Saturday, September 7, 2019

Review Double Feature: It (2017) and It Chapter Two (2019)

I sadly never got to see 2017's It in theaters, in no small part because "you'll float too!" was what the people on the Weather Channel were warning would happen if anybody in South Florida stepped outside during Hurricane Irma. Well, with the second half of the story having just come out, better late than never, right? So I made this a double feature.

It (2017)

Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language

Score: 4 out of 5

This film may be an adaptation of a Stephen King novel from 1986, but for most of us, a certain little Netflix TV show hung over it like a cloud. Stranger Things had injected back into pop culture a certain kind of story that had reached its apex in the '80s, one in which adolescent boys (and one or two girls) go on an exciting supernatural or sci-fi adventure with a dash of horror to it, all while learning some life lessons and managing their friendships, bullying, their first crushes, and the general pressures of growing up. King wrote It at the height of that "Amblin era" of family films, and gave it his usual touch of very serious horror, opening with the murder of a young boy at the hands of a demonic killer clown hiding in the sewer and making it clear that the rest of the "Losers' Club" was in very real danger as they sought to find out what had happened to their friend and stop it from killing again. While King's Stand By Me meshed well with those kinds of films, albeit as a darker take on that kind of storyline with more mundane subject matter (stumbling on a dead body in the woods) than you'd find in The Goonies, there was no way in hell that It, back in the '80s or '90s, would've been a blockbuster; for a long time, the best that fans got was a 1990 miniseries that, save for a great turn by Tim Curry as the villain, is mostly remembered as pretty cheesy and one of the lesser King adaptations. This left enough time for both the book and that genre of film to become nostalgic, and eventually, for a TV series that effortlessly melded the lighthearted tone of Amblin and the horror of King to become a breakthrough smash hit.

And so we get this, a film that goes out of its way to remind viewers of a story that was itself partly inspired by its own source material, between it moving the setting up to the '80s, excising all the parts set in the present day, and starring Mike Wheeler himself, Finn Wolfhard, as one of the main characters... and it's actually really damn good! Yeah, I can see why this movie struck such a chord: it's the R-rated version of Stranger Things that can get away with a lot more gore, swearing, and sexual references than can a show on Netflix that's marketed as much to kids as it is to their nostalgic parents. This isn't another Summer of 84 situation, where it seemed like the '80s aesthetic was just set dressing for a film that had only nostalgic references going for it. Instead, this film gets into the core of why King's novel remains so beloved, not just as a horror novel but also as an exploration of adolescence and the experience of growing up in small-town/suburban America, warts and all, all while delivering a genuinely creepy-ass movie anchored by all-around great performances. It's not a revolution in horror, but I'm certainly not disappointed that this was the biggest horror movie in years.

In 1989 in the small town of Derry, Maine, children are going missing, and as we see in the opening scene, whatever's causing it isn't quite human. Bill, whose brother Georgie went missing a year ago, has not gotten over it, and has spent his free time desperately trying to figure out what happened to him. When he and his friends go off to investigate, they start having visions of a monster that takes the human form of a clown named Pennywise, one who comes out to feast on people's souls every twenty-seven years -- and who they quickly realize is responsible for the disappearance of Georgie and all the other kids who have gone missing since. And now, Pennywise seems to be stalking them, only compounding their problems with bullies like Henry Bowers and the various issues they have in their personal lives, problems that Pennywise is keen to exploit as he feeds on their fear.

It has a reputation as one of King's most esoteric and dense novels, a massive horror epic that's over a thousand pages long and jumps across decades. Wisely, instead of going for a straightforward adaptation, this film cuts the novel in half, leaving the parts set in the present day for the sequel while focusing squarely on the parts that everybody remembers: the parts where King pits a bunch of kids on bikes against an eldritch monster. (Minus the orgy scene that always comes up when discussing the novel, and yes, I am making this digression simply out of pure obligation. This story already has its own Rule 34.) We spend long stretches with the "Losers' Club", as they call themselves, watching them hang out and go exploring dark houses, sewers, and alleyways like we wish we did back then, pretending that the modern age of helicopter parenting wasn't already underway by the late '80s. We watch them go up against Henry Bowers, the bigoted leader of a gang of bullies who, having clearly already peaked in life, take what seems to be their only joy in picking on kids younger, smaller, and weaker than them. The film may not be a perfectly accurate representation of what growing up was like in 1989, but it is a very accurate representation of how a lot of kids who grew up in the '80s and '90s, myself included, often remember their childhoods: as times of wonder that nevertheless held a lot of fear, often in the form of scary adults ranging from Stan's rabbi father pressuring him to learn his Hebrew, Beverly's sexually abusive father, or Eddie's overly protective mother.

On that note, the kid actors who brought these characters to life were all uniformly excellent. The casting director for this must have been satisfied, because child actors this good are so rare that even finding one is difficult; filling your movie with six unknowns (and Wolfhard, who'd already proven himself on Stranger Things), and striking gold on all of them, is a coup. They all brought the right mix of innocence and saltiness, the film not being afraid to let them swear their heads off and do all the things that today's twenty- and thirtysomethings always say they did as adolescents, and it felt convincing from each of them. Stan and Eddie felt like kids who wanted to rebel against their parents, Richie felt like the kid who, looking back, you just knew was gonna grow up into an asshole, Beverly felt beaten down by her classmates' insinuations about her sexuality, Ben and Mike felt like kids who struggled to fit in (Ben because he was new in town, Mike because he was black) and just wanted a friend, Bill made an excellent cool-headed leader even while struggling with a stutter, and they all felt like the kind of "losers" that wouldn't fit in with the normal kids in their freshman class. All of these kids are gonna go on to bigger things. Director Andy Muschietti (previously of Mama) deserves praise, too, leading them all to give outstanding performances while managing to build up a world that felt very much like how a kid might see his or her small town growing up. It feels weird saying this about a movie that earned its R rating, but I felt like a kid again watching this.

And that extends to the scares, because, while this wasn't my personal scariest movie of the decade (sorry, but another film with It in the title whooped my ass too hard for that to be the case), it did scare me in ways I'd rarely felt since I was a kid. And while Muschietti pulled his weight in that regard, too, a lot of the credit here goes to Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Living up to Tim Curry, more or less the reason why people still remember the miniseries, was going to be a tough task, but Skarsgård pulls it off with his own unique take on the character. The difference between Skarsgård's Pennywise and Curry's reminded me of the evolution of Freddy Krueger. Whereas Curry reminded me of the Krueger from the more comedic Nightmare on Elm Street sequels, where he's clearly having fun tormenting his victims, Skarsgård reminds me of the Krueger from the original film: a predator, coded in many ways as a very specific kind of child sexual predator, who can put on a mask of affability to lull his victims into complacency but who quickly shows that he means business once it's time to attack. And Muschietti knows how to make those attacks truly unsettling, whether it's with Pennywise showing up in person to deliver the pain or when he's just throwing illusions in the faces of the Losers' Club, especially a deeply unsettling scene in the library. Pennywise at times has a streak of dark humor to him, most notably with the "Not Scary at All" door, but what I felt the most was an uncanny valley effect, a pale imitation of humanity that becomes most apparent with that famous dance he does in the third act (that tracking shot locking his face at the center of the camera... hot damn).

The Bottom Line

If you're looking for something truly bold and out-there, you won't really find it here; this just didn't quite have what it took to push it over the top for me. What you will find, however, is an excellent version of this kind of kids' adventure movie mixed with some real blood and guts, capturing both the horror and joy of growing up in more ways than one.


So... how did the sequel do?

It Chapter Two (2019)

Rated R for disturbing violent content and bloody images throughout, pervasive language, and some crude sexual material

Score: 3 out of 5

The problem with adapting Stephen King's It was always going to be, what do you do about the parts of the book set in the present day? The book is up there with The Stand as one of the densest novels in King's repertoire, to be sure, but that's only half of it. It also has a reputation as one of the weirdest things that King ever wrote even by his standards, with the present-day portions revealing Pennywise to be something akin to an eldritch abomination that would be right at home in an H. P. Lovecraft cosmic horror story while frequently meandering into all manner of nonsense. The 2017 film found an admirable way around that, at least at first, by focusing on the parts of the book that everybody remembers in which it's a group of kids fighting Pennywise, but this never really solved the problem; eventually, the sequel would have to tackle this part of the novel head-on. Having to build a movie out of only the weaker parts of the source material, it was perhaps inevitable that It Chapter Two was going to be an inferior film to its predecessor, bearing all the thumbprints of the book, warts and all: it's nearly three hours long, it often gets lost in digressions, and its attempts to go bigger and badder with the special effects are often counterproductive. Even so, however, Muschietti still pulls through when it comes to the actual frights, such that, even though few scenes here will likely be as well-remembered as their counterparts in the original, I wasn't clocking out even despite how long the movie was. For better or worse, It Chapter Two is the purest translation of King's writing to the big screen that I have ever seen: a coked-out mess of a movie that doesn't know when to get to the point, but when it works, it's scary as hell.

The film picks up twenty-seven years after the events of its predecessor, with the members of the Losers' Club now grown-up, middle-aged, and having achieved various levels of success. Bill is now a famous novelist who's in the process of adapting one of his books to the big screen, putting up with studio meddling in the process. Ben, once the fat kid, got jacked since then and is now an architect. Richie, the loudmouth funny guy, is now a stand-up comedian. Eddie, the hypochondriac, is now a risk assessor married to a woman who's very much like his mother. Beverly has become the trophy wife of a rich, abusive asshole not unlike her father. Only Mike still lives in Derry, the effect of the supernatural force hanging over the town meaning that he's the only one who really remembers what happened, and once the killings start up again, he calls everybody back up for a reunion. (Stan didn't make it, having killed himself once he got the call from Mike.) Mike has spent the years researching Pennywise and the town, and thinks he may have found a way to put the monster down for good. Problem is, Pennywise quickly finds out about them, and is not pleased to see them afoot trying to stop him...

There are times when pragmatism in adaptation can be a good thing, and oftentimes, that is the case when adapting Stephen King novels to the big screen. As a writer, King is notorious for taking thirty pages to flesh out a character who may be killed off in the next chapter, and for letting his books run long for their own sake. The film even nods to this frequently with Bill, who is pretty clearly based on King (made clear when he meets King in a cameo as a shopkeeper) and is noted as not knowing how to write good endings for his stories. Unfortunately, merely recognizing a problem does little good if you don't know how to actually solve that problem, and this film, with its bloated runtime, falls into that common pitfall of King's writing. The film frequently meanders, spending its time in scenes that do little to drive the story forward or really flesh out the characters beyond what we'd already seen in the first film or earlier in this one, and by the third hour, I was starting to check my watch as the film kept dragging itself out. The first film nailed the sweet spot, running at two hours and fifteen minutes but using all that time wisely to build a fleshed-out, lived-in world for its characters to inhabit. Here, the town of Derry paradoxically felt less like a character than it did before despite all the added time, the film seemingly more interested in cramming in as many moments from the book as possible than it was in curating them and crafting something that would hold together as a movie. Despite a great cast of A-list actors, especially Bill Hader playing the grown-up Richie as that guy who always cracks jokes even at the least opportune moments (a character who could've been grating but instead is one of the best things about the film), the characters here felt two-dimensional, the added runtime not necessarily doing much to flesh them out as people. I would've liked to see Pennywise go after their adult fears, just as he did their childhood fears in 1989; for instance, putting Richie in front of a crowd of hostile hecklers, taking on the form of Beverly's abusive husband, or preying on the fact that Mike was never able to get out of Derry. The only times the film seemed to go this route were when Pennywise taunted Ben by telling him that, even after all his sit-ups, he's always gonna be the same fat loser he was before, and when he confronted Bill with his lingering guilt over Georgie. I would've loved to see more of this, and less of Pennywise taking forms like the old crone in Beverly's old apartment or the swarm of monsters in the Chinese restaurant, in scenes that, even as they were effective on their own, had little bearing on the actual characters beyond "scary monsters".

That said, on a purely technical level, this film still sticks the landing. While the script and the source material may not have been up to the standard set by the first film, and the scares may not have the resonance that they did before, Andy Muschietti is still a very fine horror director, and Bill Skarsgård is still a very fine Pennywise. One of the best scenes came not when he was fighting the Losers' Club, but when he was luring a young girl named Victoria to her doom, preying on her insecurity over the birthmark on her cheek by telling her that he can be her friend. It builds on what I said about Skarsgård's Pennywise in the first film, that he felt like a supernatural version of a child predator. The scene where Beverly revisits her apartment may have been prominently featured and spoiled by the trailers, but there's a reason for that: it is a highly effective vertical slice of this film at its best and scariest, culminating in the reveal of a truly frightening monster. The special effects here are the standout, making this feel like a film that cost double the fairly modest $60-80 million that Wikipedia pegs the budget at, culminating in a giant monster battle during the climax that, even if it wasn't particularly scary, did feel like it would've made for an awesome video game boss fight. And the manner in which they finally killed Pennywise, turning one of his most potent qualities against him, was undoubtedly creative and felt like a great rejoinder to all the bullies that we've had to put up with as both children and adults.

The Bottom Line

This is one strictly for fans of the original. If you're expecting the same level of quality, you will be let down, because this film is much shakier in terms of storytelling and pacing than its predecessor. If you're looking for big, bombastic frights, however, and don't mind spending close to three hours watching a movie, you'll get it here, complete with some nice closure to the story of the Losers' Club.

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