IDLE HANDS (1999) is a slacker horror/comedy with surprisingly okay horror. Too bad the comedy is abysmal.

#31DaysOfHorror: October 19

This October, I’ll be reviewing 31 horror movies in 31 days! You can see the ongoing list of what I’ve watched and reviewed here.

Devon Sawa and Christina Ricci in CASPER (1995).

When Devon Sawa walked out of the crowd, took Christina Ricci’s hand, and waltzed with her three feet above the ballroom dancefloor, he floated out of Casper, onto the tear-away poster pages of dozens of teen magazines, and into the hearts of countless young girls and gays everywhere.

Four years later, he made one for the straight slacker bros. Idle Hands is the story of a pothead named Anton (Sawa), who is so lazy and stoned all the time that it takes him running out of milk and dog food to realize that he hasn’t seen his parents in a few days. When he goes over to his friend’s house, he meets up with comic duo stoner buddies Mick and Pnub (Seth Green and Elden Henson), who warn him there’s a killer on the loose in their town. Sure enough, Anton’s parents have been dead for days, and he didn’t notice.

Shortly thereafter, in a madcap sequence that involves a bottle to the forehead, a decapitation-by-tossed-sawblade, and two dead stoner friends rising from the grave to continue smoking pot and satisfying their munchies, Anton realizes that he’s the one who’s been killing people. Or, more specifically, his hand has; unbeknownst to him, his hand has become possessed, and it has a mind of its own.

After all, “idle hands are the devil’s plaything.” Get it?

When the hand threatens to attack the pretty girl (Jessica Alba) across the street, Anton ties it to the bed, which she thinks is kinky. Later, it kills some cops, so Anton slices it off with a meat cleaver. “If thy right hand offend thee,” and whatnot.

The evil hand takes on a life of its own, running amok at a high school Halloween dance that appears to be somewhat inspired by the Black Prom from Carrie but doesn’t really commit to the craziness such a reference would require. The band playing the dance is The Offspring, because Idle Hands is that kind of movie.

There’s no way to write this without coming off like a square (do people still say square?) but stoner comedies just aren’t really for me. I can appreciate a good pot joke, here and there, but I’m just not really tickled by two stoner zombies pausing during a climactic moment to smoke from a bong instead of helping save the movie’s heroine. I think the one pot-related joke I laughed at during the movie was when Elden Hensen’s character uses his severed head like a bong… confused as I am about how that would work, anatomically speaking.

This movie is a weird one that I have trouble judging. I understand what it’s going for, but it’s difficult for me to decide if I “like” it, or even if I think it’s “good,” because I am very much not in the target audience. Even as the vast majority of the comedy falls flat for me, the horror is better than it has any right to be. The practical special effects are very well done, specifically Seth Green’s protruding bottle and the severed hand puppet that goes on the killing spree in the last half of the film. Even the effects that are obviously CGI, like some of the sequences involving Elden Henson’s head chatting away while laying by itself on a couch, are lower-quality in a charming sort of way.

Some of the horror sequences, like when he realizes his parents are dead, are played for straight horror rather than comedy, and they’re surprisingly effective. I wanted more shots like this one of his dead parents laid out like a decaying, pumpkin-haloed American Gothic —

and less of the nonsense where he goes to visit the girl across the street and his evil hand gropes her… and she likes it.

The film was directed by Rodman Flender, a protégé of low-budget independent horror producer/director/icon Roger Corman; indeed, there’s some of Corman’s delightfully campy sensibility and energy in the film. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to sustain the movie past about the midway point, when Anton cuts off his hand; after that, the movie devolves into a boring chase scene between the hand and Anton, his undead friends, a rival biker, and Vivica A. Fox, who is playing a Druid priestess who has a special dagger that can kill the hand. Don’t ask, cause I don’t have the answers.

Devon Sawa’s performance is pretty good, physically speaking — he fully commits to the physical comedy inherent in portraying someone with an evil hand operating independently of his body. At times, his movements recall a stoner kid version of Peter Sellers’ arm that hasn’t yet realized he’s no longer a Nazi in Dr. Strangelove.

The character, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. He has no defining traits other than laziness, a “desperation” for his next hit of marijuana, and eternal horniness. He makes being a straight teenager look exhausting, and makes days filled with so much nothing seem overwhelming. I wish he’d been acting in a movie that had more of a control over its tone, more of an understanding of how and when and why to move between horror and comedy, when it’s appropriate to combine the two and when one or the other should take over. Thankfully, his talents were put to better use in Final Destination the following year, a movie I will defend to my grave.

Idle Hands was released in theaters ten days after the Columbine massacre. In his review of the film — which is more positive than I’d expected — Roger Ebert notes that critics say movies like Idle Hands are to blame for teenage violence like what happened at Columbine. CNN also put out an article questioning the studio’s decision to move forward with the release of the film given the potential for “offending the public’s still-raw sensibilities,” noting that the main character kills his parents and that the film is advertised as having a scene where “the gates of Hell open wide at the high school Halloween Dance.” This might be part of the reason why the movie was a massive failure, grossing only $4.2mil on a $25mil budget.

Ebert’s answer to that was, “I don’t think we have to worry about Idle Hands… The only thing this movie is likely to inspire a kid to do is study Fangoria magazine to find out how the special effects were achieved.”

Almost twenty years later, now that the country has become numb to mass shootings and we don’t really have national conversations about the dangers of stoner comedies anymore, the fun special effects are still really the only reason to check out this movie.

But where can I watch it? If you really want to, Idle Hands is showing now on Starz.