Idle Hands (1999)

Idle Hands (1999) – This article was originally publiced on on 10 June 2011 as part of a feature called “Guilty Pleasures.”

As you may have noticed once or twice I will often point out the many flaws of a movie, sometimes going as far as to even call it a bad movie, then go right on to say that I enjoyed it. That’s not to say that I like it “ironically.” I’ve said before and I’ll say again: I don’t even know what the hell that means. I can appreciate the idea of “so bad it’s good,” but in general if I like a movie that much I assume the film-makers did something right. It’s with these thoughts in mind I introduce a new recurring column: Guilty Pleasures. There are the movies that the world seems to deem bad or dated or whatever and I am here to defend them! Well, not all of them… just the ones I like.

If I’m defending much-maligned films that I happen to be a great fan of, I think the perfect place to start would be 1999’s Idle Hands. People say this movie is stupid. They are absolutely right. That’s a good percentage of its charm. Thanks to the Scream series, the late 1990s saw a bit of a boom in the horror genre. Calling Idle Hands satire may be giving it too much credit, but spoof doesn’t quite cover it either. Really, Idle Hands sets out with the goal of being an absolutely ridiculous horror film that knows exactly how ridiculous it is. It owes just as much to stoner comedy subgenre as to horror movies.

The film centers on a teenager named Anton Tobias (Devon Sawa from the more serious horror film Final Destination). Anton is described by more than one person as the laziest motherfucker in the world. He stays in bed half the day and gets high and watches TV. He considers it a major inconvenience just to go across the street to see his stoner buds Mick (Seth Green) and the absurdly-named Pnub (Elden Hensen from the Mighty Ducks movies). In a parallel story we meet Debi (Vivica A. Fox), a Druidic priestess searching for a demon that possesses the hand of the “laziest fuck it can find.” I think we can all see where this is going. You see, in Anton’s hometown has fallen prey to a serial killer that has claimed four known victims (really six, since Anton’s parents are killed in the movie’s opening scene). After obliviously wandering past the many bloodstains around his house, Anton finally notices that his parents are dead. He, Mick, and Pnub investigate the clues and realize they all point towards Anton.

Devon Sawa worked a lot as a kid, but he hasn’t been in as many high-profile roles as an adult (despite being in the aforementioned hit Final Destination in 2000). Maybe it’s because I seem to be alone in my appreciation of this late-90s comedy-horror classic, but I thought he could have done much more comedy (though 2002’s widely despised Slackers might prove me wrong on that front). The second Anton is identified as the killer, much to his surprise his hand takes on a life of its own. It even kills Mick with a bottle to the head and decapitates Pnub with a circular-saw blade used as a Frisbee! I know this isn’t really a movie where you go praising the acting (with good reason) but Sawa really sells the physical comedy. He then buries his parents, and Mick and Pnub giving a eulogy that while seemingly-heartfelt is something less than poetic. Maybe it’s my sick sense of humor, but I laugh my ass off at that part.

The film’s most lasting contribution to popular culture is that it introduced the world to the mega-hotness of one Jessica Alba. She had been in movies (Camp Nowhere) and television shows (the 90s version of Flipper) before but Idle Hands was the first movie to show how she’d *ahem* developed… er, as an actress… She plays Molly, the girl Anton has had a crush on for a long time. He however lacks the nerve to even talk to her. After the full-on demon hand possession he accidentally hurls his cat out of a window and goes snooping around her house to find it (Rule of comedy: hurting dogs is sad, hurting cats is funny. I love cats, but I can’t argue with that principle.). She comes out and finds him stumbling around in a bush in her front yard (leading to an obvious double-entendre). Despite his normal instincts to puss out, the hand forces him to accept his invitation into her house. As it turns out Molly has a thing for unkempt “bad boys” like Anton. During their ensuing make-out session, he ties up his hand to keep it from killing her. Her reply? A cute laugh and the line “you’re kinky.” Yes, it was thanks to this movie that I developed a hardcore crush on Jessica Alba a couple years before everybody else did (mostly thanks to Dark Angel, I would imagine).

As a horror comedy, Idle Hands not only brings laughs but also brings the gore in a big fucking way. Anton’s slain buddies Mick and Pnub don’t stay underground after the funeral scene. They come back. Are they zombies hungering for human flesh? Are they brought back by some demonic curse? Nope. They were just too damn lazy to go into the light. “It was, like, REALLY far.” Mick (with the bottle still sticking out of his dead) and Pnub (carrying his severed head around with him) end up being rather forgiving about the whole murder thing and just go back to being his buds, not to mention the only ones he can confide in about the whole accidental serial killer thing. Eventually Anton realizes he has to get rid of the hand he’s otherwise been so attached to, but once severed the Hand (now played by Christopher Hart, who played Thing in The Addams Family) goes on a murderous rampage killing several random characters, including future soap actress/Dancing With the Stars winner Kelly Monaco and Dexter Holland, lead singer of The Offspring (who play either themselves or some other band playing at the high school’s Halloween dance). The movie ends with a big showdown followed by something of an anticlimax, deliberately referenced by Mick. In fact the movie originally had a much more elaborate ending but it felt like something out of a much less self-aware movie.

Idle Hands outright bombed at the box office. It cost over $20 million to make, but only pulled in $4 million. There are many reasons you could attribute to this. One is the same argument often made against R-rated horror movies: a movie aimed primarily at teenagers requires an adult to buy the tickets. The other, more tragic, reason is that the movie was released on April 30, 1999. Ten days prior, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had gone on a killing spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. There was a media frenzy about the violence that teenagers were exposed to. A movie where a teenage slacker murders his friends and peers didn’t have a shot in hell amidst that moral panic. When my friend Dave and I saw this movie in our freshman year of high school, we were the only ones in the entire theater. For me the movie is intrinsically linked with the 1990s, a decade I tend to romanticize as it encompassed the majority of my childhood. There’s a Tom DeLonge cameo (Dude Ranch-era, before he got all emo), how much more 90s can you get? I’m not going to make the argument that Idle Hands is somehow a great work of art. This column wouldn’t be called “Guilty Pleasures” if that was the case. I will say that the movie takes the horror formula and filters it through the lens of a stoner comedy in a way that entertains the hell out of me. Like many stoner comedies it might be better viewed high (not that I would know anything about that, of course). 14-year-old Jake thought this movie was hilarious, and I wondered if my affection for it was some sort of nostalgia for my youth (me being so old at six-and-twenty of course). Watching it again for this article though I can say that’s not the case. As a horror fan and as a guy who’s always had a somewhat warped sense of humor I can say that I genuinely do love this stupid little movie. Check it out sometime.

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