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Stephen King’s “It,” first published in 1986, is one of his cleverest and most frightening books ever written.
And if you were the right age when it aired, the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation with Tim Curry as Pennywise the evil clown probably scarred you for life. Both book and miniseries felt free to sprawl and take their time, and so Andy Muschietti’s feature film adaptation of the first half of the novel is in many ways a remarkable feat of condensation that hits most of the major points in the narrative.
The main change in this new “It” is that the time frame for this first half has been moved from the 1950s to the 1980s, and the kids who have to fight Pennywise, a group of outcasts who call themselves “The Losers’ Club,” resemble the cute kids in “The Goonies” or “Stranger Things.”
Muschietti (“Mama”) approaches this charged material methodically, proficiently, and even somewhat coolly, but he has just enough imaginative creativity to hit the necessary emotional beats here, particularly as the kids decide to fight Pennywise on his own turf in a large abandoned house.
Curry’s Pennywise had the red eyes of an alcoholic, and he managed to seem like John Wayne Gacy and Ronald McDonald rolled into one vicious and intrusive killer package. Meanwhile, Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise has yellow eyes that are always slightly staring off to the sides. His whitened forehead is very large, which makes this Pennywise look more like a toy than a man. A lot of the time in this version of “It,” Pennywise feels more like an effect than a person, and sometimes this is a problem, because a visual effect is too distanced from us to be as scary as Curry was using just his made-up clown face and his growling voice.
Horror is like comedy in that timing is everything. If you hold a shot too long or for too short a time, the image will no longer have the power to scare us. Muschietti doesn’t quite get this balance right when he first reveals Skarsgård’s Pennywise in a storm drain. It feels as if the shots need to be held slightly longer for the full sense of dread to be captured, but Muschietti does not have time to linger here. He has a great number of primary and subsidiary characters to set up, and so the first murder of a little boy named George (Jackson Robert Scott) gets a bit rushed through.
The characters of what will become “The Losers’ Club” are sketched in quickly. There is George’s stuttering brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, “The Book of Henry”), talkative goofball Richie (Finn Wolfhard, “Stranger Things”), Beverly (Sophia Lillis as the lone girl of the group), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer, “Me, Myself and I”), reserved Stanley (Wyatt Oleff, “Guardians of the Galaxy”), intelligent Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs, “Hawaii Five-O”), an African-American boy.
In addition to these characters, Muschietti also needs to keep in play Beverly’s abusive father (Stephen Bogaert, “X-Men: Apocalypse”) and Eddie’s controlling mother (Molly Jane Atkinson), plus a bully named Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton, “The Dark Tower”) and his own abusive father. Muschietti makes sure that every one of these people gets just enough time on screen to make an impact, and this is a real feat of management.
The only point where this new “It” really does improve on Curry’s Pennywise comes from the way his designers have created a huge mouth full of teeth for this sadistic clown. At one point, Pennywise is holding Beverly up in the air, and she screams that she is not afraid of him. Pennywise opens his mouth wider and wider, and it keeps expanding until the rows of sharp teeth don’t seem to have any end point. Beverly swoons when she sees this, and her own eyes turn yellow.
Once the characters have been set up, Muschietti is free to linger as much as he wants over certain set pieces, and the results are as scary as they should be. One of the scariest scenes in the miniseries came when Pennywise communicated via a bathroom sink, and Muschietti radically builds on this with a very impressive sequence where Beverly is pulled down into the drain by the strands of her own cut hair. The effects in the miniseries often look very rudimentary now, and Muschietti does take advantage of what effects can do today. But it feels like a mistake to have Pennywise himself become a kind of effect rather than a demonic human entity.
Skarsgård is buried under his make-up for most of the film, and it is only toward the last third or so here that we can begin to really see the actor himself speaking and moving and putting the frighteners on. Yet in spite of its flaws, this new “It” does capture the spirit of the book, and especially its metaphor for coming together as a group to combat evil.
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