It (2017) It/It, Chapter 1 (2017) **½

     A few writers have voices so distinctive that movies adapted from their works constitute subgenres unto themselves. Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft are probably the most obvious examples. I say “Poe movie,” and you know immediately to expect family curses, Byronic antiheroes with undiagnosible nervous afflictions, horrible crimes committed on a whim by people who can’t subsequently account for their behavior, and victims buried alive, whether accidentally or on purpose. I say “Lovecraft movie,” and you know at once that you’re in for cloistered weirdoes worshipping monstrosities with unpronouncible names, isolated communities of genetic degenerates, and a diabolical old book or two. And you know to expect those things even when the film in question is in no sense faithfully adapted from its supposed basis— which is most of the time. Since about 1983, Stephen King has been another of those one-man subgenres. With him, though, it’s a little harder to pinpoint the major signifiers, since King tends to write within the expected parameters of other recognized categories. To find the telltale heart of his writing, you have to look past the surface trappings of vampire or haunted house or animal attack or alien invasion stories. So what makes a King movie a King movie, apart from the obvious fact of him having written the source material? Small-town settings, for starters, especially small towns in New England. Children and adolescents (plus the occasional adult, to be sure) with paranormal talents or preternatural relationships. Horrible homecomings are another big one. And perhaps most of all, you can just about count on a Stephen King movie involving the incursion of something monstrous into the formerly unremarkable lives of formerly undistinguished people.

     King seems to be having a moment again after fifteen years or so out of favor among movie producers. (Too many direct-to-video Children of the Corn sequels can’t be good for a person’s reputation, I suppose.) Oddly, though, the strongest single driver of his cinematic rehabilitation has nothing directly to do with him at all. Just take a look at the present version of It, and you’ll see what I mean. This film took fully seven years to advance from green light to release, shedding entire casts and creative teams along the way. Two of the minor players in that prolonged drama were twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, who aspired at one point to direct It, but were turned down because New Line Cinema’s leadership wanted someone more experienced in the big chair. As It remained mired in Development Hell, the Duffer Brothers sold Netflix on an eight-episode miniseries in the Stephen King style, embodying some of the ideas they would have brought to New Line if given the chance. They even hired one of the kids from what became It’s final cast, since it wasn’t as though the stalled-out movie would be needing him any time soon. “Stranger Things,” the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix show, was more than just a hit. It came about as close to being the entertainment event of October 2016 as today’s minutely compartmentalized pop culture would permit, and its success was almost certainly the impetus that got It rolling again at last. That puts this movie in a rather awkward position. Despite being the elder project with the purer pedigree, it winds up looking like a bid to cash in on its own pastiche. And more inconveniently still, “Stranger Things” is in most respects the plainly superior handling of the material the two properties have in common.

     Before we delve into the movie, a few words about It the novel are in order. At over 1100 pages in hardcover, It was one of Stephen King’s longest books. It comes by most of that bulk honestly, however, for it is essentially a novel and its sequel running in parallel. Half the action is set in the summer of 1958, when a band of pubescent outcasts find themselves battling a child-eating monster of immense power and antiquity. The other half unfolds in what was then the present day, as those kids, all grown up now, reunite to finish off the creature (which turns out to be not half as dead as they’d allowed themselves to believe 27 years before). The film version tackles only the children’s story, which it updates to the late 1980’s in order to preserve the intended lag time between Then and Now. The rematch between the grownups and their old nemesis will presumably be covered in a sequel.

     Anyway, we begin in 1988, with the little Maine town of Derry gripped by several straight days of torrential rain. Elevenish Bill Denbrough (Midnight Special’s Jaeden Lieberher) is confined to bed by a miserable cold, and his little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), is going stir crazy cooped up in the house. Bill shows Georgie how to make a boat out of folded-up newspaper and sealing wax, then turns his brother loose to sail the SS Georgie down the flooded gutters of their neighborhood. Georgie, alas, is not a very attentive skipper, and his boat washes straight down a storm drain just a few blocks from home. The boy gets one hell of a surprise when he squats down beside the drain in the hope of fishing the SS Georgie out again. There’s a clown down there under the sidewalk! The sewer-clown (Bill Skarsgård, of Allegiant) introduces himself as Pennywise, and assures Georgie that his boat is safe. See? Here it is. Pennywise will be happy to give it back, too, but Georgie will have to scrunch down as close as possible to the drain so that he and the clown can reach each other. The boy does as he’s told, at which point the sewer-clown grows about eleventy thousand lamprey-like teeth and bites his fucking arm off! Then Pennywise drags what’s left of Georgie down into the drain, never to be seen again.

     A year later, Georgie is just one of who knows how many kids to go missing in Derry. Also, the town’s twelve-year-olds all seem to be having horrible hallucinations. Rabbi’s son Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff) is tormented by the creepy lady from the neo-cubist painting his father (Ari Cohen) keeps hung up in his office at the synagogue, who won’t stay put on her canvas. Orphan Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) keeps almost seeing the charbroiled ghosts of his parents, who died in a fire that might or might not have been a case of racist arson. Eddie Kaspbrack (Jack Dylan Grazer, from Tales of Halloween), whose mother (Molly Atkinson) has carefully inculcated him with a million forms of hypochondria, is chased by a leprous street person outside a long-abandoned house. Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new boy in town, encounters a headless child-specter in the basement of the public library after reading up on some unsavory local history. Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis)— who you’d think would have more than enough to worry about with her abusive, incest-eager father (Stephen Bogaert, of American Psycho and Antisocial 2)— is attacked by phantom voices, a geyser of blood, and grasping tendrils of Sadako-hair from the drain in her bathroom sink. And Bill, inevitably, sees a resentful revenant Georgie. Seemingly the only kid in Derry who doesn’t have some kind of terrifying run-in with the inexplicable is foul-mouthed, bespectacled Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard, the aforementioned loan-out to the cast of “Stranger Things”). It should be obvious enough that whatever is behind these manifestations is the same thing that took Georgie Denbrough and the others.

     Mind you, the children of Derry live under a more mundane threat as well, in the form of teenaged psychopath Henry Bowers (The Dark Tower’s Nicholas Hamilton) and his pals, Belch Huggins (Jake Simon), Victor Criss (Logan Thompson), and Patrick Hockstetter (Owen Teague, of Cell). Henry’s one goal in life is to become vicious enough to impress his old man (Stuart Hughes, from Gnaw: Food of the Gods, Part 2)— which is a demanding standard indeed, since Mr. Bowers is the kind of cop who seems destined to be put on administrative leave one day for getting caught on video emptying two clips into an unarmed black teen and then tazing the corpse. By a curious twist of fate, it’s the quotidian menace of the Bowers gang that forges Bill, Ben, Beverly, Mike, Eddie, Stan, and Richie into a force fit to tangle with monsters, for only after the latter kids band together to resist Henry do they become close enough friends to tell one another of the seemingly impossible scares they’ve endured this summer.

     Once the Losers’ Club kids recognize that they haven’t just been seeing things, the link between their paranormal experiences and the disappearing children becomes obvious. Further investigation leads them to the conclusion that outbreaks of evil like this one happen in Derry about once per generation, and seem always to be tied to two places: the sewers and the empty house on Neibolt Street where Eddie met his leper. Maybe that means the kids know enough to mount an attack on whatever it is that haunts their little town. They’d better hope so, because they definitely know enough to invite a preemptive attack on them.

     It is one of those vexing films that are packed with great stuff, but can’t hold it together to deliver on their promises. As a coming-of-age story, It is little short of brilliant. The juvenile cast is one of the best you’ll ever see (right up there with “Stranger Things,” in fact), and the character writing for the Losers’ Club is top-notch, even if It has trouble finding steady occupation for all seven kids. Beverly’s bravery, Richie’s smart mouth, Ben’s unstinting loyalty, Mike’s conflict between his innate sentimentality and the toughness his grandfather always tries to instill in him— all come across loud and clear. Best of all, so does Bill’s seemingly inexhaustible kindness and decency, which It never shies away from or undercuts as corny or unsophisticated. I don’t even mind that Eddie’s and Stan’s characterizations are mostly limited to their respective neuroses, given the vividness and compassion with which those neuroses are portrayed. The various forms of adult dysfunction on display receive less nuance and more condemnation, but that’s arguably fair in a story told from a child’s point of view. The one really false note on the film’s non-fantastical side concerns Henry Bowers, and is largely an artifact of the setting shift. Bowers was believable coming from the 50’s, when boys were basically allowed to run feral (at least if my father’s tales of his childhood can be given any credence). The way I remember the 80’s, though, this level of violence, cruelty, and malfeasance in such a small community would have provoked an intervention that not even the son of a crooked cop could dodge. In 1989, this Henry Bowers would be in reform school, not Derry Junior High.

     The trouble is, nobody’s going to be watching It for the coming-of-age stuff. No, if that’s what we wanted, we’d all just go rent Stand by Me again, right? We’re watching It for the nightmare-powered, child-eating sewer-clown, but every time Pennywise shows up, this movie falls flat on its face. The problem is twofold. Most conspicuously, the combination of Bill Skarsgård’s performance and the Pennywise character design is just a dud all around. Unless you’re going all the way to parody, like Killer Klowns from Outer Space, an evil clown calls for a light touch. Clowns are nothing but creepy anyway, so there’s no need to make Pennywise look like a villain from a 1990’s Todd McFarlane comic, nor is there anything to be gained from playing him like an even broader version of Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad. It’s certainly no doing of Skarsgård’s that It is able to survive the moment when Beverly finds herself alone in the monster’s subterranean lair, and Pennywise rises from a pile of garbage doing a literal shuck-and-jive with a desperately baleful look on his face. The ham-fisted characterization also renders inescapable a question which the book just barely managed to deflect: why a clown, exactly? King excused Its favorite manifestation by saying it was calculated to lull children into a false sense of security, but there’s no chance of that flying here— not with Skarsgård and his makeup constantly hollering, “I’m scary, goddamnit! Scary, do you hear?!?!”

     The creature’s several other guises are preferable to Pennywise, but even the best of them (the headless phantom and the cubist she-monster) don’t quite have the desired effect in context. It’s a question of timing. With the book toggling back and forth between 1958 and 1985, King was able to insert the Losers’ early solo brushes with It wherever they were thematically appropriate. But the movie’s single timestream leaves no sensible alternative but strict chronological presentation. The result is like a junk-horror version of that famous moment from “The Oprah Winfrey Show”: “You get a jump scare! And you get a jump scare! And you get a jump-scare! EVERYBODY GETS A JUMP SCARE!!!!” The only times when It is as scary as it ought to be are the aftermath of the monster’s initial attack on Beverly (in which her father is disturbingly incapable of seeing the gallons of blood soaking every square inch of the bathroom) and the scene in which It bends Henry Bowers to its will. Indeed, the movie’s version of the latter is better than King’s own. Film Henry receives his marching orders not from the moon, but from the hideously chipper hostess of the daytime TV talk show his father fell asleep while watching, so that his tutorial in Introductory Murder comes in real time. Not coincidentally, that scene is also the only one in which the movie really conveys the vital impression that the thing living beneath Derry is responsible for the town’s abnormally high incidence of human evil as well as its own quarter-centennial child-killing sprees.

     I can’t say that It doesn’t deserve the success that it seems to be enjoying, because when it’s good, it’s very good indeed. I just wish It were good more often, and that it were better at the things that made me want to see it in the first place.

 

 

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