SHOULD I SEE IT?
Is this the most anticipated film of the fall? Sure feels like it right now. The ticket line starts over there.
Comparisons will and should be made to "Stranger Things" and Stand By Me, but It is a film that offers some clever and intense moments all its own.
The cast of young actors is stellar and Bill Skarsgård's turn as Pennywise the Dancing Clown is one of the best horror film performances in a long, long time.
Never able to pay off the crazy hype those trailers and vignettes delivered, It is not as good a movie as you think it is.
King's book was written in 1986 and let's just say that some of what was palatable to audiences back then, plays far more differently and uncomfortably in 2017.
Those with a sensitivity to clowns (naturally) should stay away. However, the movie does often place kids in very uncomfortable scenes of peril, with themes and topics that could be triggering to some viewers.
I'm 6 years old. First grade. October 31, 1980. My friend Jeff and I are going trick-or-treating on a rainy, stormy night, with Jeff's family, high school-aged cousins, and some other high school kids "watching us." Things are good for a bit - the pillowcase is getting heavy, I forget about the rain every time a strange hand drops a candy bar or two into my bag. I am looking awesome in my T-Ball uniform, which served as my costume for the night.
At one point, a loud rumbling of gruff voices populated the evening's festivities. As it turns out, the high school kids watching over us had friends ambush them as a prank. Pushing, shoving, cursing, all of it was happening around Jeff and I. Then suddenly, I got knocked down and tackled from behind by one of those rogue invaders.
As I gathered myself and went to grab my pillowcase, a hand squeezed my wrist, then grabbed my bag of treats. Though I don't quite recall what was said, a giant clown's face, plastered on the front of my candy thief's head, shared an elongated maniacal look and laugh inches from my tearful face. I screamed out loudly, terrified, and didn't realize until moments later that the clown took my candy and stole my baseball cap in the process.
Jeff and his family took us back to his house. My parents picked me up. I was so upset, I missed school the following Monday. I didn't trick-or-treat again until a few years later.
To this day, I despise Halloween and hate clowns. I just do. So, now, fast-forward to 2017 and you can imagine my delight when an unsuspecting trailer surfaced for the latest adaptation of Stephen King's mega-novel It. This was no Tim Curry, with dollar store teeth, starring in a campy television miniseries. This felt real to me. A 7-year-old boy, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), is stuck in a rainstorm and loses a paper boat down a storm drain. Looking into the storm drain, he finds a terrifying man in clown makeup holding the boat just out of arm's length. He introduces himself as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
Hoping the movie would be a low budget knock-off I could easily ignore, I recognized immediately that the artistry in this trailer was something special. Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) proved to be both frightening and intoxicating, and the little boy, innocent, charming, and hopelessly unaware of where this was all headed.
Then I thought: "Damn. I am going to have to sit through this, aren't I?"
And now I have. And save a couple of crazy, bonkers moments, I survived. I still hate clowns and see no purpose for them in any way, shape, or form. But I can admit that I didn't hate It. And that is progress I suppose.
Many are already familiar with King's exhaustive and diabolical 1,138 page novel, and it might be a slight spoiler to indicate you don't get the whole adaptation here. However, this is worth mentioning because, even at 135 minutes, audiences will not be anticipating how youth-focused this film truly is.
Those details served as a pleasant surprise to me, even if the children's characters continually find themselves surrounded by harrowing and disquieting domestic and supernatural horror, finding their personal fears presented to them by a crazed and demonic killer circus clown.
Director Andy Muschetti (Mama) creates It by way of Netflix's "Stranger Things" or the iconic King adaptation Stand By Me. We become fond of "The Losers", a growing membership of 13-year-old misfit kids in Derry, Maine. Together, they find a bond of friendship, which includes trying to avoid a second group of kids - an older faction of bullies dubbed the Bowers Gang, after their psychopathic leader Henry (Nicholas Hamilton).
"The Losers" provide the film's heart, and offer consistently winning moments, as the kids in the cast are tremendous, each separate and together. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is the brother of Georgie, declared missing since that fateful day spent talking with Pennywise. Richie (Finn Wolfhard, a "Stranger Things" alum) is a foul-mouthed troublemaker, while Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is an asthmatic hypochondriac and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is a quiet Jewish kid, who talks occasionally and stays around the periphery.
Soon, they welcome in kind-hearted Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the Bowers Gang's frequent target, Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and a girl named Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who finds an immediate friend in Ben and a crush of sorts with Bill.
Muschetti and his trio of writers, Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, give us significant time with these characters and we get to know them personally. The best moments live here, as the kids try to unravel the craziness they are all experiencing and seek reassurances that they will stick together no matter what transpires.
Malevolence does follow "The Losers" around, but It has pronounced difficulty communicating just how this whole "Pennywise-antagonizing-kids-thing" all works. We get some history, a timeline to consider. We have red balloons appearing randomly, lots of references to floating, and some cobbled together nonsense about how Pennywise can show kids their biggest fears and use those to attack them at their weakest and vulnerable.
If King's book feels epic and expansive in print, on screen, Muschetti's film falls victim to overplaying its hand one too many times. Additionally, It has something of an identity crisis, unsure just what kind of movie It wants to be.
On the one hand, this all masquerades effectively as a nostalgic, throwback to 1980's horror, with nods and winks to pop culture of the time period and a fair amount of humor tossed into the stew. Elsewhere, It legitimately wants to be terrifying and a cinematic amusement park ride into Hell.
With clever visual effects and proficient, purposeful editing from Jason Ballantine (The Great Gatsby), off-kilter jump cuts and alarming lunges toward the screen arrive in ample supply.
There are some troubling optics with how Muschetti and his writers handle some of the more dark and sinister elements of what "The Losers" and Henry Bowers are going through. Since crucial to the plot, I won't spoil anything here, but let's just say that I am reminded that things you could get away with in the 1980s may not play nearly as well with audiences in 2017.
The longer It goes, the longer It loses effectiveness. And although Pennywise, haltingly deranged and brilliantly conceived by Skarsgård, may be talked about for years to come, he really feels secondary to a film far more interested in exploring how kids connect, form lifelong connections, and trust one another to allow friendships to take root amid some horrific situations and circumstances.
Driving home from the "Scary Clown Movie", I chuckled at all the GIFs and memes my critic friends were sending me, and then recalled that I lost contact with Jeff when I moved during my first grade year. I have often wondered if he remembers that rainy, Friday night in 1980 like I still do.
Then again, his boat never drifted away from him now did it?
CAST & CREW
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Javier Botet, Tatum Lee, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes.
Director: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman
Adapted from the novel "It" by Stephen King
Release Date: September 8, 2017
New Line Cinema/Warner Bros.