It Chapter One (2017)

*. OK, just to put this up front: I like Stephen King’s novel It. A product of his most productive and creative period in the 1980s, It stands in many ways as the definitive King novel (that’s for reasons both good and ill), and is one of his best books overall. At least I’d rate it in the top ten. I also really liked the television miniseries they made out of it that aired in 1990, with Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
*. It’s a big book and the screenplay here (as in 1990) does away with all the mythology about the It creature and where it came from. A wise decision. We didn’t need to hear about the Macroverse, the “Ritual of Chüd,” or the Turtle. It’s also pretty unfaithful to the novel in other ways as well, like the different forms It takes, but again I think this is for the best. I’d rather watch Pennywise than the Universal all-stars doing the monster mash. Then again, the supporting cast for Pennywise isn’t good. The Leper looks like he stumbled out of a Fulci flick and the headless soldier in the library basement and the Modigliani that comes to life are laughable.
*. Having said all this, and cognizant of the good reviews this movie received pretty much across the board, I went into it feeling optimistic. And to be sure, it’s not a bad movie. But I still found it disappointing.
*. In the first place, it impressed me immediately as overdrawn. Some of this is due to the source material, like King’s familiar device of terrorized children in a world where parents are either totally absent or monsters. Some of it is in the script. What was the point of Mike’s grandfather telling Mike that “There are two places you can be in this world. You can be out here like us, or you can be in there like them.” With the “them” being sheep about to be slaughtered. This is rather heavy-handed, and what kind of a life lesson is it? Add in the way it just comes out of nowhere and you’ve got some pretty awful writing going on.
*. Then there is the obviousness of it all. The way, for example, that the kids are constantly being separated in the most predictable and far-fetched ways imaginable (Richard Brody found the scares “foreshadowed as if by telegram”). Or look at that final showdown with Pennywise. First we have Billy killing the phantom Georgie, which we know is coming minutes before he pulls the trigger. Then there’s Richie’s declaration that he’s got to kill the fucking clown, which also comes way after we know what he’s going to do. If you just want cheer lines, which is what both of these moments are, then you have to make them at least somewhat surprising so that they come as an actual relief.
*. Now let’s talk about Pennywise. The star. It is his show, after all, and he’s obviously enjoying himself putting it on, so you’d better enjoy it too.
*. Bill Skarsgård received near universal praise for his performance, and it has a lot to recommend. I like his big baby head, and what he does with his lips and the way he drools. Is his voice too high-pitched? Well, it’s different. I definitely didn’t care for his mouth full of CGI though, and if I had to pick I still think I’d take Tim Curry’s version as more threatening.
*. The thing is though, this Pennywise isn’t scary. He rarely seems like much of a threat, just jumping out and yelling “Boo!” at the kids so that they run away. Plus, you know the gang are all coming back for Chapter Two anyway so nothing can happen to them now.
*. What makes this worse is the fact that Pennywise (or It) could have killed the kids several times over if he hadn’t spent so much time talking. I realize he likes to scare the heck out of them first to season the meat, but after a while you’d think he’d get to the point and go for the kill. It’s what he did with Georgie, after all.

*. I think my problems with Pennywise go deeper than this, however. He’s just not a great movie monster or screen villain. I’m not talking about Skarsgård here but the character. Pennywise looks great, but he has no personality. He also has no good lines. His signature tag about how everyone floats is only weird and enigmatic without being quotable.
*. This is all the more disappointing since, as I understand it (drawing mainly from King’s book), Pennywise is an ancient, incredibly powerful being of great intelligence. He seems capable of anything. I mean, how does he get that knife into Henry Bowers’s mailbox? I get that he has the ability to control the minds of pretty much everyone, all the time, but can he manipulate reality as well? How many laws of physics can he break? And, the most pressing question of all, why the hell has such a god-like entity decided the place it wants to live is in the sewers of a hick town like Derry?
*. Unfortunately, as underwhelming as Pennywise is, you spend most of the movie just waiting for his next appearance. The gang of self-styled losers aren’t very interesting. If you’re into that whole coming-of-age, kids riding their bikes around on summer holidays thing then I think you’re likely to enjoy the movie more than I did. Personally, I didn’t buy it, I didn’t much like any of the kids, and the rest of the movie wasn’t very scary. Time and again we get attractive set-piece scenes that don’t even seem meant to scare us so much as impress us in some aesthetic way. Is Beverly’s bathroom filling up with blood scary? Pennywise holding the inverted pyramid of red balloons? It’s like director Andy Muschietti was trying to be iconic without being frightening. It makes for a great trailer, but this movie is two hours and fifteen minutes long.
*. So if you’re (still) a fan of Stand by Me, The Goonies, or the retro TV show Stranger Things then you might like this iteration of It. I didn’t care for the idea of a remake being such a throwback. Nostalgia and horror are an awkward mix. But perhaps this was how it had to play, given how the dates require that this Chapter One has to be set in the 1980s, and given how King always roots our feelings of terror in childhood experiences. But I think there’s more to it than this. It just feels like a movie past its time.

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