Cinema Dispatch: IT

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IT and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures

Directed by Andy Muschietti

MAN this one takes me back!  I still have my grandfather’s copy of the book that I read in middle school; torn to shreds naturally considering how much I carried it around.  I’ve read a few Stephen King books here and there and I tend to like his style overall, but his movies are some of the most hit and miss films you could imagine; ranging from critically acclaimed masterpieces like The Shining to garbage you’ve never even heard of like Riding the Bullet.  IT is one of the weird ones as its one of the most definitive King books out there (not just in popularity but in terms of content as well) but it’s honestly… a little bit… weak.  Not saying it’s BAD, but there’ just SO much going on in there that it feels like several novels fighting for control of the narrative.  Heck, if The Dark Tower didn’t LITERALLY do this, I’d say it’s almost akin to mashup of everything King had done up to that point only without a single shred of restraint to keep the whole thing manageable; hence why the damn thing is so thick you could beat a man to death with it.  Still, we already got one adaptation of this story that everyone seems to like which means that someone EVENTUALLY had to take another crack at it for BRAND NAME RECOGNITION, but they at least had the foresight to make it a hard R movie instead of a PG-13 which works for SOME movies, but not for a story like IT.  Will this be the new standard for Stephen King adaptations, or will this be like The Dark Tower where I’m the only one out there who actually enjoyed it?  Let’s find out!!

The story of IT is set in the town of Derry (zero points if you can guess what state it’s in) where there’s been an unusual uptick in missing kid reports which has most of the town on edge; especially the kids themselves who fear they’ll be next.  We know what’s up though!  The first thing we see in the movie is little Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) falling victim to the supernatural menace that has been picking off kids left and right while taking the form of a really creepy looking clown known simply as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).  Everyone believes little Georgie to be dead, but his brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is convinced that he’s still out there and plans to find him by any means possible; including going into the spooky sewers that may be full of waste but could ALSO be full of answers!  His friends Richie, Stan, and Eddie (Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, and Jack Dylan Grazer) are helping him despite their better judgement and this circle of friends increases to include Mike, Ben and Beverly (Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray, and Sophia Lillis); all of whom are outcasts in one way or another and seem to be the only ones even TRYING to figure out what’s going on in their small town.  Will they find the answers they seek the further they delve into the town’s cryptic history?  What will Pennywise the clown do once he realizes these kids are onto him, and is there more to him than meets the eye?  How the heck are they gonna do in two hours what a TV movie couldn’t do in less than three!?  AND THEY HAD TIM CURRY TO HELP WITH THAT ONE!!

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“We’ll be right back after these messages…”

This is a really interesting film to review because it’s one of the few adaptations out there that you can say is as successful as it is by deviating so much from the source material, and it’s not even like they did so CONTENT wise as this is still very recognizably IT, but in how its paced and structured which is VASTLY different from the book and even the mini-series.  If the movie had run with that idea all the way through and truly made this its own completely original take on IT, than I think the film would have been slightly better than it is now.  As it stands, even the awkward moments that feel like they just had to be crammed into the film because it was in the book don’t do a lot to detract from this movie which make no mistake MIGHT be the best horror film of the year.  I’ll still probably give Get Out the edge in terms of sheer terrifying brilliance due to some REALLY obvious and regrettable flaws that exist in this even outside my minor quibbles with how they adapted this to the screen, but considering how bad the track record has been this year and how universally reviled horror remakes are in the first place; this feels like a watershed moment for both.  This is the kind of high concept story with rich characters that should be the norm when it comes to horror films and this kind of brazen go for broke visionary take on deeply ingrained source material is how remakes should always be approached.  It may not have Tim Curry telling lame jokes and turning into a stop motion puppet, but it’s still pretty damn good!

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Dude, how long did you spend making that?  Was it worth it?

Pretty much everything that works about this movie is in just how far they’ve deviated from the source material (and the mini-series) in order to tell this story in a completely new and incredibly compelling manner.  It’s been SO long since I’ve read the book and the mini-series is something I’ve only experienced in bits and pieces, but even with those cloudy memories I could still tell just how inspired and bold this movie is and how refreshingly DIRECT it is compared to the source material and the previous adaptation.  The one thing that was throwing me off the moment I heard about this project is that we’re focusing entirely on the kid story here and that a story about them as adults was to be made afterwards.  To me, that betrayed one of the few things that still sticks to me about the book, and that is its sense of scope.  I may not remember all the details of how they fought Pennywise in the sewer or what the adults did after they got back to Derry, but I remember that one kid Edward Corcoran dying horribly while trying to pull that “I don’t believe in you so you can’t hurt me” bullshit, or how Adriane got killed by the monster but the authorities still pinned the crime on some local thugs who were a menace to the whole town.  Hell, I don’t think either adaptation even touched upon the standpipe that a bunch of kids drowned in, but that’s something that still sticks with me from the book!  The idea that IT has existed for so long and that many people have encountered it in different ways was one of the more fascinating aspects of it, and while it’s touched on here as we go into the history of where IT might have come from, the movie takes a much different approach to the material which is the primary reason that it ends up working so well.  This movie is focused like a laser beam on these kids, their summer of terror, and every little detail that goes along with it.  It’s brilliant considering the kind of time and pacing restraints that a movie has compared to a novel (which can go all over the god damn place when King is writing them), and it’s probably the only way to effectively tell this story in this medium.  Yes, we all have fond memories of the mini-series (particularly for the Tim Curry parts), but there’s a reason that was three hours and split across two episodes.  If the goal was to turn this into a taut and thrilling two hour horror flick, then cutting out all the extraneous stuff and zeroing in on what people liked the most (the kids fighting the monster) was the absolute right decision and it’s why this may be one of the best adaptations from book to film we’ve gotten in quite some time.

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See?  Even the library is getting into the spooky spirit!

Even if we take away all the baggage that the previous iterations of this story bring to this film (not really a possible thing to do, but bear with me), it really is a fantastic horror film in its own right just in terms of how well the characters are fleshed out and how expertly crafted  the scares are.  Now I won’t say ALL of them work (Georgie’s death doesn’t look too great), but for the most part this manages to be very effective at building suspense and ratcheting up the fear.  Not only that, but this film is outright hilarious; something that isn’t all that easy to pull off in a horror film, but is a hallmark of some of the best out there.  Evil Dead 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street, even The Purge sequels manage to find that wonderful spot between scaring you and making you laugh (reactions that really aren’t that far from each other) and this might just be comparable to those classics.  The movie is a LITTLE bit shaky in its pacing as the transition from book to film left us with a few scenes that feel rather isolated in terms of the narrative (they can be interchanged with one another and you’d hardly notice), but it’s not enough to ruin the movie’s balance and is certainly a worthy tradeoff considering how the focused narrative manages to add so much to the movie overall.  It also means that our kid actors have to carry a lot more of the movie (it seems to intentionally have as few adults with prominent roles as possible) which they do rather impressively considering how often kid actors can be a drain on horror films.  Everyone in this is on point and giving a solid performance with the standouts being Spohia Lillis as Beverly who has SO much range in this, Nicholas Hamilton as the bully Henry who gets a lot more nuance here than in the mini-series (I honestly don’t remember much of him from the book), and my personal favorite Finn Wolfhard as Richie who’s the one constantly talking shit and manages to keep the material funny when it could easily have become grating.

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Don’t get too cute with me, movie!  That’s what we have The Dark Tower for!

Now the big question I’m sure everyone wants to know the answer to is how the new Pennywise played by Bill Skarsgård stands up to the Tim Curry version.  The best comparison I can make is between Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger as The Joker with one being a venerated actor playing up the comedic sensibilities of the character (while giving it a huge amount of gravitas) while the more modern interpretation strips a lot of the “fun” aspects of the character in favor of something more chilling and mysterious.  In this instance, I’m gonna have to go with the new version of the character simply because of how many resources were on hand to bring him to life like never before.  Sure, I miss the over the top bombast that Curry brought to his performance compared to the more understated and quiet one that Bill Skarsgård, but the resources on hand to bring this character to life as well as the more sinister tone his performance gives to the movie makes him a lot more effective as a horror villain.  I’m still not the biggest fan of Pennywise as a character though which is something that goes all the way back to the source material.  I just never understood what his motivation was beyond scaring people and how he doesn’t take VERY obvious and crucial steps towards self-preservation; a problem that’s brought over to this adaptation.  He really does have EVERY opportunity in the world to kill these kids just as easily as he kills Georgie, but never takes it because… well that wouldn’t be that great of a story, now would it?  IT would have certainly been a lot shorter, but I don’t think we’d be remembering this story if the all power alien/monster/whatever creature actually stopped our heroes in their tracks when they were starting to piece together what was going on.  On the bright side though, the finale of this film which takes place in his sewer lair is an absolute blast to watch and gives him plenty of chances to shine as a truly terrifying and nasty villain.

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“Who’s got two thumbs and is about to eat your face?”     “Um… Is it-”     “WWWWWAAAAAAAAAA!!”

Since we’re on the topic, there are a few additional flaws that are holding this back from being a truly great film.  The biggest piece of LOST IN TRANSLATION in this film has to do with the character of Michael; the black kid in the group who will HOPEFULLY get his due in the sequel where he plays a rather pivotal role, but is tertiary at best in this film.  This is where I’m gonna have to defer to others a bit because I legitimately don’t recall all the details for each of the characters, but from what I understand HE was the one in the book to be the history buff and to find out a lot of the stuff that Ben finds out in this film.  Even if that WASN’T the case in the books, the fact that he is given so little to do here feels like a gigantic oversight; especially considering how well characterized everyone else is.  Maybe this is the ONE big drawback to cutting out the present storyline entirely as I recall Mike being rather prominent there, but there’s no excuse for how underwritten and underutilized he is in this when compared to the rest of his friends; ESPECIALLY if they purposefully took aspects of his character out of the movie to give to someone else.  I’m also a LITTLE bit mixed on Beverly’s portrayal in this because I do like the way her story is handled and the actress is BEYOND perfect in this role… but the camera can feel a bit TOO gaze-y towards her considering she’s still a thirteen year old.  I get that the camera is trying to trying to visualize how the young boys see her and how the secondary villain in this is hormones and they at least had the foresight to cut out the plot point of her having sex with all the boys (King wasn’t the best at writing teenager girls), but it still felt a bit unnecessary and kind of creepy the few moments the camera blatantly objectified her.

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NOT IN THIS MOVIE!!

My other problem with the movie is proving to be somewhat controversial as I’ve gotten pretty much nothing but pushback from others when I try to bring it up, but then I’m not here to parrot what everyone else is saying; even if what my concerns are turn out to be completely unfounded.  To me, this movie is SUCH a good adaptation of what IT is about, that I can’t even FATHOM what they’re gonna do in the next movie and was really annoyed when the last five minutes of the film was nothing but clear sequel baiting in a movie that was damn near perfect all by itself.  Some will argue that it’s not sequel baiting because we KNOW there’s more to this story.  To that, I would argue that… no.  There really isn’t.  Again, my memories of IT are rather murky, but the book had quite a sense of scope to it that made the intergenerational plot line make sense with in it; not to mention how the story paced itself between scenes in the present and flashbacks to their childhoods.  We were getting the story of the Losers Club as we were being introduced to them as adults and it gave something for the initial modern day scenes (mostly disparate stories all across the country as we are introduced to each group member) something to focus on and tie us back to.  No matter where they were or what they were doing, each new person gave us more details about the past and the mysterious monster within it.  Here?  We’ve got all the answers we need!  Hell, we’ve got the perfect ending for this story!  There’s a reason Stephen King structured the present day scenes and the flashbacks the way that he did in the book, and now that we’ve seen a movie where they were completely unnecessary… well, what function do they serve now?  How are the scenes where one of the characters calls everyone up to come back to Derry now that we don’t have the flashbacks to pace those scenes out?  How is the decision one character makes gonna make sense considering how complete and robust the character arcs are in THIS movie?  What could we POSSIBLY gain from having another confrontation with Pennywise when the one in this film ended so perfectly?  Sure, I was surprised this movie turned out as well as it did and I’m certainly open to the sequel surprising me, but with everything I saw here and what I remember being left of the story, I just can’t see it being even CLOSE to the same level that this film is and with the way it ended, it can’t help but always be tied to whatever comes next; good, bad, or absolutely dreadful.

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This is gonna be me at the Chapter 2 screening, isn’t it?

If you in any way enjoy horror films, you’ll definitely find something to like here; even if you’re not the biggest King fan in the world.  There’s so much that this movie does right as a MOVIE that it almost manages to stand on its own as something wholly separate from the source material.  It’s not quite there considering some of the flaws do tie back directly to problems in the book (particularly with Pennywise’s ambiguous power level), but there’s more than enough to enjoy here whether or not you’ve read the book or have seen the mini-series.  I’d certainly recommend seeing it in a theater as it really is that good of a movie, but for something like this you want to get that FULL immersive experience of seeing it in a dark theater with loud speakers and a giant screen.  Just make sure that no one else in the theater is wearing clown makeup before you take your seat.  I mean sure, it’s PROBABLY just an overeager fan, but do you REALLY want to take that risk?

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