"Derry is not like any town I've been in before. People die or disappear, six times the national average. And that's just grown ups. Kids are worse. Way, way worse..."
|They sat gaping in fear at the horror on the TV- Noel's House Party.|
|Does this scene remind anyone else of Apocalypse Now?|
Based on Stephen King's novel of the same name, the story follows a small group of misfit children, self deprecatingly called 'the loser's club', who band together to seek companionship and respite from the hardships of their daily lives. But, after a spate of recent disappearances, the group must confront an age-old evil that lurks beneath their hometown- a shape-shifting entity which exploits the fears of its victims as it preys on the weak.
As I've often said, films do not exist within a vacuum....Stephen King wrote his seminal book It in 1986. He'd already had quite a prolific career, and this was to be his 22nd novel (18th under his own name). As well as the book, most people are also quite familiar with the 1990s TV series adaption, staring the wonderfully unnerving Tim Curry. While most people, including myself, have fond memories of this series, it's not aged particularly well given its low budget, a cast of hit-and-miss talent, and the stark fact that much of the novel would be unpalatable to TV audiences of its day (including sexual abuse, animal torture, underage sex and the graphic mutilation of children) And don't forget, these were long before the days where Stephen King adaptions were considered a box-office goldmine, and hardcore violence was commonplace. Much has since changed. However, despite a weak second half, most people will fondly remember the show's flashbacks featuring the children (the younger cast being arguably more believable than their adult counterparts), which provided the narrative spine of the series. So it was with a feeling of trepidation that fans of the book and TV series alike reacted to news of a film re-imagining. I, like others, felt the TV show left room for improvement and would have been quite happy to see It on the big-screen, save for the nagging fact that, after the TV show, which despite flaws has become something of a cult classic, and Curry's performance now being so firmly cemented in most people's perception of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, a film would seem destined to fail... The following review proves that concern to be misplaced.
Script and Direction: 2/2
Firstly, as already widely known by now, the film is a sassy, scary and entirely justified retelling of King's most famous novel. Yet, we should be clear that this film is not a wholly faithful adaption of said book- there are differences. For starters, the film is now being retold in the same era where the book found it's main characters as their adult selves, the mid 80's being, what was at the time, the present day. It was written chiefly for people who, like the author, had grown up through the 50's and were now reminiscing on the hardships and excitement of their own youth. So, given that, it feels perfectly natural that film makers of my generation approach the material of the film in the exact same way- this is a story about the childhood of our middle-aged generation. Along with this change of setting, the film has had to embrace certain other changes, but all of which feel entirely justified and, dare I say it, even necessary. I feel that this change in setting came from an honest place, and not simply a way to cash in on the success of the similarly 80's set Stranger Things, which was probably born of the same feeling of nostalgia. This new treatment is intriguing. Sure, it's a horror, but it works on so many other levels; it's a coming-of-age tale, a kitchen-sink drama, and, most surprisingly, hugely funny. Funnier than a straight-laced horror has any right to be, and so much so that you could almost call this a horror comedy (although the elements of comedy are played straight and dark).
Casting and Acting: 2/2
Most of the young cast get a chance to deliver a funny line or two, but most of the hilariously sweary wit goes to the character of Richi Tozier, as played by Stranger Things' own Finn Wolfhard. His frizzy hair, be-speckled and innocent face and diminutive height go a long way to helping his laugh-out-loud delivery. While Richi will prove to be an audience favorite, most of the more dramatic moments are handled by Sophia Lillis who, as the gang's only girl, Beverly Marsh, faces the most distressing moments. Testament to the youngster's talent, these scenes feel all too uncomfortable, and ground what's otherwise quite a light-heated take on child murder (if you can say such a thing). Yet, these scenes never feel entirely out of kilter with the rest of the film and are handled deftly. There were points where (because we might as well be honest at this point, we're talking about child sexual abuse) I felt “actually, these bits are probably worse than the friggin' child-eating clown”, and that these parts were in danger of undermining the chief ghoul- yet, in a stark and beautiful moment of realisiation, I understood this was actually the point, and this conceit pays dividends later on. Jaeden Lieberher plays Bill Denbrough, arguably the lead of the film, the stuttering lead of the misfits, and along with Lillis takes on the more serious aspects of the story. Bill's character is a sad case, haunted by the disappearance of his younger brother and is as yet to come to terms with the very likely fact that the boy is dead (something the audience is already aware of). His grief is what galvanizes the characters into a confrontation with the creature It. Jeremy Ray Talor, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer and Wyatt Oleff all offer fine and adoring support as the remainder of this gang of friends... Which leaves us with Bill Skarsgård, as the epinonimous It. Now, Tim Currey was always going to be a difficult act to follow, and in the age of Heath Ledger's Joker and the need for artistic integrity and originality, there seemed little breathing space for a new Pennywise the Clown. However, Skarsgård (a few little nit-picks aside) may have just found such a niche. With a voice pitched somewhere between a drooling imbecile and the horse-groan of a gravel-dry throat, his puppet-with-the-strings-cut sagging shoulders, a walk like a clockwork toy, and the highly-sprung tension of a coiled spring, his Pennywise truly is a sinister creation- director Andrés Muschiett, who cut his teeth on indie-horror Mama clearly has a penchant for juddering movements and unnaturally crooked limbs, bringing some of that ghost's near stop-motion way of movement to bear on this Pennywise. At times the ghoul threatened to teeter too readily into creepiness (Its guise of the clown was initially meant to lure children in, rather than send them running in fear for their lives), and this version also lacked Tim Curry's comically nasty quips, but all-in-all, a very original and successful take.
Pace and Focus: 1/2
While nobody among the cast ever feels like they're letting the side down, you can't help but feel that the script certainly favors some of the characters over others. Love it or hate it, this is arguably something the original TV show has over this big screen adaption- a more balanced story. Here, the characters of Stan, Ben, Mike and Eddie are mostly peripheral, there to make up the numbers, which is a shame because given the talent of the young actors you can't help but feel they've been a little wasted. And, rather oddly, while Bill is, academically speaking, the main character (it's he who leads the group and drives the story onward towards it's conclusion), I felt like this was Beverly's film; her character has the lion's share of the screen time, and the harder obstacles to overcome. While I'd have welcomed the film to allow her to take starring role, this wasn't to be the case. It's here that the film loses some of it's focus and momentum, struggling to find a line to walk between the lead as it appears on paper, and the lead which comes through strongest on screen. Another issue I had while watching the film, slight as this may be, was the lack of any real build-up. While the surreal and bizarre set-pieces are definitely creepy and jumpy, the characters are given very little introduction before 'shit gets real', and given how the film boasts a run time over 2 hours, it would seem odd that the first 90 mins of the TV series again manages this task more successfully. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a modern audience and its demand for things to get going, but personally I'd like to see a little extra character-building. Who knows, maybe I'll get my wish in the DVD release, because it did at times feel like we'd had moments trimmed out; a quiet before the storm always makes the thunder sound a little louder and the lightning seem a little brighter.
Aesthetic and Style: 2/2
The film invokes an accurate sense of time and place, and it's not for nothing that the film finds itself often compared to The Goonies (and not just in as much as a group of humorously foul mouthed kids having an adventure). For me, the film is at it's creepiest when it's dialed back slightly, I always find when CGI is obviously in use, somehow things become less tangible- CGI has no heft or presence, which is important to suspend an audience's disbelief. But, again, it's a minor grumble, seeing how CGI is the go-to of modern cinema, and I'm obviously hankering for the latex and physical effects which simply aren't in use any more. The film has done well to carve out a unique version of the Pennywise character, although it's possibly on the over-stylized side of things, again, a preference rather than a criticism... I guess my biggest gripe with the film, and I'll mention it here seeing how it doesn't really belong anywhere else, is with the opening moments of the film. We're introduced to the character of Bill first, and his ill-fated little brother Georgie. Their chemistry is believable, and while it's touching it's never saccharine-sweet. Watching this I begun to feel really uncomfortable. I was thinking “Jesus, I know what's going to happen and it's awful, this is gonna' be heart breaking”. Then little Georgie goes into the basement, and spies what he thinks are two eyes staring at him in the basement, and a genuine chill went down my spine. The lights come on, and low-and-behold, it was the reflection on two glass ornaments. Was this just the overactive imagination of childhood innocence, or, was this some evil presence, already marking its next prey? The screen lingers here in the basement for an ominous moment before cutting away. It was in this moment that the film was, for me, at it's absolute apex of horror. All at once it was a lament of childhood fears I'd long ago abandoned, and what was probably the most inexplicably creeped-out I'd been in over 20 years of watching horror films. But the film was soon to lose that edge of intensity. Georgie goes out into the rain, encounters It, and is inevitably slaughtered. This is the films weakest moment, served up only moments after it's strongest genuine scare. And why? Because the film, at pains to prove that it's got the courage to 'go there' and eviscerate a child on-screen, over plays it's hand. Not only is there some obvious CGI (a personal bugbear), but also because, if you lob the arm off of a person, said person is going to be crying out in the most extreme pain imaginable while the wound explodes in a fountain of gore: this did not happen in the film. By simple fact that a child this age cannot act in this amount of pain convincingly, or that there was nowhere near enough blood, or that the then injured child attempts to crawl away from his attacker when, in truth, he should be screaming out till his vocal chords break, this destroyed the magic and subtlety of the previous scene. The moment would have been all the more terrifying to simply cut away at the penultimate moment (perhaps just to see the wellie boots disappearing into the storm drain?), but instead the film plays it's hand and you realise it's a bluff. However, the film then turns on a pin, and instead of subtleties and spine tingling horror, what you get instead is 2 hours of jump-scares, grotesque set-pieces and playful banter.
Intention and Originality: 1/2
The interplay between identity and belief that was present throughout the book is more visible in this big screen adaption than the TV series; Bill becomes leader of the group because of the belief his friends install in him, while Beverley assuming the identity of 'womanhood' creates it's own issues. Likewise, It feeds on fear, and it's possible the creature only feeds on children as a way of promoting this fear- it's easier to scare children with night-terrors than it is to scare adults, and similarly It finds itself powerless if you don't believe It can harm you, or moreover, you believe you can harm It.
Despite early concerns and minor misgivings, It is an amazing film. The problem facing the sequel, which will probably focus on the adult versions of these characters in the 'present day', will be the same which plagued the second part of the TV series; the most enjoyable parts of the book, indeed, the book's unique selling point if you can call it that, is the fact that the story concerns children. When it's children up against It, they're all the braver for their vulnerability, and far more interesting than a bunch of middle aged people. A follow-up, focusing on adults in a different era, will by definition feel like a different film entirely. And to be frank, it's the children that make this movie. Without the Goonies-like friendships, or that Stand By Me coming-of-age aspect, the film is a fairly generic horror re-make that plays to well used troupes; Evil-Dead without the brutality, or Ring with red balloons. Perhaps the film would have been wiser to drop any notion of telling a later story about adults, and instead invest it's time in a story where the children actually manage to vanquish the monster at the end of the film? Instead, and possibly to bend cap-in-hand at the alter of money-money-money, this is clearly setting up a future installment, and following that maybe even a franchise? Integrity will always take a back seat to success because, movie making like any other business, is still just a business.
Final Word: 8/10
The success a of horror depends more on our own individual tolerance than it does on movie-making technique. As this story is at pains to explain, we each fear something different. It's opening scare may be something everybody felt, but likewise might only be speaking to me and my experiences personally rather than on any tangible communal fear. For me, It isn't so much scary as it is a grotesque carnival of attractions. However, given the nature of the story, as well as the sense of mischief and fun present throughout the film, that seems quite a fitting detail. In closing, It earns it's stripes and ranks among the better Stephen King adaptions. It may only get 8/10, but it's a very high eight, and if genre pictures are more your thing (as they are mine), you can't really ask for too much more than this. That said, you may well find yourself leaving the cinema still humming the carousel-like theme tune from the 90's TV show; a sign that, while this may stand on it's own achievements, this It never quite manages to distance itself from the shadow of that same-titled cult. Still, it marks director Andrés Muschiett as one to watch out for, and all the more impressive when you consider It is only his second feature film.