Thursday, September 14, 2017

You'll Float Too: Andy Muschietti’s IT

Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, and Jack Dylan Grazer in IT.

I’m neither a Stephen King devotee nor a person who grew up with the 1990 TV movie based on his landmark novel It, so unlike many filmgoers who are bleating their nostalgic bias into any internet forum they can find, a new feature length film version appealed to me greatly. I love the creepy premise of a picturesque town in Maine that is besieged by an ancient evil that poses as a ghoulish clown in order to kidnap children. I generally admire the creativity and weirdness of King’s work, despite its inconsistency in quality. And as summer slowly transitions into autumn – the season of Halloween, the season of horror, my favourite season – my appetite for an entertaining horror film grows ever more fierce.

IT, I’m pleased to say, satiated that hunger. Director Andy Muschietti has made a handsome and efficient horror flick from King’s original material, adapting the long-winded 1986 novel into a solidly-structured two-hour spookfest. IT, I’m pleased to say, satiated that hunger. Director Andy Muschietti has made a handsome and efficient horror flick from King’s original material, adapting the long-winded 1986 novel into a solidly-structured two-hour spookfest. The story of IT, about a group of young teens who call themselves “The Losers Club” discovering the presence of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) and fighting against It, only represents the first half of the novel. The second half portrays the same group of kids almost three decades later, as the evil force in their hometown of Derry re-emerges to feed once again. Muschietti made a conscious choice to split the story into two films, with the closing credits of IT listing the film as “Chapter One”. Since the 1990 film is criticized for attempting (and failing) to cram both halves of the novel into one made-for-TV movie, Muschietti has clearly made the right decision – especially since the pacing and structure of his adaptation feel spot-on. 

IT is a horror film that creates a wonderful sense of place. Derry, Maine in 1989 (transplanted from the late 1950s of King’s childhood) is, to use the cliché, a character unto itself, as peaceful and charming on the surface as it is rotted and evil beneath. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung creates images of warmth and richness that underscore those themes of innocence and corruption, and the screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman finds room for as much interesting character work with its young heroes, and their relationship to their hometown, as spooky jump-scares. The Losers are, to a teen, wonderfully portrayed by the cast, and do justice to a script whose general structural quality elevates the film’s less polished bits.

Those bits are usually the scary ones, and though the execution on the horror stuff was slightly uneven, I still found it entertaining. Some dodgy CG effects rob a few of the supernatural scares of their bite, and the pervasive use of clanging “horror movie” sound effects whenever something scary happened feel both unnecessary and also somehow beneath a film that is otherwise an exercise in classy production. This is a textbook example of effective scares being actively cheapened in post-production, to meet the demands of a mass market audience that’s been groomed (mostly by terrible marketing) to accept such puerile tropes as a given for the horror genre. This saddens me, because this is a film whose scares are generally quite creative and fun – often demonstrated by Pennywise appearing to the kids as the things that frighten them most, taunting and toying with them like a predator playing with its food before eating it – and whose villain is rightfully treasured as a horror icon. Skarsgård toes a fascinating line between goofy and creepy with his take on the role that Tim Curry made famous, with a drooling mouth and eyes that seem perpetually, idiotically unfocused – until It smells the fear of Its prey, and they roll forward, shark-like, to focus on the kill. His performance is quite often funny… right up until it’s not. Walking the razor’s edge of that tonal balance is very impressive, and is something that Muschietti extends beyond Pennywise to the entire film, making the experience as rich with humour as it is with horror. 

Bill Skarsgård in IT.

Nearly all of that humour, and the pathos that keeps it grounded, is conveyed by the fantastic cast of young actors. Bill, the group’s stuttering leader (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben, the overweight outcast (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Eddie, the hypochondriac (Jack Dylan Grazer), Mike, the town pariah (Chosen Jacobs), and Stan, the pragmatist (Wyatt Oleff), are all painted as compelling portraits of the boldness and passion of youth in the face of crushing circumstance and despair. Sophia Lillis as Bev, the group’s only girl, turns in a star-making performance with her portrayal of a girl who wrenches her own destiny out of the hands of the evil forces that would seek to claim her. Finn Wolfhard, late of Netflix’s Stranger Things, provides many of the film’s laughs with his sneering portrayal of the group’s motormouth, Richie (and the film’s connection to Stranger Things goes deeper than this casting choice; its portrayal of a group of bike-riding youngsters facing off against terrifying supernatural forces represents a bizarre genetic lineage whereby King’s original It influenced the show, which in turn influenced this new adaptation of King’s novel). While some characters feel underserved by the film’s swift pace (especially Mike, who disappears for a large chunk of the runtime), this cast nonetheless creates a sense of natural chemistry and camaraderie that make the Losers an irresistibly lovable little band of heroes.

The strength of the cast disguises some other, smaller issues. I don’t understand some of IT’s logic; it seems to me that if It poses as a clown to lure children, then It would want to appear more non-threatening (not to mention that in this film, It adopts the form of whatever will scare you most and then appears in Its Pennywise guise). I suppose the explanation for this is tied to Its mischievous nature: since It feeds on fear, then it follows that It would have fun trying to get your adrenaline flowing before lunging in for the kill. Other logical quibbles – like the fact that several children appear to get away with literal murder over the course of the story – are easily hand-waved away, given that the world of Derry is hardly portrayed as one with an attentive and proactive adult population.

It’s no secret, I guess, that the real threat in this story is a metaphorical one. Pennywise, as terrifying as It is in all Its murderous supernatural mischief, is simply a proxy for the corruption that lives in Derry’s deepest soul. This Lynchian conceit, of an idyllic, nostalgic setting that hides a foul interior, is communicated in the stark difference between IT’s heroes, the teenage misfit Losers, and Derry’s adults. The cyclical nature of Its evil lives on, even when Pennywise is dormant, in the ugly hearts of anyone who’s not a kid – from the outright physical and psychological abuse of Bev and Eddie's parents to the passive cruelty of a pharmacist’s unwanted advances, or a grieving father's cowardice. There’s something that IT says about the purity of childhood, even if that something is simply that children make the best horror story heroes, thanks to the courage, acceptance, and loyalty they naturally possess, that time and circumstance wring out of us as we age. Returning us, as audience members, to that state of innocence and bravery is something that few movies can convincingly do, but which IT does with confidence. That’s why I’ll be happy to return to Derry again and again, even though something nasty is always floating there. 

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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