuts his hand off with a meat cleaver.

I would have never made the connection just off of watching the movie, but apparently the main reason Idle Hands was neither a commercial or critical success was that it was released the same month as the Columbine shootings. I say I wouldn’t have made the connection because yes, the movie is about a teen who goes on a killing spree, but it’s a killing spree that lacks any murderous intent, since every murder is one big misunderstanding. Also, only a few of the killings actually take place at Anton’s school, while not a single one of them involves using a gun. Still, I guess that mass shooting was such a traumatic national event that even a movie that vaguely evoked those killings wasn’t quite reading the room, which is super depressing to think about considering how used to school shootings we are 20 years later.

I mean, the film was so poorly received that it has a 15% on Rotten Tomatoes and didn’t even make back a fifth of its fairly modest $25 million dollar budget. Which is a shame, since it’s actually a pretty good hybrid of teen movie shenanigans and the morbid glee embodied by any good horror comedy. There’s a real cartoony vibe exemplified by all of the wacky antics incurred by Devon Sawa constantly being dragged around by his livewire hand, which is emphasized by the fact that the characters are constantly sitting around watching cartoons. Speaking of, the movie also reminded me that because so many movie characters tend to be very proactive (so as to move the plot forward), there’s something very charming about a main character who’s actually pretty lazy; yet the movie’s events force them to be proactive against their own will.

Another charming thing about Idle Hands is how incredibly 1999 it is, Columbine connection aside. In addition to starring Devon Sawa, Seth Green, Vivica A. Fox, and a young Jessica Alba, it features The Offspring playing the school’s dance, which culminates in lead singer Dexter Holland’s head being scalped by the film’s villainous demon hand. Granted, the movie does contain a little of that era’s teen horniness through the male gaze that doesn’t hold up wonderfully, considering Jessica Alba (who at the time would’ve been 17 or 18) is basically stripped down to her underwear in the film’s climax after enduring little to no character development (not that any of the characters are that developed). But in the end, the film’s wackiness is pretty infectious, while its violence is so over-the-top and cartoony that it’s a little hard to believe it’s the thing that kept it from becoming a teen favorite.