Thursday, 21 September 2017

IT (2017) Review - Send in the Clown

I'm going to start this review by putting my knob out on the line for you all to chew off in spurious outrage: I do not like the works of Stephen King. There. I said it.

Not an uncommon opinion, I'm sure. But it's one which, in certain circles, will grant you the same frosty reception as a conventionally attractive woman at a feminist group meeting. King's an ideas man: good at coming up with the concepts no one else can, naff at everything else. The man has an enviable repertoire: demonically-possessed cars, rabid dogs; telekinetic teenage girls , rebellious electronics; running men. Essentially, any noun which can be prefixed by the word 'killer'.

The opening scene of the latest King adaptation, IT (2017), serves as a reminder of the effectiveness of King's ideas in the right hands. A young boy, Georgie, happily chases his paper boat down the flooding streets of his hometown. The boat drifts down a storm drain, and a despondent Georgie is relieved (and shocked) to find a seemingly friendly clown down there waiting to hand it back. If only he reaches in.

Fans of the book and the miniseries already know how this encounter is going to end. Even though I knew it was coming, I still felt the pangs of something close to despair upon witnessing Georgie meet his violent, sad end. For all the intense violence of the act, Georgie being dragged down the drain is a simple, yet powerful, image. An image which fuels the entire movie. An image which is the very antithesis of Stephen King's usual overblown trappings.

Give Stephen King an inch and he'll take a mile, describing every square inch of said mile in bullshit detail; usually with some equally bullshit line such as "Little did I know, that mile would be the last time anyone saw me alive." Add clichés about sexually abusive authority figures, psychic children, greaser bullies; have King appear as God at some point, and you have a Stephen King novel.

So, IT. I have been following this long rumoured new adaptation for years now. A development with the stability and body count of a Latin American government. One which promised to be "closer to the original book", a quote which should never be in the same room as a Stephen King adaptation. I enjoyed the 1990 miniseries based on IT -starring an iconic Tim Curry -  for the very reason that it cut out a lot of the King excess and doubled down on the core idea. Less Jeremy Irons in Lolita and more John Wayne Gacy on a school night.

Whelp. I'm half-way through and only starting to touch upon IT (2017), the subject of this review. But it wouldn't be a Stephen King movie review if I didn't digress the hell out of the subject matter like the man himself. And as all of the above can be applied to any Stephen King book or movie, everything after that is simply gravy.

You know the story. It's the Stephen King story - the one he's written about fifty times in various forms. In gloomy New England (✔), a nebulously defined evil presence (✔) is picking off children (✔) like it's happy hour in a cannibalistic pick-and-mix shop. The town's adults are either too busy being abusive (✔) or utterly absent (✔), meaning the child-eating clown Pennywise's (Bill Skarsgård) antics go unnoticed. A group of seven thirteen-year-old misfits (✔) - connected only by their loser status (✔) and terrifying visions - are forced to confront Pennywise (✔), as well as their personal demons (✔), hairy palms, and greaser bullies (✔).

IT wants you to think that it's a straight-up horror show, when it's actually a coming-of-age story (✔) of the Stranger Things variety. It's about B-B-Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) coming to terms with his brother Georgie's death (✔). Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) breaking free of his hypochondria and overbearing mother (✔). Mike (Chosen Jacobs) dealing with the death of his parents (✔) and his lack of a place in the world (✔). Beverley (Sophia Lillis) deals with her burgeoning womanhood (✔) and sexually abusive father (✔) in the way only a girl in a Stephen King novel can: by confronting apparitions of icky, messy blood (✔).

Pointing out the similarities to Stranger Things may seem as redundant as putting a tick whenever I mention a Stephen King cliché (✔). Stranger Things is a love letter to King after all. But I feel as though director Andy Muschietti was seeking to adapt IT for a Stranger Things-watching audience. For a start the story has been shifted from 1960 to 1988. But the biggest change is the entire second half of book (where the kids are adults) is dropped entirely. Whilst this is very likely to be picked back up in (the theoretical) IT Part 2, the decision to keep the focus on the kids' childhood lends Part 1 an almost nostalgic quality. Like Stranger Things.

The kids ride bikes through the streets, hang out in arcades, and Beverly and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) bond over New Kids on the Block. Even the bullies are updated from 50's greaser bullies to metal head thugs (the greaser bullies of the 1980's).

One thing which always bugged me about the miniseries was how one note the kids seemed. Where were all the dick jokes and "yo mamma" comments? I get that they were 1950's kids, but there has never been a period in human history where young boys were ever not joking about cocks. I've seen the wanking scene in Angela's Ashes.

Thankfully, this adaptation handles the group dynamic more effectively. The kids are convincing as a social group forged together from the dregs. And they bounce off each other's crude humour and petty squabbles, in a way which feels authentic. This is a group, after all, with a gender ratio of 1 girl to 6 boys. A mostly male starring film called IT? Sounds more like a documentary on the tech support industry.

Of course everyone's here for Pennywise. They want to see a film featuring scwary clown so they can overreact on social media afterwards. Between this film, those clowns in America, Insane Clown Posse, and Donald Trump, what is it about clowns which makes people lose their shit? It can't just be because the IT miniseries traumatised everyone back in the 90's. Go back and watch it. It's absolutely dire and will rid you of any fear you ever had. Curry's famous performance has aged poorly.

With that in mind, Skarsgård plays it completely straight. Unlike Curry's Pennywise, who was firing off jokes every two minutes and felt more like a serial killer than monster, Skarsgård's Pennywise truly feels inhuman. It can barely be bothered to pretend to be even remotely appealing to its victims, which pretty much defeats the purpose of appearing as a clown. There's an almost childish quality to this Pennywise, almost like Lenny from Of Mice and Men with children instead of puppies.

At the end of the day, IT (2017) is its own thing. There will be people who prefer the mini-series' more purist approach to its scary clown; but I definitely put IT (2017) over the miniseries. Hell, I'll put it over the book because there's no Discworld style cosmic turtle (✔), child-orgies (✔), or pointless chapters about homosexual deviance (✔). Seriously, I think you need to see me after class Mr King.

The savage murder of Georgie in this adaptation (compared to the highly implied, off-screen death in the miniseries) is Muschietti's way of letting you know from the go that the gloves are off. And sure enough, between the morose atmosphere and comic relief are moments of pure intense horror (are all American basements as terrifying as horror movies suggest?). This Pennywise unfurls out of freezers, climbs out of projector screens gnashing his teeth, chases down his victims, and projects scary illusions of malformed painted woman and plague victims. And he definitely doesn't say "kiss me, fat boy."

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