It's a Wonderful Knife Uses a Wildly Creative Premise to "Break Through All the Noise"
Whenever a classic movie gets a horror twist, an angel gets a knife.
Michael Kennedy has discovered the secret to selling a horror movie in Hollywood: make it a twist on a classic. It’s how he sold Freaky, his sleeper horror hit take on Freaky Friday, and how he got Justin Long to play a stab-happy businessman in the new Christmas horror movie It’s a Wonderful Knife. You can probably guess what classic it’s putting a spin on.
“I knew that It’s a Wonderful Life was the way I wanted in on doing a Christmas horror movie,” Kennedy tells Inverse.
But why It’s a Wonderful Life, specifically? The iconic 1946 Frank Capra film seems like a strange choice to turn into a contemporary slasher movie about Jane Widdop being sent to an alternate reality where she never existed, and her entire town is terrorized by a psychotic serial murderer. But for Kennedy, it was a no-brainer.
“It’s a Wonderful Life is a scary movie in its own way,” Kennedy says. The story has a very natural way to make that a horror movie.”
But after Freaky and It’s a Wonderful Knife, is Kennedy scared of being pigeonholed as the “horror version of classic movies” guy? Not at all. “It’s a way to break through all the noise,” he says.
Inverse spoke to Kennedy about how he came up with the idea for It’s a Wonderful Knife, why Justin Long may be a new indie scream king, and why he thinks genre-bending horror movies are having their moment.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
It’s a Wonderful Life has an inherent darkness to it because it starts with an attempted suicide. Is that why you chose it as inspiration for your horror movie?
There’s definitely some dark stuff to it. When I was shaking around ideas for the villain of my movie, there was a weirdness to how much I would take from life or use as an homage or just use as a jumping-off point, and I kept trying to find all these different ideas of why the villain was doing what he was doing and then I realized, no, It’s a Wonderful Life almost plays better now than it did 80 years ago when it comes to capitalism. So I was like, “That really fits with the story I’m telling.”
It was my dad’s favorite movie, we watch it every Christmas. My dad passed away a few years ago, so it was a nice way to honor him, but also honor the family and go, “Hey, you know how we love It’s a Wonderful Life? Well, I made my own version.”
Speaking of the villain, Justin Long is so hammy and so fun.
Isn’t he crazy?
I feel like after Barbarian, It’s a Wonderful Knife cements his status as an indie scream king. What went into the casting of his character? Did you envision him from the beginning?
That part was so crazy to cast because we had about 70 different versions of the character. Initially, as scripted, he was closer to 60, more of a weathered man who was just angry. I love what we ended up with because Justin plays it [with] this borderline psychotic happiness to him. But there were so many different versions. The initial version was a 60-year-old man with a 30-year-old wife and a 17-year-old son.
So we kept changing the character, because it was a hard role to cast. But we finally got down to, “Okay, I think this is the character, I think it’s a man in his forties with a brother and a wife that’s just a little bit younger.” We even attempted making Waters a woman. That’s when we really found the character, and that’s when everyone was like, “What about Justin Long? Can we get Justin Long? Do you think Justin Long will do this?” And thankfully he did.
With Freaky, and now It’s a Wonderful Knife, you put a sci-fi twist on slasher movies. What is it about these unique horror spins that appeal to you?
Well, I think they’re just super fun to do. I always love the idea of my movies or anything I write not really being one thing, it’s five different genres. With Knife especially, there’s comedy, there’s horror, there’s almost a Hallmark sweetness to it at times, there’s an emotional center, and I really love doing that, I think it’s really fun.
I also think it’s a way to break through all the noise. Quite frankly, it’s hard to make an original movie today that doesn’t have a massive hook, and Freaky was a great example. When I was talking to [director Christopher Landon] about it, I literally said the words “Freaky Friday the 13th,” and I saw his face completely light up. And that’s how he came on board. So I think it’s a smart way to break through the noise and get stuff made, because it’s really hard to get an original made right now.
Do you think there’s a boom of interest in these horror movies that put a spin on a classic or a trope?
Yeah, I think it’s also a really fun way for younger audiences to discover the original. They did a test screening of Knife, and of those 20 people, only two had seen It’s a Wonderful Life, and only 10 had heard of it, which is crazy to me, because it’s just so baked into my experience of life. If you know the movie, you get to see the references to it, there’s an extra layer added to the experience, but if you don’t know the movie... I find people have been going back and watching Freaky Friday. People are discovering it’s connected to these other things that they also get to discover.