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31 Days of Halloween: Idle Hands

Published Friday, October 15, 2021 at 10:02pm

Finally, a film that uncompromisingly answers the age-old question, "what if the possessed hand scene from Evil Dead 2, but a stoner comedy?"

The main thing I remember about 1999's Idle Hands is that it was released in the immediate aftermath of the tragic school shootings at Columbine High School, Joe Lieberman referenced it by name in a screed about media violence, and that those two things got it pulled from theaters within about a week. I was 19 when that happened, but so effective was the erasure that I don't recall hearing about the movie until it was already on DVD. The week in theaters earned $4 million against a $25 million budget and the critics did not give it positive reviews, so one wonders how the movie would have fared in a different zeitgeist. I doubt Joe Lieberman ever even saw a trailer; the mention of Idle Hands was probably something a staffer added to contemporize his rant.

Anyway, it's been on my To Watch list for somewhere in the vicinity of 21 years. It was a pretty low priority but somehow I ended up following its star, Devon Sawa, on Twitter (find him yourself, nerd). Aside from being my sister's middle school crush (probably thanks to his role in Casper?), he's a funny guy and constantly retweets other people's appreciation of Idle Hands which wore down whatever resistance was keeping me from watching it (namely, not keeping it in mind when I'm thinking about movies).

So, the setup is that Anton (Sawa) is a stoner slacker in his early 20s who hasn't noticed the absence of his parents who were murdered a few days ago while he was sleeping in the attic. His friends Mick (Seth Green) and Pnub (pronounced p'nub, presumable a contraction of "Pornhub", which wouldn't be founded until 2007 (oh, but he's played by Elden Henson)) live nearby, and somewhere between them lives Molly (Jessica Alba) who rides a motorcycle and plays bass and on whom Anton has a big, stupid crush. Anton unsuccessfully attempts to score some weed from Mick and Pnub, and learns from them that the news has been repeating warnings about a rash of local murders. After trying unsuccessfully to talk to Molly, he retreats home where he finally finds his parents dressed as part of their annual Halloween display. Mick shows up with Pnub and it's pretty clear to them that Anton is the killer. He tries to explain that he isn't, but murders Pnub and Mick in the process. The good news is that this episode reveals to Anton the true culprit: his hand, which is possessed.

Anton buries his friends and his parents in the backyard, but Mick and Pnub return moments later. Why don't his parents also return as zombies? No idea, but existence returns more or less to normal for Anton's friends: TV, weed, snacks. Meanwhile, Anton has another conversation with Molly, mistakes the murderous hand's efforts for flirting, and is into it. This presents a problem for Anton who decides very sensibly to lop off his hand with a bagel slicer which doesn't do the trick.

Eventually he manages to amputate the hand, and it's around this time that we find out what's going on with the Vivica A. Fox character whom I should have brought up earlier but didn't. Her name is Debi LeCure, and she's a druidic princess on a mission to kill the demon that's been possessing hands all over the western U.S.

Idle Hands deserves a higher ranking in the pantheon of stoner comedies, a genre of which I am generally not a fan. I am slightly perturbed that my friends circa 2001 were more interested in re-watching Half-Baked and How High than maybe, just once, throwing in Idle Hands which, if not arguably a much better movie, at least throws a little horror into the mix.

I can agree with some of the criticisms. The screenplay is predictable, and many of the jokes are aimed aggressively at cannabis users and no one else. There are also some moments of visual storytelling early in the movie that don't really flow. This is hard to explain, though there might be academic terms to describe it; films do a lot of storytelling without words, and sometimes something about the rhythm of the cuts between shots just feels off. The Brothers Grimm has this problem, too; the plot conveys but feels clumsy. Additionally, the characters aren't great; all of Anton's likability comes from his being the protagonist and the love story between Anton and Molly is eye-rolling wish fulfillment.

Those are about the only real gripes I have, though, and I suspect that Idle Hands poor reputation—even with critics who viewed it—comes more from external factors (i.e., "do I really want to be seen supporting a movie that people were railing against before anyone had seen it?") than anything wrong with the movie. It also functions as a time capsule, preserving a very specific late '90s Gen-X moment when everyone was SO CYNICAL and yet ubiquitous barbed wire bicep tattoos seemed unironically subversive. The clothing, the music, Jessica Alba (who, by the way, is not a great actress. How did we not notice this when she was everywhere?)... I wasn't interested in any of this stuff at the time, but Idle Hands evokes my college years in a way that, say, South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut doesn't.

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