It (2017)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/06/17 15:27:08
Published in 1986, Stephen King’s sprawling novel “It” was a sort of grand literary summation of the horror genre that he had been working almost exclusively in for the previous decade or so and which had made him one of the most popular American authors of all time. In recounting the adventures of a group of friends who encounter and battle the virtual embodiment of evil—a creature that fed on fear on took the form of the thing that most terrified its victims, most infamously in the form of the malevolent Pennywise the Dancing Clown—that has infected their seemingly cursed home town of Derry, Maine, first as children in 1958 and then as adults in 1986, King explored at length many of the key elements that had so captured the imagination of his readers over the years—things ranging from the ordinary terrors involving adolescence, sexuality, the economy and the disintegration of once-cherished ideals revolving family and government to supernatural events and unspeakable creatures made all the more frightening because they existed not in some Gothic land but in the all-too-familiar manicured lawns of suburbia. The result is still arguably the best of his fictional works (with “The Shining” being the only real contender for the throne) as well as one of the great American novels of the latter half of the 20th century, a work that could dazzle readers with his formidable and then-underrated skills as a writer even as they found themselves freaking out from some of the more diabolical ideas that he had in store for them.At the time King was writing “It,” he was also seeing many of his previous novels being transformed into movies with wildly mixed results ranging from the brilliance of “Carrie,” “The Dead Zone” and (despite his long-standing antipathy towards it) “The Shining” to clunkers like “Children of the Corn” and “Firestarter.” As a result, it almost seems as if King was going out of his way to write “It” in a way that ensured that it would never be transformed into a movie. First of all, there was the tremendous length of the novel, which would require either an elongated running time to get everything in or a severe pruning of the material in order to get it in under two hours. Then there is the tremendously gruesome acts of violence that are an important part of the narrative and which were all the more troubling due to the extent that they involved (and were even perpetrated in a couple of cases by) kids. Oh yeah, there was also that curious ending that featured a sort-of orgy involving the younger characters as a key component. There was a two-part television miniseries version of the book that was broadcast in 1990 that was not entirely successful, thanks to the weakness of the modern-day material, the not-exactly-elaborate visual effects and the muting of the more horrific elements in order to conform to network broadcast standards of the time, although some have convinced themselves of its apparent greatness due to the undeniably galvanizing and menacing turn by Tim Curry as Pennywise, a performance iconic enough to rival his work in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Now, nearly 28 years after that version was broadcast and following at least one proposed version to be made by Cary Fukunaga that self-destructed just before it went before the cameras, “It” has finally made it to the big screen under the direction of Andy Muschetti, who made an impressive directorial debut a few years ago with his under-the-radar genre hit “Mama.” (Fukunaga still retains partial screenplay credit.) Rather than try to cram everything into one film, this version has been theoretically conceived as a two-part saga with this first film concentrating solely on the story involving the kids (which has been transported in time from 1958 to 1989) and the second (which has yet to be formally announced but appears to be a fait accompli) focusing on their adult selves. Additionally, while some of the more off-putting elements have been cast aside (such as the aforementioned orgy), the filmmakers elected to go the “R”-rated route instead of attempting to tame things down to a more commercially viable PG-13 rating. Thanks to the intense hype surrounding the project (really, when was the last time a horror film was anticipated by so many people and not just gore hound?), “It” will almost certainly be a hit from a commercial standpoint but from an artistic perspective, the results are a bit more questionable. Although definitely a step up in most regards (aside from an exceptionally key one) from the TV adaptation, this version proves to be a wildly uneven work that at times genuinely seems like the horror classic that it wants to be and other times comes across as little more than “The Goonies” with a significantly higher body count.
One of the most undeniably effective sequences comes right at the top as little Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) runs out into the pouring rain to play with a paper boat made by his beloved and currently ailing older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) in the waterlogged street outside their home. The boat swiftly floats down the street into a sewer drain and when Georgie tries to investigate, he comes face to made-up face with Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard). Pennywise tries to lure Georgie into joining him down there and while he is amused at first, even he begins to realize that something is amiss and tries to leave. Sadly (not to mention gruesomely), he doesn’t get very far and when the story picks up a few months later at the start of the summer of 1989, a guilt-ridden Bill is obsessed with the notion of finding Georgie or at least his never-recovered body. Accompanying him in this endeavor, with varying degrees of willingness, are his best friends, motormouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard), perpetually nervous Stan (Wyatt Oleff) and the sickly and asthmatic Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer).
Besides being best friends, the four have something else in common in that they are the perpetual targets of borderline psychotic town bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his equally nasty pals. Of course, they aren’t the only kids in town being tormented by the switchblade-wielding Henry. He attacks new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) because of his weight and even goes so far as to slice an “H” in Ben’s stomach before Ben gets away and is rescued by Bill and the others. While tending to Ben’s wounds, they come across Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who is the subject of scandalous rumors among her classmates, increasingly creepy suspicions from her dad and a couple of mad crushes amongst the other guys. The six spend their time sticking together and hanging out and add a seventh member when they rescue another kid, the home-schooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs) from Henry and his gang through a hellacious rock fight.
There are other terrors than Henry in Derry, as it turns out. Not only does the town have a much higher than normal average of kids who suddenly disappear, Ben discovers while researching the town’s history that some kind of cataclysmic event appears to befall the town every 28 years or so—an explosion at a factory that kills 88 kids participating in an Easter Egg hunt on the grounds, a massacre at a nightclub and other such terrors that seem random enough at first but which eventually appear to fit some kind of pattern. Derry is the victim of some malevolent entity and while its favored guise is that of Pennywise, it can transform itself into a representation of the greatest terrors of its victims in order to better feed off their fear. Having each experienced some encounter with what they eventually deem It and realizing that the adults either cannot see what is really going on in town or, more frighteningly, can and have just come to accept it, the seven elect to try to bring It down once and for all.
The reason that King’s early books connected so strongly with readers, even those who normally wouldn’t read such things, was not so much the stories themselves but the way in which he told them—his voice as an author was so strong and clear and true that he could take the silliest of concepts (such as a haunted 1958 Plymouth Fury) and make them work. Unfortunately, the author’s voice is the one thing that cannot be readily replicated when trying to bring a book to the screen and that is why many of the adaptations of his books have not worked—they know the words to his stories but not the music. The best films to come from his books—I will toss out “The Shining,” “Carrie,” “The Dead Zone” as prime examples—are the ones where the filmmakers used the narrative as a springboard for merging their own personal obsessions with the material at hand so as to enhance it instead of merely replicating it. “It,” on the other hand, too often seems to be content with replication and while it does it fairly well, it never really becomes its own thing in the way that, say, “The Shining” did. This approach will no doubt satisfy many moviegoers who just want to see the book on film but for those who might be curious to see Muschetti applying the vision he showed in “Mama” to King’s material, the results aren’t nearly as impressive. Take the sequence in which the sink in Beverly’s bathroom explodes in a fountain of gore that only she and her friends can evidently see. It was one of the standout moments of the book and while it is effectively done here, it is just a straight translation from the page that doesn’t have anything new to share.
This may strike some as being a bit nitpicky, I realize, but there are other problems as well. Even though the two parts of the story will probably clock in at around somewhere between 4-5 hours by the time the second half is completed, the story—at least this first installment still feels a bit rushed at times in terms of the storytelling as it jumps from incident to incident in order to get as much of it in as possible. The decision to separate the kid and adult stories somehow lessens them a bit—the two sides complemented each other beautifully thanks to the skillful way King intertwined them and the loss of how the past and present flowed into each other on the page does hurt the material as a whole. There is also not much in the way of a real sense of the palpable sense of dread that has presumably permeated the town—there really should a general sense that something really rotten is in the air that everyone is dimly aware of but chooses to ignore. Another thing that doesn’t quite work, I’m afraid, is the performance by Skarsgard as Pennywise. Oh, there is nothing that he does that is bad or wrong, per se, but he is going up against two powerful forces—Curry’s stunning performance in the original and the fact that clowns in general have become such a familiar terror trope (thanks in no small part to the lasting success of “It” over the decades) these days (most currently in the just-debuted new season of “American Horror Story”)—and after that undeniably creepy opening scene, his subsequent appearances eventually become more monotonous than mesmerizing. As for the scare factor, it does have a few genuinely effective shock moments here and there but it relies a little too heavily on people or things unexpectedly jumping out of nowhere to frighten someone, the kind of cheap “BOO!” scares that fuel too many substandard horror movies these days.
At the same time, however, there are a number of good things on display in “It” as well. As I said, that opening sequence with Georgie and Pennywise is a classic that still has the power to chill one’s spine even if they have read the book and know exactly what is coming next. The young cast of largely unknown actors (with Wolfhard probably being the most familiar of the bunch thanks to his presence on “Stranger Things,” one of the many pop culture items owing some kind of debt to “It”) are appealing and work nicely together even when the rush to get to the next plot point robs them of many of the smaller moments in the book that helped to further develop the characters. Frankly, watching them navigate the ordinary terrors of adolescence—bullies, the opposite sex and parents who just don’t understand among them—is a lot more interesting than seeing them stalking and being stalked by some harlequin from Hell. In fact, the single scariest and most blood-curdling moment in the film is one that is largely bereft of any supernatural elements. It is a brief moment when Henry is about to do something horrible to one of the kids when a car drives by and, instead of stopping things in the expected manner, the adults inside just ignore what they are seeing and drive on. That quiet symbol of a world gone wrong—where not even all adults can be counted on to save the day when needed—is genuinely eerie and touches on a kind of fear far more universal and upsetting that killer clowns and such.Considering the fact that it is really only half of one big movie (something that the ads are not emphasizing at all), “It” probably cannot be fully judged until both halves are completed. As it is, “It” has a lot of good moments and things going for it and it has certainly been produced with a level of seriousness that is rare in most major studio horror films these days. However, at least in this half, those pieces never quite manage to pull together into a satisfying and terrifying whole. Fans of King’s book will no doubt flock to it and many of them may even like it a little more than I have. However, when it comes to not only scaring them but lingering around in the mind as well, it is the book that they are more likely to remember with hair-raising total recall while the memories of this film will probably just fade away.
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