Wednesday, September 13, 2017

In Theaters: IT (2017)

(US - 2017)

Directed by Andy Muschietti. Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman. Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgard, Nicholas Hamilton, Owen Teague, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Steven Williams, Megan Charpentier, Javier Botet. (R, 134 mins)

Stephen King's gargantuan 1986 best seller was already turned into an ABC miniseries in 1990 with middling results, and the long-in-the-works big screen adaptation of half of it takes a more successful if still flawed stab at the material. I remember checking It out of the library when I was 13 and barely sleeping for the next week as I devoured over 200 pages per day, reading well into the night. At 69, King is more prolific than ever, even if his current output doesn't carry the same cache as his glory days--he's probably dusting off second-rate stuff he's had stashed away for 30 years--but in 1986, the Stephen King brand was at its ubiquitous zenith. He was cranking out what seemed like at least two books a year, and every other week, it felt like a new King movie adaptation was hitting theaters. The 1990 miniseries did what it could with some of the more graphic horrors depicted on the page, but it's hard not to think that an epic big-screen version of the novel would've been a better move 25 or 30 years ago. IT 2017 began as a project for Cary Fukunaga, best known for directing the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE. He eventually bailed over disagreements during pre-production, with Gary Dauberman (ANNABELLE) reworking Fukunaga and Chase Palmer's script and MAMA director and Guillermo del Toro protege Andy Muschietti at the helm. MAMA showed Muschietti had sufficient genre chops, and IT doesn't disappoint if you're looking for loud, constant jump scares.

But that's often its stumbling block as well. With a running time of 134 minutes--epic by horror standards--IT plays that post-INSIDIOUS/CONJURING jump scare card time and time and time again. As you might expect, it works the first few times but eventually, you'll know when they're coming and they lose more power with each one. The malevolent evil of the novel, personified by nightmarish clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, who'll be raking in serious cash on the convention circuit for the rest of his life thanks to this movie), seems more focused on the no-longer-novel concept of scary clowns, which of course got a big boost from King's book in the first place but also from cult movies like KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE and Sid Haig's Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL'S REJECTS. Scary clowns have always been a thing, but it's only in the relatively recent era that they've become a pop culture trope. Skarsgard is a flamboyantly terrifying Pennywise when he's allowed to act, but so many of his appearances are so heavily enhanced by CGI and digital trickery that it sometimes minimizes him until he's just part of the scenery, the shaky-cam clown attacks all becoming a bit of a blur.

IT 2017 works best when it's grounded and practical. Muschietti puts forth great effort to make this feel as much like a genuine 1980s horror movie as possible. The period detail of its 1989 setting (updated from the late '50s in King's book) is right: the decor, the cars, the hairstyles, a movie theater showing BATMAN, LETHAL WEAPON 2, and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5, but sometimes Muschietti oversells it. There's too many mentions of New Kids on the Block, a rock fight set to Anthrax's "Antisocial" seems too slapsticky, and a DONNIE DARKO-esque Steadicam trip through the junior high school set to The Cult's "Love Removal Machine" in place of Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels" all smack of the kind of lazy referencing that's supposed to be funny simply because it's old and easily-recognized. The ensemble of young actors is extremely well-cast, with MIDNIGHT SPECIAL's Jaeden Lieberher the nominal lead as Bill Denbrough, whose younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) was sucked into a sewer drain by It a year earlier. The town of Derry, ME is beset by a string of child disappearances, just the latest in a series of tragedies that befall the town every 27 years. Of course, only the kids--an outcast clique dubbed "The Losers"--figure this out as they're haunted one-by-one by sudden appearances of Pennywise, sometimes as a clown and sometimes as an evil woman or a homeless leper (Javier Botet) on the outskirts of town. And this is when they aren't dealing with psychotic bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton, a potential William Zabka of his generation, briefly seen in a similar role in the recent King adaptation THE DARK TOWER), or abusive parents, whether it's hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) being Munchausen-by-proxy'd by his crazy mother or tomboyish Beverly (Sophia Lillis), whose mother seems to be out of the picture and whose father (Stephen Bogaert) has obviously sexually molested her in the past and possibly the present. It's one of IT 2017's more intriguing elements that the most sympathetic parental figure in the film is police chief Bowers (Stuart Hughes), who knows exactly what kind of monster his son is, intervenes when he's about to shoot a helpless cat, and often turns up as a guardian angel of sorts for The Losers and doesn't hesitate to humiliate his asshole son in front of his stupid buddies. This is one of many notable departures from King's book, where Chief Bowers is depicted as an abusive loathsome racist and anti-Semite largely responsible for turning his son into the person he's becoming.

With the setting and the '80s nostalgia (this really does feel like an evil clown version of THE GOONIES at times), it's hard not to draw comparisons to last year's Netflix hit STRANGER THINGS, especially since both share co-star Finn Wolfhard though IT was already in production when STRANGER THINGS took off. The timing is unfortunate, as the novel It certainly had a hand in influencing the outcast character ensemble of STRANGER THINGS, but it's another example of IT 2017 coming years, if not decades later than it should've. A couple of the young actors--Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon, the only black kid in town, and Wyatt Oleff as Jewish Stanley Uris--get lost in the shuffle with the focus on Bill, Beverly, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the overweight bookworm nursing a crush on Beverly, and constantly wisecracking, Coke-bottle specs-wearing nerd Richie (Wolfhard). There's some serious jolts in IT (the slideshow scene is an instant classic) and the '80s atmosphere is very well-handled, but IT leans on easy references a little too aggressively at times, sacrificing its painstaking recreation of 1989 and coming off like 2017's idea of a 1980s movie instead of an actual 1980s movie. Even going well past two hours, it feels a little rushed and with the door obviously being left open for a sequel covering the second half of the book, you can't help but wonder if it would've been smarter to adapt this as a limited series of maybe eight episodes for Netflix, Amazon, or HBO.

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