IT 2017: My Likes and Dislikes
Weeks ago, I promised to review the new 2017 IT movie after my foggy book review, and yes, I'm afraid we're skipping over my thoughts on the first miniseries adaptation, having discovered that my thoughts and feelings on it all boil down to basically "it's alright."
The new film, however, is a little more complicated than just "alright." In some respects, IT's success is practically a godsend to horror cinema. In others, IT...could have done a little better, if you ask me.
So, we're going to go over the things I liked and disliked in an alternating list. We're also going to do this with no planning whatsoever, written as I go along, which means I don't even really know if the positives and negatives will be equal in number. One of them is probably going to run out first...but which one?!
I LIKED: The New PennywiseIf there's one thing that really did stand out to me about the first screen adaptation, it was Tim Curry's scenery-devouring performance as a sincerely goofy, ridiculous, fun-loving extradimensional circus clown, disturbingly no different from any actual clown you might have booked for a kid's birthday before the media instilled almost every child with contempt and terror of the poor things.
I was absolutely positive going in that this darker, grislier, more overtly menacing Pennywise was going to be one of the film's major drawbacks. My feelings on the trope of the "evil clown" are complicated as it is, and I could practically write an essay on the value of keeping them only subtly unsettling vs. the kind of hokey hellclown you would expect more on a metal album cover.
Bill Skarsgard's Pennywise is not the "subtle" kind of scary clown, even going full-blown CG fang-demon for a good 25% of his screentime. And yet...somehow...some way...they make it work.
Even in fang-demon mode, this googly-eyed bogeyman elegantly communicates the idea of something entirely inhuman having deeply unwholesome amounts of fun running around in its ill-fitting humanoid disguise. Rarely does this Pennywise attempt to "lure" children with promises of innocent fun, but that's understandable now that the story set in the 1980's, not long after clowns took their first major dive in mainstream popularity.
I DISLIKED: Pointless Changes to MikeDon't get me wrong here: what we do get of Mike in the new movie is pretty compelling. He's a great character, and he gets to do one particularly awesome thing we're not going to spoil.
...But in the book, Mike's role was significantly bigger. He was a total geek for local history, and it was through his sleuthing that the kids learned of the town's bloody past as well as the chronological cycle of IT's activity through the ages. This aspect of Mike's character wasn't merely dropped from the movie for time, but was given over to one of the other kids for no explainable reason.
This feels particularly insulting in light of the stereotype that black kids are less interested or skilled in reading and academia, and Mike's character arc in the original novel heavily confronted issues of racial prejudice. It was why Mike was targeted by the town's alpha bully squad to begin with, one of whom was the son of a police officer who in turn had a history of racial hatred toward Mike's whole family. These elements were only lightly implicit if present at all in the new adaptation, and it feels kind of like they were watered down either because nobody cared enough about them or somebody at some level of production wanted to tip-toe around a potentially "controversial" (and therefore money-costing) topic.
I LIKED: Atmosphere and CinematographyStranger Things, a series I admittedly couldn't get myself that into, did a good job of recapturing the darkly magical feel of 80's fantasy adventure films, and IT expands reasonably well on what is sure to be a trend for the next few years. I hate to sound like one of those nostalgia geekos, but 80's movies really did have a unique sense of wonderment Hollywood has had difficulty recapturing in the decades since.
Everything in IT feels like it has an emotional weight. The kind of wistful, mysterious tone you feel in dreams and can't quite put into easy words. The town of Derry, Maine felt like every place I'd been that I could never see again, whether my memories of those places were good ones or bad ones, and like the book, the kids really managed to feel like friends I might have actually forgotten from my own childhood.
I DISLIKED: That Horror Movie MusicThis is a complaint I have with the last ten to twenty years worth of movies as a whole, and I guess it's not fair to expect a dismantling of every trend at once, but like almost every other scary movie coming out of modern Hollywood, IT's soundtrack truly does not know when it needs to shut the hell up, and it loudly telegraphs every single scare to the point that nothing ever really gets a chance to surprise us.
We really, really don't need loud noises to tell us that a scene is frightening. We don't. It's the dramatic equivalent of a sitcom laugh track, and it only makes it harder for the audience to muster an emotional reaction when a bunch of violins are already doing it for us.
I LIKED: Richie, and the Best Ever Balance of Comedy and TerrorI said in my first review that I don't remember even one joke Richie made in either the novel or the miniseries, despite the fact that jokes are his definitive character trait. Not so for 2017 Richie, whose sense of humor is as generically juvenile and gross as every real child I knew during the real 1980's, but whose sheer delivery of that juvenile grossness is downright uproarious.
Seriously, this kid is on FIRE every time he opens his mouth to eject another groanworthy quip about penises or somebody's mom or some sort of combination of those two things, and I cannot begin to describe the almost supernatural sense of timing on display. Nothing makes a bad joke funnier than dropping when you least expect but most desperately need to laugh at something, and just about every time we're winding down from IT's most violent and harrowing moments, our palates are cleansed by another of Richie's sweet, refreshing, carefully rationed dick puns like some sort of dick pun mana from dick pun heaven.
This isn't even to say that Richie is the only lovingly curated dash of humor amidst the horror. Even some of the film's best-executed are presented to us in "OH SHIT" moments that manage to be as funny as they are tense without compromising either quality. This is a genuinely horrifying movie and a genuinely funny movie, yet you can't rightfully call it a "horror comedy." It's a horror that knows how to use comedy, and it's hard to recall another time that was pulled off so effectively.
I DISLIKED: Beverly vs. Creepy Directing ChoicesWe all sighed in collective relief to know that the orgy in the sewers was once again left on the cutting room floor, but this iteration of the story apparently felt it had to compensate by inventing two entirely new moments that get a thirteen year old girl down to her underwear. Her bullying at school now also revolves around sexual rumors, we get a scene of her acting flirtatious to distract a pedophilic old man and her father's abuse is now implied to be more sexual as well.
This last point is arguably something important to acknowledge in media and makes Beverly's ultimate retaliation against her father all the more meaningful, but again, none of this stuff was in the book. Besides the sewer scene that came flying clear out of the wild blue, Stephen King never wrote much about Beverly's sexuality, so why does this movie go well out of its way to insert that theme throughout the story of this one little kid who also happens to be the only female present? It feels, at best, like a forced attempt to be "more mature" in a movie already about a child-eating monster.
Another, whole different thing also sucks about this movie's handling of Beverly, and that's that, I shit you not, the only girl gets captured by the bad guy and has to be rescued, which you may recognize as one of the most widely panned writing cliches in the history of storytelling, and this one isn't just something that wasn't in the book, but the exact opposite of what was in the book.
Nobody was originally kidnapped and held for ransom by Pennywise. The kids always chose of their own volition to hunt the monster down, and it was Beverly specifically whose exceptional aim with a slingshot wounded the monster, drove it back into hiding and proved to the kids that it just might by permanently killable. As with Mike, I can't think of any logical reason to remove such definitive moments for these characters, let alone just to replace one with a plot point that a toddler can recognize as overplayed.
I LIKED: The Kids Themselves.Even with some major writing flaws to work around, the kids in this movie are full of personality and their dialog feels natural and real. They definitely act, for the most part, like a lot of kids their age would have acted forty years ago and often still act to this day, their struggles feel serious, their feelings are easy to sympathize with, and they all have a sweet, sincere chemistry together you can tell wasn't strictly on-screen.
You feel like you're watching real kids having real fun together because you are. You can easily tell what a blast they had working together to play these characters and tell this story, and it's infectious. It's a sharp contrast to so many other films, especially horror films, in which you can almost feel the exhaustion and bitterness of a child actor reciting the same stilted dialog for the eighth hour in a row.
I...ALSO LIKED: The HorrorSo it looks like I ran out of major "dislikes."
IT obviously has a lot of freedom when it comes to its horror content, with an entity capable of warping reality and manifesting custom monsters for every one of its victims. Not every scare in the movie works for me, but I never got the sense that they were all really meant to, because our monster whips out basically every style of fright in the book.
We get corny jump scares, certainly, but we also get some subtler dread and surrealism (soundtrack notwithstanding). Corpses dissolve before our eyes, the "leper" from the book shows up weirder and more monstrous than I ever would have envisioned, a twitching headless figure displays an unexplained but haunting penchant for easter eggs, and then there's the entity the fans refer to as either Flute Lady or more commonly that god damn painting... which Stephen King himself praised as having "scared the shit" out of him, and I might very well have to rank somewhere in my top five or six horror movie moments ever.
I LIKED: The Final BattleThis may qualify as the biggest spoiler in this review, but I'm not sure that any number of words can ruin just how thrilling the film's climax turns out to be. In the original IT, our heroes merely drive the monster deeper into the sewers with a single, perfect strike.
In this version? We get an all-out brawl as a pack of battered and abused children are finally pushed a step too far by a monster that was absolutely not prepared to deal with the consequences of that. Anything you can describe as a "fight sequence" normally does about as much for me as any meaningless jumble of noise and motion, but I was invested in every single minute of what essentially represents the ultimate throw-down between fear itself and childhood itself.
The kids of the "losers club" aren't just diverse in their backgrounds, but diverse in the degree and nature of bullying, abuse and trauma that they suffer through. They're symbolic stand-ins for children in general, and IT is a symbolic stand-in for everything that threatens, torments and preys upon children. IT is the reason these six children have parents as neglectful and bullies as bloodthirsty as they do, and few things in any movie have ever been as satisfying as watching six children wail on that like a goddamn pinata.
IT does a few things that either really disappointed me or just kind of irked me, but it's impossible to write off a movie that also does some things almost too right for its own good, since I'm honestly not feeling like the second chapter can live up to the neatly contained package that is the first. Though the time skip and interplay between past and future was a central theme of the novel, I...actually...really don't feel like I care about the middle-aged adults these characters are going to turn into. I really don't feel like the rest of the story necessarily needs to be told.
But, on the other hand, I initially didn't feel like this part of the story needed a modern remake, and I turned out to be mostly wrong. The butchering of some characters isn't something I can just forgive and forget about, but I feel like other parts of this movie breathed life into aspects of horror, if not filmmaking itself, that I'd all but given up on every seeing again.
Tune in September 2019, then, to find out how I end up feeling about chapter two.