Idle Hands

Idle Hands (1999)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Devon Sawa, Seth Green, Elden Henson
Extras: Audio Commentary, Alternate Ending, Theatrical Trailers, Featurette, Storyboard comparison

In 1991, the Milwaukee police made a gruesome discovery in the apartment of a man named Jeffrey Dahmer and soon the entire nation was aware of his grisly acts. That same month a film called "Body Parts" opened nationwide and was immediately blasted because people felt releasing a film with that title at that time was in poor taste. (The movie didn’t even play in Milwaukee.) So, the film died a quick death, which is unfortunate, because it’s a pretty cool film.

On April 30, 1999, Columbia Pictures released "Idle Hands" into theaters. This was just ten days after the tragedy at Columbine High. "Idle Hands", featuring graphic violence performed by teenagers on teenagers, suffered a fate similar to that of "Body Parts" and it quickly disappeared. Now, "Idle Hands" has made it to DVD, and can be viewed more objectively.

SPOILER WARNING: I hate to give away the plots of movies, but I have to give away one key point in order to describe the film. Actually, if you’ve seen the trailer to "Idle Hands", you’re already aware of some key scenes.

"Idle Hands" tells the story of Anton Tobias (Devon Sawa), the laziest teenager in America. All Anton wants to do is smoke marijuana, sit on the couch, and watch TV. That is, unless he’s with his friends Mick (the incomparable Seth Green) and Pnub (Elden Henson), then he sits on their couch. There have been a series of murders in Anton’s small town, but he’s just too stoned to care – until he realizes that he’s the killer! Not him, exactly, but his right hand! Due to his laziness, Anton has allowed himself to be possessed by an evil spirit, and it has taken control of his right hand. Anton kills his parents, taking place during the film’s credit sequence, and then kills Mick and Pnub, who come back as the laziest zombies ever. Then Anton realizes that his hand is after Molly (Jessica Alba), the girl across the street whom Anton adores. With the help of his undead friends, Anton must save Molly and find a way to defeat his evil hand.

The critics who didn’t slam "Idle Hands" for its teenage violence, immediately dismissed it as being derivative. I have no problem imagining that the film was pitched to producers as "Cheech and Chong" meets "Evil Dead 2" meets "Re-Animator" meets "The Hand" meets "An American Werewolf In London". And while "Idle Hands" derives ideas from many movies, trust me when I say that there’s never been a film quite like it. It takes all of these familiar elements and plays them for very, very black comedy. The film is much more comedy than horror, although I don’t think you’d know that from the ads. While the characters play everything straight (save for Seth Green), the things going on around them are incredibly absurd.

I really didn’t know what to expect from "Idle Hands" going into it. As I mentioned, the ads left me clueless. Once I got used to the fact that the movie was very, very weird, I actually enjoyed it. At times, it definitely works as a comedy, especially if you’re familiar with the horror films it’s lampooning. While this isn’t a straight-ahead satire, a la "Naked Gun", writers Terri Hughes and Ron Milbauer – who did voice-over on the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" TV show – have taken familiar horror conventions like zombies, killer hands or possession, and play them for laughs. There’s no question that Mick and Pnub are the funniest thing in the film, being the funniest zombies to grace the screen since "Return Of The Living Dead". Any zombie fan must see this film just to hear why Mick and Pnbu returned from the grave. It is truly the best resurrection explanation ever.

While the movie often works as a comedy, it cannot maintain this strength for the entire length of the film. "Idle Hands" can’t decide if it wants to be more horror or more comedy and suffers from it. For example, there are many violent and gory scenes in the film that would definitely turn off people looking for a straight comedy. Also, the film is poorly paced. While director Rodman Flender has made a very nice looking film, with many great shots, the film drags at times. Actually, after the violence during the title sequence, nothing really happens for about 20 minutes. Another strike against the film is its odd stance on drugs. At the beginning, we see Anton as a pothead. As his situation grows increasingly dire, he decides to give up pot. But, at the end, pot saves the day. In this day and age, that is a dubious message to be sending to the teens at which this film was originally aimed.

Part of what makes the good parts of "Idle Hands" work are the gung-ho performances given by the young actors. Devon Sawa is great in the lead role and does some amazing Bruce Campbell-esque things to convey to the audience that his hand is controlling him. Of course, Seth Green steals the show. He’s so funny in this film, that at times it seems as if he were in another movie. If you find Scott Evil from "Austin Powers" funny, wait until you see Seth as a slacker zombie.

The Columbia DVD of "Idle Hands" is a special edition and features a nice transfer of the film. The <$PS,widescreen> transfer is at 1.85:1 and looks very nice. This transfer is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs with accurate framing. The picture is very clear and the source material shows no artifacting or scratches. The color scheme of the film, which director Flender admits is inspired by Dario Argento, is powerful and comes across very well on the DVD. Although there is one scene, when Anton is in a smoky alley, where the colors look all wrong — with the blacks having a blueish tint. The DVD also features the full-frame version of the film.

The audio on the DVD features a <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> soundtrack. The surround sound is active throughout the film and sounds very good. As the film features many hard rock songs, the soundtrack has a nice bassy quality, especially during the school dance where "The Offspring" take the stage. Rock on!

As a special edition, the DVD is packed with goodies. There is a theatrical trailer for "Idle Hands", presented full-frame. There is also a trailer for "Can’t Hardly Wait" (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: great movie!), which is presented in its original 1.85:1 format. A studio-made "Making-Of" featurette can also be found on the disc, and it actually shows much more "behind-the-scenes" footage than most featurettes I have seen lately. It has some nice explanations of how the hand special effects were done. The DVD also contains the original ending to the film, which was scrapped when it was decided that it was too horrific and didn’t fit with the overall comedic tone of the film. This outtake is introduced by Flender, and he explains why it was cut out and his personal feelings on the subject. This is a nice feature, as it allows us, the audience, to get an inside look at the editing process and how filmmakers determine what makes the final cut. Also interesting, from a filmmaking point of view, are the storyboard- to-shot comparisons presented for two of the key action sequences. It is nicely done with a split-screen effect, instead of going back and forth between the drawing and the movie.

The highlight of the special features is the <$commentary,audio commentary>, featuring director Flender and actors Green, and Henson. While hardcore horror fans may be disappointed by the overall silliness of "Idle Hands", they will enjoy Flender’s comments, as he describes his love for Argento, Fulci, and Bava, and describes how the look of "Idle Hands" was influenced by them. Seth Green will surprise horror fans (and Anchor Bay supporters) by revealing that he met Bill Lustig at a screening of "Maniac". While Flender tries to be serious about the film and Henson has little to say, Green has a ball telling anecdotes about shooting the film and commenting on how the film is too gross (but he constantly refers to the <$commentary,commentary track> as "the analog." Seth, get out of the laserdisc section and join us in DVD-land!) What makes the commentary fun is that these three guys aren’t taking it, or the film, too seriously. Obviously none of them have any illusions about the fact that the film bombed (as Green points out over and over), but they are proud of what they accomplished. They even comment on audio commentaries, and how most commentaries are full of people saying, "This is my favorite shot." While some commentaries are informative, but dry, this one is informative and fun.

Forget cult movies or art-house films, the movies that I think are weird are the ones where I say to myself, "I can’t believe a major studio paid for this to be made." "Idle Hands" falls squarely into that category and next to their many foreign films, once again shows Columbia’s unparalleled daringness among the majors. While the movie never really finds its balance between horror and comedy, it is fun and very unique. One of the best things about the DVD release is that the box art is a cast photo instead of the incomprehensible art that graced the film’s theatrical poster. Maybe this will help "Idle Hands" to find its audience. The film will amuse horror fans and delight Seth Green devotees, but most of all it will show you that all studio films are not alike.