“It’s been a long, strange trip,” admits Rodman Flender, director of 1999’s blood-soaked, pot-fuelled horror comedy Idle Hands.
Over 21 years have passed since Flender and his cast – led by Devon Sawa, Seth Green and Jessica Alba – unleashed their tongue-in-cheek tale of a demonically possessed hand hellbent on slaughtering anyone who crosses its path, and a lot has changed. Back in the late Nineties, teen comedies were enjoying a welcome resurgence in the wake of coming-of-age classic American Pie and with Idle Hands, Flender – fresh from helming low-key horror Leprechaun 2 and segments of Tales From The Crypt – looked set to inject this already winning formula with a devilish dose of dark humour. Then, everything changed. “It was just the wrong movie at the wrong time,” he reflects. “I thought it was going to fade away – but it hasn’t.”
Released a week after the tragic Columbine high school shooting, Flender’s small, goofy movie was suddenly swept up in a political storm that no one saw coming. It was an experience that would forever change its trajectory and mark the beginning of its rollercoaster journey. “I thought the script was hilarious and had a lot of potential for some frightening set pieces,” says the director, recalling his route into the project and a time before the chaos. “The first scene was as you see it in the movie with Anton’s (Sawa) parents reading ‘I’m under the bed’ on the wall. When I first sat down and read that scene, I pretty much saw it as you see it in the movie. It gripped me immediately and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to make what I saw in my head a reality.”
As production began, one of Flender’s first tasks was defining the world in which his story took place – a task that was trickier than you might think. “Horror comedy is a difficult tightrope to balance on. A lot of people have tried and few have done it well,” he tells us. “The first thing to figure out is what kind of horror comedy you’re making.” For Idle Hands, the director pulled from two key sources, both of which loom large in the history of this uniquely challenging sub-genre. “One of the pearls of wisdom my mentor Roger Corman passed on to me was, even if you’re doing the most serious drama you’ve got to give the audience something to laugh at because if you don’t, they’ll find something to laugh at – and you don’t want that,” he chuckles. “When I made Idle Hands, I was thinking a lot about his original Little Shop Of Horrors and that kind of tone. It was all about finding humour in the grotesquery.”
Thankfully his cast had no trouble striking this difficult balance. Led by Sawa’s Anton, the slacker whose hand goes rogue, co-stars Seth Green and Eldon Henson provided the perfect pot-head counterparts to help provide levity amid the carnage. “Devon was part of the movie before I was,” recalls Flender. “We met and talked about physical humour. At the time he was a big Jim Carrey fan and probably still is – as am I – so we talked about the physicality of the role. Seth and Eldon came in and read together and their chemistry was instant,” he says of the duo who fall victim to Anton’s deadly digits only to return as undead dudes. “We had a 20th anniversary screening last year and it was great to see those guys together again.”
Among the first casualties of Anton’s possessed hand, Mick and Pnub AKA Green and Henson are transformed into two of the most memorable takeaways from the film. Mick, with a beer bottle protruding from his forehead and Henson, with a slight decapitation problem, were a prosthetic makeup artists’ dream. “I was and still am a fan of practical makeup and the practical gore effects perfected by Lucio Fulci,” says Flender on finding the right look for Idle Hands’ gorier moments. “When I was a kid (makeup artist) Tom Savini was a rock star to me so I always wanted to emulate that practical look. Greg Cannom, who has won Academy Awards, did a lot of our make-up effects and we were lucky to have him. The bottle protruding from Seth’s head was such a bizarre idea,” he laughs. “It was a question of ‘how do you make that?’. The bottle was almost like an airplane sized-bottle. We did tests with a regular sized bottle and it didn’t look right – it overwhelmed Seth’s head. It was a question of finding a look we all liked.”
When it came to the film’s titular terror, Flender was lucky to enlist the help of a seasoned professional who specialised in a very specific area of acting. “The hand was performed by a gentleman named Christopher Hart who played the disembodied hand in The Addams Family movie,” explains Flender. “The fact that he had done that movie made me think ‘why waste another minute looking for anyone else?’ He knows how it’s done – he was really helpful,” he continues, referencing some of the movie’s more complex sequences. “I used Christopher and his knowledge of what he’d learned on The Addams Family to help with what we needed on Idle Hands.”
Like many raunchy teen comedies of the late Nineties, Idle Hands came complete with a pop-punk pulse that echoed the musical climate of its era. Flender even went so far as to actively include a couple of direct nods to the alternative music scene, with Blink 182’s Tom DeLonge appearing in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo and The Offspring taking to the stage towards the film’s climax. “It’s a very pop music driven film, as most teen films of that time were,” says Flender. “I was a child of the Seventies and an original punk. I was a fan of Ramones, Gang of Four, The Clash and Sex Pistols. In the Nineties we had a revival of this sound – it was a great confluence of the music I loved as a kid. Obviously we couldn’t get Ramones but among the bands that came to me on a list was The Offspring,” he recalls. “I floated the idea of doing a Ramones cover and they were all over it and did a great version of I Wanna Be Sedated. That Nineties punk sound just seemed appropriate. It also seemed appropriate for the attitude of the movie too – I wanted it to have that punk ethos.”
By the time production wrapped, Flender was content that he’d managed to infuse a genre on the rise – synonymous with fresh faces and risqué humour – with a hit of dark humour and punk mentality. However before audiences had time to react, tragedy struck. “The movie was released ten days after the school shooting at Columbine. What happens to a teenage zombie movie about a slacker and his pot smoking friends is less than trivial compared to people losing their lives and loved ones – that’s the real tragedy – but unfortunately the movie got caught up in a political shit storm with certain politicians who hadn’t seen the movie but had an agenda to rail against what they thought were the evils of the entertainment industry,” says Flender. “Unfortunately Idle Hands was just the next movie out of the gate. No one had seen it but it became the example of the crass, insensitive ills of Hollywood and how we were poisoning the minds of young people. It was an awful time for everyone. I guess no one wanted to see a movie about black humour set in a high school.”
With its release scuppered, Flender moved forward with his career, helming a variety of projects – from episodes of the American edition of The Office and Conan O’Brien documentary Can’t Stop, to last year’s return to the undead genre, Eat Brains Love.
However since then Idle Hands has slowly but surely found its audience. “It was painful because everybody worked hard on it. We’d hoped it’d be judged on its own merit. It might have been a little weird, with a sick humour some might have enjoyed, others might have been sickened by (that was my intention) but it seemed to drift away,” he says. “Then years later people discovered it with home video. I’d drive by Blockbuster around Halloween and would see the classics in the window – Halloween, Night Of The Living Dead… then once in a while I’d see Idle Hands. That’s where I became aware that this film has indeed found its audience and it was so meaningful to me. Idle Hands was the biggest budgeted thing I’ve ever worked on. The fact we’re talking about it now is a great example of how it’s becoming this phoenix rising again. The story of Idle Hands is not over.”
Idle Hands is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Pictures.