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

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.