By MICHAEL GINGOLD
This holiday season, you could watch one of the hundreds of Lifetime and other cable movies dripping with Christmas cheer, or you can get into the anti-spirit with IT’S A WONDERFUL KNIFE. Arriving exclusively in theaters today via RLJE Films and Shudder, it was directed by Tyler MacIntyre, who unwrapped the process of creating it for us.
Scripted by Michael Kennedy, who previously turned the family favorite FREAKY FRIDAY into a slasher saga with FREAKY, the new movie does the same to the all-time Yuletide classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Set in the small town of Angel Falls, it stars Jane Widdop as Winnie, a teenager who puts an end to the Christmastime spree of a costumed murderer who has claimed her best friend among his victims. The unexpected emotional fallout leads her to wish, as the holiday beckons a year later, that she had never been born–and she is transported into an alternate Angel Falls where nobody knows her and the killer still runs free. Now she’s faced with dual challenges of stopping him again and returning to the world where she exists. Co-starring BARBARIAN’s Justin Long as a rapacious local developer, genre fave Katharine Isabelle as Winnie’s aunt Gale Prescott (her name a wink at the SCREAM franchise) and Jess McLeod as a high-school outcast whom Winnie befriends on her quest, IT’S A WONDERFUL KNIFE mixes homage, satire and grisly killings with honest sentiment. The latter makes KNIFE a bit of a departure from MacIntyre’s previous teen-terror outing, the more cynically satirical TRAGEDY GIRLS.
How did you become involved with IT’S A WONDERFUL KNIFE?
I pitched on it and met with Michael Kennedy; people had been drawing comparisons between TRAGEDY GIRLS and FREAKY and suggesting, “Hey, maybe you should meet up.” I knew the producers at Divide/Conquer and Seth Caplan as well, so they had me in mind when they were looking around for directors. I just fell in love with the script; I’d always wanted to make a Christmas horror movie, and what I look for when trying to find something to direct that I didn’t write is, I want it to be the type of thing I wouldn’t normally write myself. And I loved that IT’S A WONDERFUL KNIFE had a very sincere heart to it; I’d done a more cynical slasher with TRAGEDY GIRLS, and I wanted to do one that had more of an uplifting message, and a more emotional arc. Michael really dialed in on that in a way I thought was great.
What’s the appeal of Christmas horror films to you?
It’s the juxtaposition of that cheery imagery with horrific sequences. It’s a very high-stakes time, the holidays, when people want to happy and are meant to be happy, and at the same time, even though horror is a very visceral genre, people jump but then they laugh at having jumped. So they do have something in common in terms of the joy they bring to people, and for me it was about trying to find that commonality between them, as opposed to the differences.
Have you always been a slasher fan, and do you have a particular favorite Christmas horror film?
I’ve definitely been a slasher fan my entire life. I’m Canadian, so I love BLACK CHRISTMAS; if we’re talking about Christmas slashers specifically, obviously it’s legendary. But my favorite Christmas horror movie is probably SCROOGED.
Did you make any significant changes to the script, or did you and Kennedy work on any together, once you came on board?
Yeah, definitely. We did a little bit of development that was mostly sharpening a lot of what was there, finding more specificity in certain things, talking about what the themes meant to us, folding in some references without being too glib about them. Then I did some work on the setpieces based on the locations once we figured out where we were shooting in Vancouver, and on the general restraints you encounter as you get closer to production. Michael was very collaborative about that stuff, and had a lot of great ideas, and at the same time allowed myself and my cinematographer Nick Piatnik to run with a few ideas, like the theater sequence, where we could play with the gag of the lights turning on and off and things like that.
Was that theater sequence intended as a homage to GREMLINS?
A little bit. I’m a huge GREMLINS fan, and it’s a great Christmas horror movie, but that came from a confluence of different ideas that I’ve had and some that Nick has had over the years. Sometimes you have an idea for a scary setpiece without having a movie to put it into, and when that opportunity pops up, you want to seize that chance.
There’s an evocative change in the visual scheme once Winnie goes into the alternate reality, so can you talk about achieving that?
That was a huge concern going in, so I collaborated very closely with Nick and with Tiana Gordon, our production designer, to figure out exactly what the two worlds would feel like. Ultimately, we realized that traditional Christmas has a very warm quality about it, with a lot of reds and golds and royal greens, so we wanted to make the other Christmas have more of a corporate vibe, where we used cooler colors and daylight-balanced Christmas bulbs. We were often stringing up two different kinds of Christmas lights, and turning them on and off; one would be more of a blue-purple, and the other would be the red-green-gold sort of thing. Often, we would shoot the same location with two different looks, so we had to redress in the middle of the day, or one day we’d be shooting a party scene, and then the next day we’d be doing the nightmare version of that party. Tiana had a lot of great ideas on the production design, and it gave the worlds a real texture.
Once we defined these warm and cool worlds, then it became about, what are the two sides of the coin for the characters? Some of them behave very differently in each reality, and once we developed our key sets of references, we were able to figure out the upstairs/downstairs of that. It was a lot of fun for the actors, and we even brought back the same background performers for the party scenes, to be in the same spots but do different things.
Did you actually shoot during Christmastime, or did you have to create your own Christmas and winter ambience?
Well, in Canada it’s always a little wintry, you know what I’m saying? I’m from a town up in north Calgary, and I’d been looking for a project to bring back to Canada, because my previous films have all shot in the U.S. Fortunately, this one fit the bill, but unfortunately, Vancouver wasn’t quite as wintry as I was hoping. It snowed a lot during preproduction, and we were able to save some of that. We shot in March, so it was technically still winter, but we had to do some shoveling snow into frame and things like that. The good thing, though, was that it was always cold enough to see people’s breath and things like that, so we could have a little of that winter flavor.
Was it fun creating Christmas in March on your locations?
Yeah, and people really respond to Christmas stuff. They were like, “Oh, they haven’t taken down that down yet!” They always have a very positive association with that.
What made Jane Widdop the right actress for Winnie?
Jane’s awesome. I saw them first in YELLOWJACKETS, where they played a character called Laura Lee, and brought a lot of heart and humor to it. So I definitely had them on my list of potential Winnies, and they did a tape that we saw very early on, which was a key scene where Winnie first shows up in the nightmare reality. Jane really sold it on an emotional level that was easy to engage with, but still got the humor of it. And after meeting with them, I felt like they could handle the pretty demanding schedule, and being a leader on set, and they embraced the challenge and did a great job.
How about Justin Long? Had BARBARIAN come out when you cast him in IT’S A WONDERFUL KNIFE?
Yeah, he actually came onto the film a little bit late. I had definitely seen BARBARIAN, and it was still having an impact when he was in discussions, so I imagine maybe that was an influence, but he was already on our list before that movie came out. He’s done so many classic genre movies; I love him in TUSK, I love him in DRAG ME TO HELL, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more horrifying movie than IDIOCRACY [laughs]. He’s such a dynamic performer, and embraced the idea of being this big, outlandish guy. It was the type of role where he didn’t have to carry a lot of substantial weight–he’s not the lead–so he could just have some fun within the framework of this world that is sort of at his mercy. He tuned into the grandeur of it and took ownership of what the role could be, and I was definitely open to taking some big swings with him. We ended up with something that was kind of bonkers, but really fun.
It’s also cool to see Katharine Isabelle in the film.
Katie is great. I’m a huge fan of hers. GINGER SNAPS came out when I was in high school, and they shot it in Edmonton, a couple of hours from where I went to school. I’ve been following her career, and she’s been in some classics of the genre, so she was literally the only name on my list for Aunt Gale. I was so fortunate that I was able to get her to do it, because she’s a Vancouver local, so it worked out great.
Gale is in a lesbian relationship, and IT’S A WONDERFUL KNIFE in general is very inclusive, so can you talk about that side of it?
That just grew kind of naturally out of the collaborators we had. We were always trying to find the best people for the jobs, and even the main romance–SPOILER ALERT!–that sort of blossoms between Winnie and Jess McLeod’s character Bernie came from seeing them together as performers. Once we started doing rehearsals, we could see there was a chemistry there that wasn’t necessarily brought to its full potential in the script, and we were able to kind of course-correct, just listening to our collaborators. There were a lot of queer and non-binary people in the cast and on the crew, and just the fact that we had kind of a younger team… I don’t think it was something we were super-cognizant of, it just happened naturally with the story we were telling.
IT’S A WONDERFUL KNIFE is, as you said, a more upbeat film than TRAGEDY GIRLS. Which one would you say more closely reflects your own personal point of view of the world?
Well, even TRAGEDY GIRLS has an authentic friendship at its center, even though its world is kind of nihilistic. I would say that fits my sensibilities a little more than IT’S A WONDERFUL KNIFE, but at the same time, as I get older, I’m becoming a bit more of a softie, so maybe we’ll see more sincere stuff for me as time goes on.
Do you have any other horror projects in the works right now?
Yeah, I’m working on a kids’ Christmas horror movie for Paramount and Nickelodeon right now. But I’m not allowed to share a lot of information about that yet.