I read Stephen King’s seminal novel It as soon as the paperback dropped in Scotland, which would be around 1987. I’d been on a voracious King kick ever since discovering his work in 1980, following the BBC broadcast of the Salem’s Lot miniseries. King’s work was the perfect reading material for my teenage years, and with the exception of The Dark Tower series (which I’ve still never read), I consumed his books like fire engulfs dry wood. I have a strong memory of being excited when I read of the then-upcoming novel. Even the title – It – was evocative to me. I was already well versed in the works of HP Lovecraft by the time I was 16, and the title, this one, simple little word, was something that Lovecraft would have used. Oddly enough, as excited as I was to finally read the book, very few memories of actually reading it have remained (and I haven’t read it since), so my review of It, the 2017 movie, is probably going to sound ignorant to some of you. 🙂
I couldn’t really review the movie without mentioning the 1990 adaptation, though. It’s not a favourite of mine. With the book fresh in my mind at the time, I didn’t care for the TV movie production quality, and a cast that one would struggle to make the B-Grade of TV actors. I don’t remember a lot of this, other than I didn’t like it too much. Tim Curry, in his other memorable role, was a good Pennywise, but the rest of it seemed a little too cheap overall. The movie has been on heavy rotation here on US extended cable channels for the last couple of weeks, and I tuned in last week for the scene is which the adult Bill visits the Derry library and meets Mike, and it was like watching a Matlock rerun – inert, dated, and dry. The good news is that Andy Muschietti’s movie (by way of True Detective season 1’s Cary Fukunaga) is far superior in all departments. The only problem, though, is that it’s come too late. You can thank both Super 8, and Stranger Things for that.
It, the novel was published in 1986, the TV adaptation is 27 years old, and that’s a long time ago, over a generation when you think about it. Since then, King’s story of plucky small town teens facing a destructive menace has been co-opted by JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg, and The Duffer Brothers, both within the last seven years. It isn’t like It is wildly original from that point of view, considering both The Goonies and King’s own 1982 novella The Body (1986’s movie release Stand By Me) can be added into the mix too, but both Super 8 and Stranger Things feel heavily influenced by It, and they’re a lot more recent. It also doesn’t help matters that all three works contain a small group of boys, whose dynamic is suddenly disrupted by the addition of a girl. It’s unfortunate that King’s story will inevitably be seen by a huge swath of moviegoers with It’s decendants first and foremost in mind. Considering Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard also stars in It, the comparison is even more inevitable.
For anyone unfamiliar with the King story, the movie only tells half of it. While King wove the story of the kids with their adult selves in order to tell a kind of parallel story, It (defined as “Chapter One”) tells only of how the kids first encountered the creature that names itself Pennywise and lives in the sewers of Derry, Maine to abduct children and feed on their fear. Pennywise by now is one of the most recognizable horror icons in history, joining Jason, Freddy, and Pinhead despite not being a franchise star, and I’ll be honest, I preferred Bill Skarsgard’s take to Curry’s – which is a comment more to do with production values and directorial talent than it has to do with the actors. The first appearance of It in the movie is really effective – and it’s the best scene in the movie for me.
The storm drain, with its shadows obscuring everything but Pennywise’s eyes and mouth, Skarsgard’s diction, Georgie’s reactions – it’s all perfect, and if Jackson Robert Scott isn’t the greatest Cinematic Kid Brother of all time, I don’t know who is.) The other appearances of Pennywise are more movie-monster than creepy (like when he pops out of movie screen, giant-sized), which is a bit of a miscalculation in my opinion.
Another thing that reduces the power of Pennywise is that he’s up against the true horror of parental abuse. A number of the kids are subjected to various forms of abuse in the movie, and while it adds another dimension to both the story and the characters, in many ways it detracts from the central threat. When you watch characters face the familiarity of real-world evils, the fake evil of the horror genre pales in comparison, and I felt it here, but certainly not enough to spoil my enjoyment of the movie.
I was impressed by a number of things, actually. Despite an absurd overreliance on bad CGI in its third act, I am a fan of Mama, Muschietti’s last movie, and I think he was a great choice to direct It, once Carey Fukunaga left the project. Likewise, the cinematography, score, and production design are all high calibre. In terms of acting, high marks here too. Jaeden Lieberher (The Book of Henry, Midnight Special) shows a lot of promise as an actor, but he’s upstaged by a mature, winning performance by Sophia Lillis as Beverly. If you thought there was a strong resemblance to Amy Adams, it’s worth noting that she will play the child version of an adult character played by Adams in HBO’s upcoming miniseries Sharp Objects. There were two actors I found to be wooden – Wyatt Oleff who plays Stanley, and Chosen Jacobs who plays Mike. In the former, I think it’s down to the actor, but in Jacobs’ case, the part of Mike is criminally underwritten. As well as joining the group of friends too late for the group’s closeness to feel truly organic, he’s given no real chance to shine (unlike Ben, also an outsider to the group, who acts as the movie’s Mr. Exposition), and too often in the story seems more like a member of The Losers’ Club by default, rather than by natural inclusion.
Getting back to peeves, I would have listed this earlier, but a colleague informed me that it actually comes from the book, and that’s the ridiculous ease of how the Club is able to cut through the mystery and find Pennywise’s lair with very few problems. So few, in fact, you wonder how none of the adults could manage it. In the book, the seeming ambivalence of the adults is due to the “Derry disease”, part of the subconscious effect of Pennywise’s presence in the area – still, it’s a missing element of the screenplay, something that could have been fixed with a few lines of dialogue among the Club along the lines of, “Hey, how come none of the adults thought of this shit?” No answer needed, but at least some naturalistic speculation is necessary.
In the end, It becomes less of a true horror movie. It sells the third act short with a sequence and visuals that mostly feel like the aforementioned Super 8 and Stranger Things. Pennywise isn’t allowed to develop much – and given that he’s an inhuman monster, why complain? – but the promise of that killer first appearance is almost undone. I’d have much preferred to have the visuals downplayed and the creep factor raised, but that isn’t the case here. Muschietti ends up playing it safe and instead of delivering a real horror movie, he turns in what amounts to an R rated Stranger Things.
© Andrew Hope, 2017