Why ‘Idle Hands’ Is the Greatest Direct-to-VHS Horror Movie Ever Released in Theaters

     May 13, 2020

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Idle Hands is getting a long-overdue special edition Blu-ray this week from Shout Factory splattered with bonus features like the inside of an airduct after hauling a Halloween dance attendee through an industrial fan. A comedy horror film from 1999 drenched in slapstick gore, punk rock cameos, and ironic teenage nihilism, Idle Hands was a movie I was absolutely obsessed with as a 16 year-old who stayed up until 2 in the morning every day of the week hammering out three-chord trash fires on a shitty Fender practice guitar and watching grimy horror flicks on an ancient TV. The movie was ultimately too gleefully strange and dark to find an audience at the box office, where teenagers were gravitating towards the endless stream of by-the-numbers slasher films provoked by the success of Scream. But it managed to connect with the kinds of weirdos it was always meant for on home video, which is honestly the best way to watch a tongue-in-cheek B movie about a murderous disembodied hand.

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Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

Written and directed by Roger Corman protégé Rodman Flender, who also wrote for the Harvard Lampoon, Idle Hands follows Anton Tobias (Devon Sawa), a shiftless burnout living at home with his parents and spending his days getting impossibly high in front of the television. Anton’s wanton laziness attracts the attention of a literal demon, which possesses his hand and goes on a killing spree. In a nutshell, Idle Hands is the answer to the question, “What if we made that scene from Evil Dead II into an entire film, with the look and cast of a Sonic Youth video?” The end result is an absolutely glorious grindhouse black comedy, and the only thing more exciting than a special edition Blu-ray loaded with bonus features would be a special edition VHS in a beat-up old slipcase covered in Blockbuster Video stickers. Seriously, Idle Hands should’ve been sold at tiny corner record shops alongside copies of Death Race 2000 and Birdhouse’s The End. It exudes a sloppy chaotic energy that is undeniably charming, even when it’s being smeared over the film’s handful of super-dated eye-rolling moments. Jessica Alba’s “character” exists to fulfill teenage boys’ fantasies, and there’s a few utterances of words that you absolutely would not use in 2020. But in a weird way, those grievances kind of add to the film’s chunky kill-em-all appeal. It’s like finding a really cool jacket in a dumpster and throwing it on to discover that it’s partially soaked in piss. Fuck it, I’m still keeping the jacket.

In addition to its late 90s punk rock attitude, Idle Hands is unique among slasher films in that the film’s chief villain is an angry-ass severed hand. Rather than a hulking zombie like Jason, a mouthy supernatural killer like Freddy or Chucky, or a gothed-out murder magician like Pinhead or the Wishmaster, the hand is… uh, just a hand. It remains attached to Sawa for the film’s first half, resulting in a singular performance that’s part physical comedian and part desperate addict, like a silent film actor frantically trying to stop himself from doing bits but ultimately being powerless to do so. It’s arguably the most interesting role anybody ever got to play in a teen slasher film if for no other reason that its utterly batshit at a conceptual level, and Sawa throws himself into it at approximately 100 miles per hour. It echoes the Stooge-ian brilliance of Bruce Campbell’s brief but unforgettable fight with his own evil hand in Evil Dead II, a clear inspiration for Flender’s film, but Sawa has to maintain the dance for much longer while still making his evil hand feel menacing. (Campbell’s performance is many glorious things, but “scary” has never been one of them.)

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Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

Sawa gamely lurches through gags and pratfalls like he’s being dragged along by an invisible leash, literally wrestling with his hand to keep it from killing everything it sees (including a hilariously fake housecat). But the gags are regularly truncated by upsettingly brutal murders, including those of his best friends Mick (Seth Green) and Pnub (Elden Henson). Acting like you don’t want to murder someone while you’re aggressively murdering the absolute shit out of them is difficult to pull off, and Sawa convincingly balances the horror of his unwilling participation with the viciousness of a demonically possessed hand. It’s a physically demanding performance, and while it looks like a ton of fun on paper (I would’ve agreed to do this role in a heartbeat), it was undoubtedly exhausting to actually film.

The film’s supporting cast cannot disguise how much fun they are all having, which adds to its already considerable charm. Green and Henson are stalwart sidekicks, never losing their optimism or good humor even after Anton murders them both. (Henson spends the majority of the film trying to keep his head balanced on his shoulders, with varying results.) Jack Noseworthy plays a tatted-up metalhead named Randy who might be my favorite human being in the film, if not of all time. And Vivica A. Fox plays a no-bullshit demon hunter bombing around the country in a camper trying to track down and destroy the evil force that has infested Anton’s hand. Everyone seems to understand exactly what movie they’re in, which helps sell the impishly macabre tone.

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Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

Anton eventually decides to chop the hand off, with the help of the now-undead Mick and Pnub, and that’s when the movie becomes an entirely different brand of bugfuck crazy. A Canadian magician named Christopher Hart portrays the villainous hand, now free from Anton’s body and spidering its way around town to claim more victims. Hart also played Thing in the Barry Sonnenfeld Addams Family movies from the early 90s, which basically makes him the Brando of hand actors. The hand eventually makes its way to the local high school Halloween dance, where it murders The Offspring’s Dexter Holland by tearing his bleached-blonde scalp right off the top of his skull. Without hyperbole, it’s the greatest two seconds of film in the history of cinema.

Speaking of 90s pop punk, Blink-182 guitarist Tom DeLonge has a brief cameo as the drive-thru worker at a fast food restaurant. He’s wearing a safari hat and says one line. Tenacious D’s Kyle Gass is also in that scene as a fellow Burger Jungle employee. And Fred Willard shows up in the very beginning as Anton’s bewildered (and ultimately doomed) father. It’s a pulp-horror fever dream that has no business existing, and yet somehow it does. (And now it exists on Blu-ray!) If you’ve never seen it before or haven’t seen it in a long time, it’s worth a watch just to marvel at how something this fantastically bonkers ever managed to get released in mainstream theaters.

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