Ginger Nuts of Horror
"felt almost like a parody of a jump-scare, where a monster would dive onto the screen only to waggle its tongue and spout something unintelligible, like a kid leaping out of a closet making a silly face and shrieking."
Director: Andy Muschietti
IT, the original TV mini-series, was my introduction to genuine horror. Up until that moment, I’m not even sure if I’d read any RL Stine, and because from my earliest infant memories I had always loved creepy and forbidden concepts, my excitement at finally seeing an adult horror film was hard to contain.
Being younger than 10, I wasn’t quite mature enough or equipped with a long enough attention span to enjoy the book, but some years later I read Stephen King’s almost endless novel, and loved it. Now, at 34, I’m currently revisiting the work, and it is even better than I remember it.
Re-reading the book makes IT (2017) a tough one to review, because the book is, quite simply, astounding. The characters have some of the best-drawn and most memorable personalities I’ve ever read. The atmosphere is awash with dread, and King’s (thankfully fictional) town of Derry feels haunted from the very start, as if something malign lurks beneath every innocent encounter, every landmark, and the most innocuous of events. Themes run through the tale like broken blood vessels: innocence being cut short, memories acting like hauntings, the disturbing transition from childhood into adulthood. The tightrope of overcoming or succumbing to that which frightens us most, and whether we allow our fears to shape our adult selves.
A film maker could hardly ask for stronger source material – or a more intimidating tale to translate into 4 hours of screen time.
Now, for anyone who doesn’t know, IT is about a town haunted by a malevolent, shape-changing presence which feasts on the fears and the flesh of those who believe in it – usually the local children. When this entity, which primarily takes the form of a clown, targets 7 close friends, they decide to fight back, and are forced to return to their home town 27 years later to finish the battle they started.
IT (2017) unravels the intertwined chronology of the novel and tells the children’s tale first, altering the time setting to the 80s rather than the 50s. For the most part, it works.
Let’s start with the good stuff: Pennywise was, for me, pretty goddamn great. Ignoring the wonderful ham of Tim Curry’s unforgettable performance in the flawed but fantastic 90s mini-series, Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise is a seriously unsettling interpretation of Derry’s eater of worlds, and of children. Skarsgard appears constantly on the brink of frenzy, delivering each line with hyper-intensity. Modern-day effects and budget are at their absolute best here, contorting the clown into a horrific array of different forms that are complemented by Skarsgard’s manic performance.
And the monsters.
Oh, the monsters!
Eddie’s leper, minus the unpleasant and thematically relevant proposition of oral sex featured in the book, is hideous.
Stan’s painting-lady apparition is truly distressing.
Beverly’s sink experience has an added element that works immensely well.
In fact, almost every ghoul and ghost ticked the right boxes for me.
While I’ve read that a lot of people had no problem with the jump-scares, there were moments when they took me out of the film. Not to press the point too much, but some felt almost like a parody of a jump-scare, where a monster would dive onto the screen only to waggle its tongue and spout something unintelligible, like a kid leaping out of a closet making a silly face and shrieking. I may be a jaded horror movie viewer, but these often made me giggle during moments when I felt that the director wanted me to paint my pants brown, instead.
The cast is great, and as many have already observed Sophia Lillis is perfect as Beverly and likely to be heading for a glittering acting career. The direction is good, the cinematography great, and the sound, lighting and overall atmosphere top-drawer.
Okay. That’s the good stuff. Now let’s change gear.
I found the characters, themes and lore to be painfully trite and 2-dimensional.
We know nothing of Ben’s home life. Stan’s family background is boiled down to his Jewishness. Bill is just a stutterer and not a storyteller. Richie has become a dick-joke-machine. Eddie’s mum has become malevolent rather than simply pathetic. Only Beverly’s character comes close to achieving nuance, as she puts on a brave public face in response to the school’s cruel rumours and her fearful relationship with her revolting, abusive father.
While it’s easy to argue that it would be near-impossible for a film maker to offer even a glimmer of the depth found in the novel, I believe that the characters and the loving friendships they share was drawn better in the 90s mini-series, which dedicated even less time to the children’s story. The problem is that we never see the children hanging out or having fun – they are just caricatured bullied kids who spend their time either getting beaten up or fighting a supernatural entity.
One aspect of the thematic shallowness can partially be blamed on the film’s A-to-B chronology. The book and the 90s miniseries focus heavily on nostalgia and uneasy memories, as the horrors of one summer the characters spent 27 years ago are revealed through a tangled network of flashbacks and recounted recollections. This, for obvious reasons, would have been impossible to portray in IT (2017).
As for the demon’s status as a world-devouring, fear-swallowing, almost God-like entity, in IT (2017) he’s very much an earthbound clown-monster. While there is a hint to them, there are no deadlights. Easter eggs aside, there is no turtle. Gone is the existential terror of something unfathomable, something that creeps through and haunts every element of a town and possibly beyond. As jarring as Pennywise is, in IT (2017), he is essentially a child-killer who says “Boo” a lot. I even wonder if most of today’s audience would have picked up on the idea that Pennywise uses the children’s deepest fears against them, in order to feast on their terror, such is the amount of time spent discussing the subject.
I had issues with the film’s climax, but these veer too close to spoilers. I’ll simply mention three parts near the climax that had me raising my eyebrows, but this is only for those who have already seen it:
The dance was hilarious.
The kiss felt thematically irrelevant.
And the line “…FEAR…” was, um. Actually, what the clown-fucking fuck was that about?
Anyway, despite my gripes, I enjoyed IT (2017) a great deal. My peeves were almost inevitable, because I’m a fanboy, and I would have preferred to have been given a 10-part TV series rather than two movies.
But that doesn’t mean that I’m not 100% excited for the next instalment.
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