Friday, September 08, 2017

It: Stephen King’s Evil Clown Gets a Big-Screen Remake

In Medieval times, jesters served as a reminder of people’s mortality. In the Twentieth Century, at least one “Killer Clown” serial killer went beyond reminding. Last year, “evil clown” sightings became a full-fledged mini-panic. Therefore, it is perfectly acceptable to be afraid of clowns. These days, it is practically required. Stephen King helped solidify the evil clown archetype with his 1,200-page 1986 bestseller, but there is more nostalgia than scares to be experienced in Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of It (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

Pennywise is a particularly evil clown, whom we meet right off the bat. One rainy day, he lures stuttering Bill Denbrough’s younger brother Georgie into his clutches. Although he was sick in bed at the time, the older Denbrough brother is tormented with guilt over his disappearance. Unfortunately, children disappear all the time in Derry, Maine—so much so, the adults hardly give it any concern. Nevertheless, Denbrough is determined to find him, with the help of his friends in the so-called Losers’ Club.

Denbrough and his pals Richie Tozier, Stan Uris, and Eddie Kaspack are the long-time members. Overweight transfer student Ben Hanscom, home-schooled African American Mike Hanlon, and unfairly slut-shamed Beverly Marsh are the new recruits. They all have one thing in common. They have been bullied in some way by sociopathic Hank Bowers. However, Hanscom and Hanlon’s insights into Derry’s sinister history will lead them to suspect something darkly uncanny is afoot, operating on a twenty-seven-year cycle. That would be Pennywise—and he knows that they know.

There is an awful lot of Bill Skarsgård mugging and cackling as Pennywise. A little less probably would have been a little more. Frankly, some of the effects involving him and the related supernatural terrors look pretty cheesy. That might be partly by design, because Muschietti is clearly going for a nostalgic vibe, but there are moments that draw the wrong kind of awkward laughter,

Still, the film’s appeal to nostalgia is quite potent, unsubtly channeling Stand By Me, The Goonies, and The Lost Boys. The screenplay is apparently cobbled together from drafts by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, but it still nails the way kids (primarily boys) talk and act when they are unsupervised together. Every scene that does not directly involve a predatory paranormal clown rings true as a bell.

Jeremy Ray Taylor is the stand-out as Hanscom, whose secret love for Marsh and the New Kids on the Block adds the perfect air of comedic pathos. Likewise, Sophia Lillis is terrific as the outwardly tough but emotionally scarred Marsh. Wisely, they spare her the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves-style orgy scene King ever so problematically included in the novel. Although he does not get a lot of distinctive business to do, there is no mistaking the intensity Chosen Jacobs brings to the screen as Hanlon. However, the other Losers’ Club members sort of blend together.

Right now, you might be wondering, wasn’t John Ritter in the It miniseries? Yes, he was, playing grown-up, slimmed-down Ben Hanscom, but Muschietti’s film doesn’t get that far. Remember, it’s a 1,200-page book. Although It all but promises a part-two, Muschietti manages to wrap things up in a surprisingly satisfying manner, especially by horror genre standards. Yet, the real strengths of the film are its grounded moments, not the wild interludes of cosmic terror. To his credit, Muschietti displays a working understanding of why 1980s films like The Lost Boys and the original Fright Night were so entertaining and applied that knowledge relatively effectively. If you remember when those films were new, you are more likely to enjoy this It. Earning a mixed recommendation for sentimental fans, It opens today, pretty much everywhere with a white wall, including the AMC Empire in New York.