Saturday, February 3, 2018

About that Evil Killer Clown Movie

Stephen King's "It" isn't exactly one of my nostalgic favorites, though I read the book and watched the Tim Curry '90s miniseries and enjoyed both. I went into the new adaptation directed by Andy Muschietti mildly optimistic, and came out of it mildly entertained.

The "It" novel was originally structured as two intertwined stories about a group of friends battling a psychic shapeshifting monster at two different points in time, one when they're kids in the 1950s, and one when they're adults in the 1980s. The 2017 version moves the material with the kids up to the 1980s, and leaves off all the material involving them as adults for an inevitable sequel film. Our seven kid heroes include guilt-ridden Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), tomboy Bev (Sophia Lillis), new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), foul-mouthed Richie (Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), rabbi's son Stan (Wyatt Oleff), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the lone black kid. The villain of the piece, who has been murdering and consuming children in the small town of Derry, Maine, likes to manifest as the nightmarish Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgaard).

With its R-rating, the movie version of "It" lets the kids be more realistically crude and violent, and also shows Bill's little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) being horribly mauled by Pennywise in the opening act. Wisely, Muschietti doesn't lean too hard on the shocks, spending more time resurrecting the '80s and fleshing out the main trio of Bill, Bev, and Ben. The biggest trouble is that there are seven kids we're following, and a two-hour film isn't enough to give all of them the attention that the filmmakers clearly want to. "It" makes sure that each kid each gets their own encounter with Pennywise and their own specific fear to overcome, but this just ends up making the film feel overly busy and episodic. Mike, Stan, and Richie constantly feel like afterthoughts, caricatures of certain types rather than fully developed characters. Mike is especially aggravating because the film keeps treating him like he has a bigger part than he actually does. I suspect some of his scenes were cut for time.

This is a shame, because the depiction of the kids is easily the best part of "It." I've tried to avoid drawing parallels to Netflix's "Stranger Things," but they're unavoidable. "It" is another in the quickly emerging genre of nostalgic '80s throwbacks centered around adventurous kids on bikes. Watching them simultaneously contend with supernatural and real-world monsters together is way more engaging than the parade of CGI funhouse scares that the movie deploys. Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, and Jack Dylan Grazer are the young actors I'd single out as MVPs, but I wouldn't be surprised if in twenty years we looked back at "It" as a film where half a dozen young stars broke out. And it's a good reminder that there aren't nearly as many films with good roles for kids this age as there used to be.

As a horror film, "It" is serviceable, but not really to my tastes. The visuals struck me as too flashy to be properly scary. Some of these scare sequences are very impressive, like Pennywise revealing himself in a series of still photos, but the clown loses a lot of his effectiveness with so much repetition. Individual moments and bits of Skarsgaard's performance were unnerving, but not consistently. I also found that I was admiring the stylized fantasy atmosphere of some of the scare sequences or their neat little technical tricks more than I was actually being scared. The simpler stuff like the kids being bullied, or Bev being menaced by a family member created far more tension. Also, despite that R-rating, I found a lot of the content was toned way, way down from the book, to the point that a lot of the most memorable sequences didn't come off nearly as well as I'd hoped. The opening shocker with Georgie is as good as it gets.

Still, I enjoyed the movie enough that I'm very curious about what the sequel with the adult characters is going to look like. The consensus is that the material is weaker, but that doesn't mean the adaptation has to be. And though there are definitely flaws, the filmmakers have created a pretty solid foundation to build the next film on.

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