Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Review #1,293: 'It' (2017)

After what was a difficult and drawn-out development process, few would have expected It, an adaptation of Stephen King's novel of the same name and re-imagining of Tommy Lee Wallace's 1990 mini-series, to be such a colossal hit. The project first went into development back in 2009, with David Kajganich penning the screenplay for Warner Bros., who were understandably concerned with adapting such a hefty and thematically complex novel into one feature film. Cary Fukunaga signed on as director in 2012, with the production duties moving to New Line and Will Poulter lined up for the lead, before they both parted ways due to creative differences and scheduling conflicts. Mama's Andy Muschietti signed up as director in 2015, and filming finally commenced in 2016, with Bill Skarsgard on board as the titular alien clown. It was all a bit of a mess, but when the trailer debuted on Youtube and smashed the record for most views in 24 hours, it became clear that It would be a bona fide hit.

Since its release, It has pulled in $700 million off a $35 million budget, and is now the highest-grossing horror movie of all time, and the third highest-grossing R-rated movie. And for good reason. It is happy to deliver jump shocks and conform to the genre's tropes, but this is a handsomely-shot and wonderfully-acted coming-of-age drama too. It is The Goonies meets Stand by Me, only with a child-killing clown lurking in the background. Tim Curry's performance in the 1990 original is iconic and pretty scary, and I'm disappointed we'll never get to see what Will Poulter would have done with the role, but Bill Skarsgard proves to be a menacing presence underneath the thick clown make-up and razor-sharp teeth. The opening scene in which he confronts young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) from a storm drain ("You'll float too...") is nastier than Wallace's version, and sets the tone for Muschietti's film. It doesn't shy away from the gruesome side of horror, and certainly doesn't take it easy on the kids at the heart of the story.

A year after Georgie's disappearance, his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) still hasn't given up hope. Much to his father's annoyance, he maps out the entire sewer system of Derry, Maine to calculate where his brother may be hiding, or where his corpse may have washed up. The stuttering youngster is part of the 'Losers Club', a gang of bullied school kids who enjoy spending their summers exploring the town's surrounding areas on their bikes, but always wary of mulleted bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). Making up the rest of the gang are hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), timid rabbi's son Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), and the motor-mouthed Richie (Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard). They start to piece together an explanation for the alarming number of disappearances in the town's history when tubby new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) researches the history of his new home. Everything seems to point to a deadly entity lurking in the sewers named Pennywise, a shape-shifting clown who changes his appearance based on the children's individual fears. It also appears to sexual abuse victim Beverly (Sophia Lillis) and slaughterhouse worker Mike (Chosen Jacobs), who both find a refuge in the Losers Club.

The decision to move the action from the 50's to the 80's seems like a no-brainer, especially for those of us who were born in the decade of perms and massive shoulder pads. It ramps up the nostalgic appeal, and the film is at its best when recapturing the spirit of the best coming-of-age movies. Yet for all of It's positives, Muschietti plays the horror frustratingly safe. It's competently done, but every time Pennywise jumps out from the darkness or contorts his body to an inexplicable degree, it's hard to shake the feeling that you've seen all of this before. Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma used King's source material to create something more unique and expressive, but it isn't too difficult to spot where Muschietti's jump-shocks will be coming from. It is often creepy, but never scary. I sincerely hope that directors will soon learn that computer-generated ghouls simply don't work, and that practical effects actually add the level of physicality required to frighten. While it may not make you sleep with the light on, It still makes for engrossing drama, unafraid to tackle difficult issues such as bullying, child abuse - both physical and sexual - and primarily the loss of innocence. It's now a long wait for Chapter Two.

Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill SkarsgÄrd, Nicholas Hamilton
Country: USA/Canada

Rating: ***

Tom Gillespie

It (2017) on IMDb

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