Skip to main content

This isn't fun, it's scary and disgusting.

It
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Imagine how pleased I was to learn that an E Nesbitt adaptation had rocketed to the top of the US charts, evidently using a truncated version of its original title, much like John Carter of Mars. Imagine my disappointment on rushing to the cinema and seeing not a Psammead in sight. Can anyone explain why It is doing such phenomenal business? It isn’t the Stephen King brand, which regular does middling-at-best box office. Is it the nostalgia factor (‘50s repurposed as the ‘80s, so tapping into the Stranger Things thing, complete with purloined cast member)? Or maybe that it is, for the most part, a “classier” horror movie, one that puts its characters first (at least for the first act or so), and so invites audiences who might otherwise shun such fare? Perhaps there is no clear and outright reason, and it’s rather a confluence of circumstances. Certainly, as a (mostly) non-horror buff, I was impressed by how well It tackled pretty much everything that wasn’t the horror element, the only the aspect that seemed mired in formula devices and choices, and even then, mostly in the rather standard-issue third act.


At its best, It imbues a sense of character and setting that makes the classic King adaptations shine (Stand by Me is a frontrunner, but add in Carrie, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green MileThe Shining is something of a different kettle of fish in that regard). I wasn’t left with that impression from the very generic-seeming trailers, and again, I found the teaser’s record-breaking view count slightly mystifying. Where was allure coming from? Surely not the underwhelming villainy of Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise, with his Bugs Bunny teeth and lack of… something.


Skargsård isn’t bad in the movie – his posture, in particular, is amazing, all gangling limbs like a puppet on a string –  but he has little charisma to speak of, no charm. That Beetlejuice poster (why do moviemakers know insist on placing pristine, perfectly positioned posters on kids’ bedroom walls? It’s Stranger Things syndrome screaming lazy nostalgia) is an unfortunate reminder of where It comes up short; shouldn’t Pennywise be like Beetlejuice but scary? That’s why the middling mini-series made such an impression on a certain age group: Tim Curry’s inimitable performance. When Pennywise is strutting his stuff on a circus stage all I could think was, “Wouldn’t this be so much more ghoulish if Michael Keaton were doing it?” Spellbindingly transfixing one moment and then revealing his terrifying teeth the next.


And the thing is, you get the impression director Andy Muschietti half agrees, because he so consistently segues from truly disturbing scenes with real human monsters (be they teenage bullies or abusive parents) to straightforward shock tactics with Pennywise – obviously, as he shows up when they’re at their most frightened and vulnerable – that it underscores that the villain isn’t really the villain here, so building to a climactic showdown that is slightly anti-climactic and ten-a-penny(wise).


You can feel these gears shift irrevocably the first time the group enter the old dark house, and the full-throttle scary set pieces take centre stage. Muschietti still delivers them inventively and a cut above, but prior to that he was sustaining an expert juggling act (the use of CGI is generally of a high quality, but inevitably distracts from complete immersion in a genre movie; having said that, some moments, like the giant Pennywise during the projector sequence, are very effective in spite of the obvious artifice).


There are no weak links in the young cast – pretty much everyone has a bright future to judge by these performances (mind you, you’d have said the same of Stand By Me, and then Star Trek: The Next Generation happened to Will Wheaton) – although a couple (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things, getting all the best lines, and particularly Nicholas Hamilton, who follows the rebellious son in Captain Fantastic with an out-and-out sociopath) are already well on their way. For nominal lead Jaeden Lieberher this comes at a blessed time, since The Book of Henry’s stink can be resoundingly dispersed.


Jeremy Ray Taylor brings subtlety to the forever-passed-over fat kid, Jack Dylan Grazer is surely going to play a young someone in a Scorsese movie at some point, while Wyatt Oleff could be a young Young Sherlock Holmes (that is, Nicholas Rowe’s nipper). Sophia Lillis, like Grazer, has a compelling but somewhat cartoonishly-staked out domestic horror to deal with, so it’s to her credit that she imbues it with utter conviction (one of the strongest elements of this thread is the blood-spattered bathroom, whereby her father’s obliviousness to its state is never spelled out). Less laudable is the decision to put Beverly in the position of requiring rescue in the third act. There’s also the problem with a compressed narrative like this, as opposed to a novel or serial, that it highlights the schematic nature of sequentially following each kid overcoming their personal traumas to face the greater threat.


Muschietti obviously doesn’t follow King’s novel with the “gang bang” of the final act, or we’d never have heard the end of it (which makes me wonder why it’s only now becoming a subject of discussion, mostly in the form of apologias and excuses by people who ought to find it creepy full stop), but he doesn’t pull his punches in other respects. Right from the opening scene, where Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott, whose performance outdoes even his peers) has his arm ripped off during a storm drain encounter with Pennywise, the director announces this as a taboo-busting picture (you can imply, but don’t actually show that sort of violence against juveniles).


I’m not sure how effective the realisation of Pennywise’s rather commonplace modus operandi is (It is, after all, an elaborate construct based on the oldest motive in the book, the monster that feeds on fear, and only really gets a pass because it’s kids who have to work this out), but Muschietti carries off the occasional impressive element even here, such as the weird cosmic totem built of children’s toys and circus debris encircled by levitated victims.


There’s also the question of how come, in a place where evil thrives every quarter of a century-plus, these happenings haven’t become an urban legend that keeps every nipper awake at night, such that it takes a new arrival to uncover Derry’s dark history? The quartet of bullies too, are remarkably orchestrated in their achievements, managing to impress themselves on every “loser” in the town with regimented dedication. But It gets much more right than it gets wrong, and I say that having seen a few talked-up “intelligent” horrors in recent years that rather stumbled when it came to delivering the goods (The Conjurings in particular).


Kim Newman said in his review that the picture “feels a little too much like pastiche”, but that wasn’t my first response. Similar charges were levelled at Stranger Things (not that pastiche is something necessarily requiring a defence), but they only tend to stick if the sources are foregrounded. There is an inevitable evoking of Stand by Me (‘50s made in the ‘80s, where this is ‘80s made in the ‘10s) but not so much that influences or period wag the dog (the '80s were, of course, replete with murderous movie clowns, from the ones from outer space to the one who tried to kill Dean Stockwell. Chris Isaak, to be precise). It’s deficiency, where it had a deficiency, is of the horror genre generally, that the pay-off very, very rarely actually justifies the work that goes into setting it up.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

He made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand. He could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head.

Moonstruck (1987)
(SPOILERS) Moonstruck has the dubious honour of making it to the ninth spot in Premiere magazine’s 2006 list of the 20 Most Overrated Movies of all Time. There are certainly some valid entries (number one is, however, absurd), but I’m not sure that, despite its box office success and Oscar recognition, the picture has a sufficient profile to be labelled with that adjective. It’s a likeable, lightweight romantic comedy that can boast idiosyncratic casting in a key role, but it simply doesn’t endure quotably or as a classic couple matchup the way the titans of the genre (Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally) do. Even its magical motif is rather feeble.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

They went out of business, because they were too good.

School for Scoundrels (1960)
(SPOILERS) Possibly the pinnacle of Terry-Thomas’ bounder persona, and certainly the one where it’s put to best caddish use, as he gives eternally feckless mug Ian Carmichael a thorough lesson in one-upmanship, only for the latter to turn the tables when he finds himself a tutor. School for Scoundrels is beautifully written (by an uncredited Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff), filled with clever set pieces, a fine supporting cast and a really very pretty object of the competing chaps’ affection (Janette Scott), but it’s Terry-Thomas who is the glue that binds this together. And, while I couldn’t say for sure, this might have the highest “Hard cheese” count of any of his films.

Based on Stephen Potter’s 1947’s humorous self-help bestseller (and subsequent series of -manship books) The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or The Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating), which suggested ungentlemanly methods for besting an opponent in any given field, gam…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.