Saturday, January 20, 2018

"It": review


"It" (or "It: Chapter One") is a 2017 horror film directed by Andy Muschietti and starring Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs (who looks a hell of a lot like a very young Muhammad Ali... he's going to grow into that role, mark my words), Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, and Jackson Robert Scott. The movie is based on part of the 1986 novel It by Stephen King.

The town of Derry, Maine, has suffered more than its share of people gone missing, especially children (more than six times the national average), and the statistics seem to spike every twenty-seven years. It's 1988, and little Georgie Denbrough is out in the rain, chasing after the paper boat that his older brother Bill has made for him. The boat plops into a storm drain, and when Georgie reaches the drain, he encounters a feral-eyed clown inside the gutter who calls himself "Pennywise the Dancing Clown." Pennywise offers Georgie the boat, and when the little boy reaches for it, the clown transforms into something demonic that rips Georgie's arm off and kills him. Georgie's body is dragged into the sewer, and Bill and his family must deal with the grief of losing Georgie. Bill, devastated, is convinced his little brother is missing; his father, meanwhile, is sure the boy is dead. (In the novel, a neighbor finds Georgie's mangled body, so the Denbroughs know for sure that Georgie is dead.)

In the summer of 1989, the malevolent presence inhabiting the sewers of Derry makes itself known, through a spate of horrific visions that only children can see, to a group of friends known as the Losers, of which Bill is the leader. Each member of this group is dealing with personal demons: Beverly lives with a sexually abusive father and has an undeserved reputation as the school slut; Ben, the new kid in town, is fat and constantly taunted; Eddie is a hypochondriac thanks to his overbearing mother; Stan is nervous and neurotic; Mike has the misfortune of being black and living in a small town stocked with too many racists; Richie is constantly in trouble thanks to his foul mouth and cruel wit. After a series of encounters, both while alone and while together, with the being the kids call "It," the group begins to realize that they can defeat the monster—which tends to manifest as a clown, but which also, boggart-like, manifests as the thing each kid fears most—as long as they stick together. Beverly ends up being kidnapped by It, and the rest of the Losers go in search of her.

I read the novel so long ago that it's now hard for me to remember how closely the events in the movie match those in the book. I recall a chapter called "The Apocalyptic Rock Fight" that happens fairly far along in the plot, but in the movie, the rock fight seems to happen rather early. There were other parts of the movie that didn't seem to match my fuzzy recall of the book, but I'm not about to reread the thousand-plus-page novel—which was a chore to get through the first time—just to confirm my intuitions.

One of the biggest problems I had with the novel is also one of the problems I had with this movie: the creature itself doesn't seem to make any sense. By the time we're into the final part of the novel, we've learned that the thing is some sort of alien that crash-landed on Earth millions of years ago. But it's not an entirely biological alien—it's also spiritual or metaphysical: it feeds on abstractions like fear and delights in conflict and division, much like sinister Leland Gaunt from King's other novel, Needful Things. (Gaunt, at least, made sense because he was essentially the Devil.) If the creature feeds on fear, though, then how did it snare Georgie Denbrough? Georgie, barely seven, was a bit leery of Pennywise, to be sure, but he reached into the sewer to retrieve his paper boat all the same. Late in the movie, Bill encounters the monster's simulacrum of dead Georgie; the simulacrum begs Bill to take the boy back home, but Bill walks up to the illusion and uses Mike's captive-bolt pistol to "kill" Georgie, thus breaking the creature's spell and, perhaps, injuring it temporarily. So my question is: if the monster can read minds and determine each child's greatest fear, why was it unable to suss out that Bill had intended to kill faux-Georgie all along? And while we're on the topic of things about It that don't make sense: if the monster is able to recover, like Wolverine, from the various blows the kids deal It during the final battle in the sewer, why does the demonic clown act injured and retreat?

I remember that, toward the end of the novel, the kids have to engage in something called the Ritual of Chüd in order to combat It. The monster turns out to be vast and ancient, and there is a countervailing cosmic force that helps the kids—a being in the form of a turtle as superannuated as It (why the malevolent being is a shape-shifting alien while the benevolent beast is a recognizably terrestrial turtle is another mystery that turned me off from the story, but this first chapter of the movie saga doesn't deal with cosmic turtles). The ritual, if I recall correctly, involves some mutual tongue-biting as well as the chanting of certain sacred phrases. I don't remember much more than that, but I'm morbidly curious as to how the story is going to play out in the second film, "Chapter Two." Another thing to look forward to is the adult Beverly's sudden recollection that one of the ways in which the kids had "combined" their powers was for all the boys in the group to have sex with Beverly. That's going to be a bit awkward to portray on screen, especially in the current prudish sexual climate.

So I felt the monster didn't make much sense. While I hate to say this about a Stephen King novel, I found the monster, and the story as a whole, poorly written, with the poor writing transferring over into the movie. And the net result, consistent with my current inability to be frightened by any horror films, is that I ended up more bored than scared while watching "It." There were parts of the film that were truly horrible, and which did produce a strong emotional—even visceral—reaction in me, but none of those moments had anything to do with the film's nonsensical antagonist. Pennywise simply wasn't scary. It could be that this is a type of horror that doesn't affect me: some people are sincerely freaked out by clowns, and I'm not one of them. I'm also not freaked out by jump scares, especially when the movie's scenes are written badly enough to telegraph each scare in an utterly cliché manner. And yes, "It" is full of standard horror-movie clichés, the most prevalent one being Separation from the Group. (That brings up another plot-logic problem: the monster is fully aware that the kids, as a group, possess a power they don't have as individuals. Knowing this, why does the monster kidnap Beverly, thus provoking the rest of the Losers to go after It as a group? This makes no tactical sense. Luckily for the monster, lone members of the group follow the standard horror-movie script and wander off randomly.)

"It" includes things that horrify and revolt: Beverly's disgusting, lecherous father is a good example. So is Eddie's bloated, domineering mother, who keeps Eddie on placebos, convincing him he's riddled with all sorts of diseases when he is, in fact, just fine. The racism of evil juvie delinquent Henry Bowers and his gang is pretty repugnant, and there's a scene—that is actually very hard to look at—in which Eddie falls through the floor of an old house and breaks his arm. These very human aspects of the story, both in the movie and in King's novel, were without a doubt the best things about it. I remember reading the rock-fight chapter and mentally cheering the Losers as they fought back against Henry Bowers and his gang, eventually driving the older boys into an ignoble retreat. These were good moments.

But the creature feels almost as if it's getting in the way of a potentially better story. With so much human evil in evidence in Derry, it's almost as though the creature doesn't need to be there at all: things are shitty enough for our young protagonists. The Pennywise we see in this film—ably played this time around by Bill Skarsgård, who has the unenviable task of trying to do an original take on a Joker impression—is an amped-up, CGI-driven version of the Pennywise from the 1990s TV-movie version of the clown, then played by Tim Curry. The 2017 Pennywise retains some of the same goofy traits as the old TV version, with the practical effects often being bad enough (I'm talking about the 2017 movie) to break my suspension of disbelief. Specifically, there's a moment in the middle of the movie when Beverly manages to spear the clown through the head, and Pennywise's face is half-morphed between the regular clown look and a more demonic, fanged look that I found utterly unimpressive. Stan finds himself pursued by a ghoulish woman (Pennywise in his "thing you fear the most" guise) whose twisted face looks hilariously like Marilyn Manson's. An attack on Eddie by a leper (Pennywise again) also left me cold, as did Beverly's moment in her bathroom in which she ended up drenched by fountaining gouts of blood; that reminded me of nothing so much as a scene from one of the "Evil Dead" movies. And speaking of tropes from other films: the flickering lights that greet the kids' lone encounters with Pennywise come straight out of "The Exorcist," as well as from many, many other horror movies. Not impressed, guys.

The novel It switches back and forth between the 1950s and the 1980s; the movie updates this so that the kids' story takes place in the late 1980s, and there's no decade-switching. "Chapter Two" will doubtless take place 27 years later, when the monster is hungry again around 2015, with Obama still comfortably in the White House. The movie's callbacks to the 80s were charming at times (I loved the Molly Ringwald gibe); at other moments, the 80s references did nothing for me because they were references to things I hadn't been into back in that decade—certain types of music, for example. The costumes and set design, too, felt a bit "out of time" for me; sometimes, the styles successfully evoked the 80s; at other times, I felt the film could just as easily have been taking place in the 1950s.

Having said all that, I can say that the film wasn't entirely a waste. If I had more of a religious-anthropology or cultural-anthropology background, I'd be fascinated by the way the movie delves into the primitivity of ritual and sacrament: the scene in which the kids help Beverly clean up her blood-soaked bathroom, for example, has a deeply sacramental tone. The kids prove themselves open to ritual at many moments throughout the story, especially when they swear the blood oath to return to fight the creature at the very end. When Beverly returns Bill's kiss before they part ways, her bloodied hand on the side of Bill's face is a sort of chrism. They've blessed each other. These were the moments that caught my attention, along with all the human-scale horror.

I've spoken with atheist friends and acquaintances who have reacted to "The Exorcist"—which I find genuinely creepy and disturbing—the way I reacted to "It." Your background strongly determines how you react to certain kinds of horror, I think. In my case, given my Christian upbringing (and despite the fact that I'm an off-the-scale liberal, nontraditional Christian), I suppose I'm more open to being creeped out by the notion of dark, demonic forces. Nonbelievers will obviously view such things as ridiculous, so they won't be susceptible to the power of religion-fueled horror. But I must say that, aside from the lingering eeriness of "The Exorcist," most horror movies do nothing for me these days. I hardly jump at all, and if anything, I'm more likely to laugh scornfully as stupid characters die on screen.

All in all, I didn't like "It" very much. The acting by the kids, the teens, and the creepy adults was just fine, and Bill Skarsgård does the best he can in a weird role, but it's the lame, nonsensical story that is, for me, the primary problem. Finally, there's this: if the creature is an alien, then why does it thrive on humanity's moral foibles? Why would an alien have any notion of human morality at all? And if this thing is, in fact, some sort of cosmic being on the order of a god or devil, why did it crash-land in a spaceship? I can hear James Kirk asking, in "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," "What does God need with a starship?"

1 comment:

John from Daejeon said...

I highly recommend The Exorcist. It's just a shame that the Disney-FOX merger will kill off any chance we have of a season 3. But the 2, too short, mini-seasons of the TV program can be easily viewed in a weekend.

As a fan of the original film, and book, I wasn't too keen on watching a TV take on the source material, but I can now say that this is one of the few instances where the source material is vastly enriched and improved upon. Which is wonderful considering the 4 sequel/prequel turds that followed, and greatly tarnished, the original film.