'Idle Hands' and the Devilish Allure of Anti-Productivity
Idle Hands is a blood-soaked ‘90s fantasy that nurtures your playful side and takes you to Hell.
With Halloween right around the corner, now’s a better time than ever to revisit the 1999 horror-comedy Idle Hands directed by Rodman Flender. When it comes to this grotesquely delightful film, however, I suggest only delving in if you dig sticky, sweaty stoner flicks and if you’re an art connoisseur like I am, that means you do.
On the chance this gross-out masterpiece flew under your radar up until now, try envisioning a warped demonic fusion of Detroit Rock City (1999), another comedy fueled by weed and music and Casper (1995), a gothic family ghost story also featuring lead Devon Sawa (Final Destination, Chucky), and you’ve got Idle Hands.
This goofball chiller, which I like to describe as a children’s horror film for adults, mirrors other coming-of-age genre films in its ability to navigate adolescence amidst grave misfortune, but dissimilar to say, IT (1990, 2017), or even Jennifer’s Body (2009), Idle Hands’ emphasis on levity and play overwhelms any deeper meaning the film might have. In other words, in this movie, growing up is totally beside the point. Queue the Simple Plan lyrics, “I don’t wanna be told to grow up” on the Scooby Doo (2002) soundtrack.
The thing is, if idle hands really are the Devil’s playpen, the film itself seems to be the very antithesis of that. In a culture so obsessed with productivity, this lighthearted gem serves as a welcome reminder to start playing again.
Released only three years after Scream (1996), Idle Hands establishes a similarly silly tone right from its opening credits. With a Wes Craven-style title card, the words glitch across the screen alongside gratuitous gore and disembodied shrieking. Meanwhile, the film’s score, composed by Graeme Revell, who did a number of iconic genre scores, is a perfect mix of creep and cheese. It's charming enough to lure in both the nostalgic fan and new horror lovers alike.
While the film is intended to be set around the ‘90s, Anton’s house is fancifully dated and out-of-place, a call back at times to fantasy film versus a horror flick. A genre-bender at its core, the film oscillates erratically between macabre and slapstick, even going so far as to present the late comedian Fred Willard (A Mighty Wind, Best In Show) as Anton’s ill-fated father in the very first scene. Much like Beetlejuice (1989), which features Catherine O’Hara (Frankenweenie, Monster House), in its cast, this film is warm in its bloodbaths with comic relief in every corner. After all, who understands playfulness more than seasoned icons of improv?
“All you do is smoke pot and watch TV all day. Now don’t get me wrong, that’s what life is all about, but don’t you think you should have some ambition, like a goal?”
In addition to its comedic whimsy, the storyline, generally reads similarly to a child’s active imagination. From the deadly monster under the bed trope to the idyllic dream of a life without rules or even logic, it seems as if Anton, on the brink of adulthood, conjures up this extremely outlandish story as a means to preserve his youth. While his character is labeled as sophomoric or a slacker, the real tragedy is how he, like so many of us, is encouraged to suppress his spirit for the sake of maturity. This isn’t to say that Anton is without flaws.
Like the film itself and so many bro-ish comedies like it, his character frequently oozes misogynistic thought processes and toxic masculinity throughout the storyline. Early on in the film, Anton’s friend Mick played by Seth Green (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, IT) tells Anton, “All you do is smoke pot and watch TV all day. Now don’t get me wrong, that’s what life is all about, but don’t you think you should have some ambition, like a goal?” Anton responds, unbothered stating, “Yeah. My dream life would be to lie around all day in bed and watch TV while some hot broad delivers me food.” The kicker in this dialogue is that’s exactly what ends up happening. So, does the film itself have ambition? Does it have a goal? Yes, I believe it does.
Similar in some ways to the Patrick Bateman character arc in American Psycho (2000), Anton’s flaws and dualities are not solely malevolent. The character is embodied by two separate entities. Funnily enough however, both of these entities are components of himself. After becoming possessed by evil supernatural forces, Anton’s right hand gains an ability to animate on its own. While this strange phenomenon causes Anton to brutally murder his friends and family, all of the bloodshed is treated with humor similar to that of the typical teen comedy popular at the time of the film's release.
Unlike Jennifer’s Body, which is very much a horror-comedy, there are no scenes in this film that echo feelings of sadness or grave severity. There are no residual consequences for the actions of Anton's possessed hand and the film concludes neatly with a laugh. Even Anton’s friends, who were killed by the force of his hand, were only slightly perturbed by his actions.
Anton was able to go wild, smoke weed, date his crush Molly (Jessica Alba, Sin City), keep his friends, party all night, and basically live out his youthful dreams, all without missing the Halloween dance. While one could argue that he’s not at fault for the murderous rampage of his idle hand, I’d say his hand, even after he chopped it off, was just as much an extension of himself after the possession as it was before. Although Anton, outside of his imagination, is a relatively peaceful young man, his brain craves an escape from the confines of monotonous reality. While he presumably had, or has, a more or less cushy life with his parents, the film implies he was neither living up to their nor his friends’ standards.
If Idle Hands is a fantasy within a fantasy, Anton’s bloodthirsty hand is merely a metaphor for his character’s desire for agency. This doesn’t mean that he actually wants to kill his loved ones. Rather, it means that he knows what’s expected of him, what’s expected of all of us, when we graduate high school and move from adolescence to adulthood. We’re expected to become more serious, more buttoned-up, more responsible and more practical. We're expected to stay busy and occupied and not by the things we enjoy, but by the things that make us more useful to others.
Of course, I’m no expert on fun and youthfulness. I left all that back in the nineties when I first watched this film, but there was an aching relief that came with watching it again in my adulthood. It was a feeling that extended far beyond the pains of nostalgia.
Mick asks Anton early in the film what he aspires to do with his life. Anton, while boorish in his response, genuinely sheds some light on a meaningful issue. While not all of us dream of days filled with snacks and television, many of us do hope for a life with as little stress as possible. Most if not all of us dream of a life with accessible and unfettered joy. Truth be told, I’d forgotten most of this film until screening it again. I knew childhood-me loved it, but I couldn’t recall why.
When the credits rolled with "Second Solution" by The Living End playing, the eeriest thing happened. I was singing the lyrics perfectly without even noticing I was singing, almost as if my mouth had developed a mind of its own. I’d not heard this song in over two decades, yet somehow my body, way before my brain, had remembered how much I’d once loved it.
I think there’s a part within all of us that’s been stirred by possession. If psychologists call it the id, I’d refer to it as the idle hand. In many coming-of-age films, growth is synchronous with immense self-transformation. The children in IT endure massive trauma but, simultaneously, strengthen their resilience and bravery. Needy, in Jennifer’s Body, reclaims her value and voice after a painful friendship. Hell, even the boys in Detroit Rock City experience a number of emotional moments that nurture the more traditional views of supposed growth.
The beauty of Idle Hands is that through all of his cursed tribulations, Anton never once changes who he is. He doesn’t grow. He doesn’t learn. He certainly doesn’t evolve. He’s clearly not the nicest guy by any means, not even close, but it’s a breath of fresh air to know this film is more concerned with the bigger picture.
I don’t believe the point is to marvel at Anton’s impressive evolution. Again, what evolution? But what truly impacted me is how the film didn’t mind de-prioritizing, if only for a moment, the desperate need for constant self-improvement. Anton has so much to learn about extending compassion and kindness to others. This fact is undeniable, but the reason this film brings me vicious comfort is because I’ve completely forgotten what it’s like to just be. To exist for a while with no predefined purpose. To listen to my body when it needs rest and to not feel guilt for my lapses in productivity.
Idle Hands is a rare treasure because it’s the only experience I’ve had in a long time that considers the significance of anti-productivity and the benefits of the absurd.