Hand job

A TV-addicted stoner loses his hand to evil temptation in the lame thriller "Idle Hands."


Mary Elizabeth Williams
April 30, 1999 8:30PM (UTC)

Was the Hamburger Helper Helping Hand scary? Does the flashing red palm at
a stop sign make your blood run cold? Is a single rubber household glove
the stuff of nightmares? No, you say? Then you can probably guess whether
"Idle Hands," a horror comedy about a demonically possessed appendage, will
offer any truly frightening twists on the old serial killer shtick.
But is it at least amusing, droll in a cheesy, spoofing kind
of way? About as much as a single rubber household glove. It's a bad
thriller and a bad comedy! It's double the failure for the price of one!

As the overplayed teen horror genre wheezes away in its own death throes, the
timing couldn't be better for a flat-out parody of the form ("Screams" I and II
packed plenty of wit, but were surprisingly scary as well). So the idea of a TV-addicted stoner
whose epic inertia makes him an ideal host for a demonic takeover isn't an inherently terrible
one. Here, it turns out that idle hands really are the devil's playground,
and it's recess time in the body of Anton Tobias (Devon Sawa). By the time he
realizes he's got an uninvited guest (the calls are coming from, like,
inside you, man!) he's already done unspeakable things to a growing number
of his town's population, including his own parents. When his equally low-wattage friends
Mick (Seth Green) and Pnub (Elden Henson) catch on to the
fact that Anton has a pile of body parts decomposing on his rug, all they
get for their one moment of illumination is cruel death and subsequent
zombiefication.

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As stupefyng as "Idle Hands" is while the title appendage is still attached
to Anton, it goes into a whole other realm of godawfulness when the demon
digits take off on their own. Part of the problem is that it's not even a
very threatening-looking hand, with its delicate fingers and graceful
knuckles and all. Even after filing its digits into razor sharp talons, the
Thing still looks more like it belongs on a bank teller than in the middle
of a vigorous killing spree. That's not to say that, despite the film's
visual ludicrousness, it doesn't still manage to be completely distasteful
in a thoroughly gross-out way. The hell-critter fondles a girl's breasts
before strangling her, crawls up a man's leg before yanking off his penis,
and plops itself on a scalp before ripping it off. Bad hand! No lotion!

The three leads in "Idle Hands" are all amply talented young actors with a collective history of memorable
scene-stealing. But here Henson and Green, two of the slyest deadpanners among their
peers, are reduced to an endless series of "Whoas" and "Dudes" as
they fire up the bong and adjust to being undead. (The alleged joke is that
it's not much different from their existence when they were alive, only
with somewhat less rot.) They sit around Anton's house watching music
videos and lobbing junk food at each other, too indolent to make that long
march into the light. They're like a zombie Cheech and Chong, which is a scary enough
concept, though maybe not in the way the filmmakers intended.

Sawa, meanwhile, doing a mix of Jim Carrey in "Liar, Liar" and Steve Martin
in "All of Me," has the dubious burden of convincing the audience that his
hand has an evil mind of its own. He pounds his fist, he smothers his own
mouth, he crams himself into a bagel slicer. It's difficult to imagine any
actor conveying a modicum of comic credibility with such juvenile material,
so it'd be unfair to judge Sawa's talents based on his work here (and in "SLC Punk," incredibly, he plays an even-bigger burnout). One can
only imagine his relief when he gets to extract his evil paw before the big
puppet scene at the end.

It may come as no surprise that director Rodman Flender cut his teeth at the WB, helming the cable
network's teen angstfest "Dawson's
Creek."
Perhaps he's working out his more aggressive side here. Flender
seems to be having fun, especially when the hand is flying through glass
doors or scuttling down the street like a overgrown demi-tarantula. The
best thing one can say about him is that he may not be the film's worst
perpetrator. That's a distinction reserved for writers Terri Hughes and Ron
Milbauer, whose idea of cleverness is having a pretty girl shredded and
then letting another character blithely comment on "getting a piece."

Black humor can be a wonderful thing, but it's hard to pull off even with
good dialogue and clever plot twists -- neither of which this movie
possesses. Instead, "Idle Hands" presents an unappetizing collection of lowlife
losers (only Vivica A. Fox, as a druid priestess, is even remotely
appealing) too busy getting baked to pay much concern to the mounting body
count, and too unengaged in this life to even notice when they've entered the
next. And as manifestations of the prince of the underworld go, a dainty
set of digits is about as lame as you can get. (Indeed, you know you're watching a putrid movie
when you're thinking that "Carrie 2" did this so much better.)

Sure, a hand so overtaken by vileness
that it's compelled to do horrible things is an amusingly far-fetched premise. But
I can't imagine how else it came to be that "Idle Hands" was written in the first place.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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