If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, so in the tradition of current Hollywood I’m going to franchise this review, or, in the least, give it one sequel.
So much of my reaction to the 2017 version of IT was bound up in the Stephen King novel and the 1990 TV-movie that followed, every time I started writing this review, criticism strayed into how it compared to the other mediums. I thought this unfair to the current movie. That is, I wasn’t giving IT 2017 a fair and close textual reading; thus, I decided this review should be presented in two parts. The first is my reaction to the movie being released today, and the second my thoughts on how it compares to the book and TV movie. Both critiques are to be found here under…
Part I: The IT 2017 Movie Review
In a small, Maine town in the late 1980s several children have gone missing. Authorities are baffled, but a group of misfits, who ultimately call themselves “the losers club,” begin to witness horrifying things that may shed light on the mystery. Are these things overactive imaginations or reality? Most of the apparitions take the form of a clown named Pennywise, and it seems the group has a power to see the clown that no one else does. This power eventually helps them to fight and to overcome Pennywise’s superhuman abilities, but only if they do it together. Alone, they are no match for the beast that hides behind the clown’s makeup, but together they have the strength to vanquish the monster—something they are only able to label as IT.
But do they kill IT?
In the film’s coda, the group takes a blood oath that if the monster ever resurfaces, they will return to fight it once and for all. Not to be outdone in the corpuscular sense, as the film fades out, over the bloody, cursive letters IT, we are told this is merely chapter one. Cynically, I’m guessing the box office success of chapter one (or not) will determine whether we’ll have another installment.
This film is a hard R, with plenty of gore, but also, surprisingly, a lot of humor. The choice of setting the film in the 1980s is not random I believe. It seems the 1980s were a busy time for groups of pre-teens to be banding together to fight forces seemingly larger than themselves. At the same time, the kids in Derry, Maine were going up against Pennywise, ‘Chunk’ and the other Goonies were clashing with the Fratellis in Oregon, while the Stranger Things kids in Indiana were taking on the US government. What a time to be alive in America!
Thus, the IT of 2017, attempts to jump on the bandwagon of nostalgia for the 1980s. The only mistake is the 2017 IT is so scary and so violent no 12 year old should see it. Thus, the demographic most likely to eat the movie up should be barred from any cinema in which it is being shown. This is actually a compliment, because as a horror film IT is effective. Its structure is a little odd with more power in the first 90 minutes than in the last 45, and it strikes all the conventional chords a horror film should. If you have little to no knowledge of the book or TV movie, then it will be interesting to see if audiences find IT 2017 dull and predictable, but if you grew up on this stuff –as I did—then it may impact you in a far different way, which is what happened with me even though most of the time I knew what was coming.
And this leads me to…
Part II: The IT Movie Review Sequel
It was 1990. I was pleasantly enjoying my senior year in high school when something happened I will never forget. I wish it was meeting that special girl or discovering a career path, but neither of those things happened. What did occur was IT.
By this, I mean the television mini-series (back in the day when television had such “events”) IT, based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King. IT aired in two, two-hour parts on ABC, and it scared the hell out of me. It still does to this day, when it gets re-run on the SyFY Channel or I check out clips on You Tube.
A few years after watching the TV movie, I read the 1,200 page novel, which was equally as frightening and explained a whole lot more than either a two-hour theatrical film or a four-hour TV mini-series could. The mini-series delved more into the backstory of IT, while the 2017 version barely had time to broach it.
In both TV and film versions we do know that IT is pure evil and wakes every 30 or so years to cause mayhem and murder people, mostly children which it enjoys tormenting and devouring especially.
The town is oblivious to these 30-year cycles of violence and disorder, which was the dramatic backbone of the novel making it the most thoughtful of any of the mediums: the book, among other things, employs themes and metaphors of fading memory and indifference to children and suffering quite effectively. The TV movie simply did not have the elasticity to explore these subtextual elements, though it made a few feints in that direction, and in so doing hues to the spirit of the book. The 2017 IT, in glimpses, seems most concerned with abusive or neglectful parents, but even these moments are fleeting as the plot quickly intrudes and the showdown with IT takes center stage.
Another key difference between the TV movie and the theatrical film is time period and plotting. The first part of the mini-series details the efforts of the kids in the 1950s (not the 1980s) to combat IT, while in the second part they reunite in the present when the next cycle of violence commenced. The 2017 version opts only to tell the story of the children, leaving us with the mysterious fade out of ‘chapter one’ at the conclusion.
As for the performances of the players, there is also a key difference between TV movie and theatrical film. Tim Curry’s Pennywise is what truly gave the 1990 version of IT its power and terror. The children were all good actors, but they paled next to Curry’s Pennywise, who was at once hammy and ham-eating (and by this, I mean human eating). Without question, Curry’s IT made the movie everything it could be.
2017’s Pennywise is played by Bill Skarsgard, who is much younger than Curry was when he played Pennywise. The effect is detrimental. Skarsgard’s Pennywise, while scary, does not match Curry’s. The 2017 Pennywise is humorless and squeaky, and doesn’t seem to have the full range of skills the more veteran Curry did at the time he played Pennywise. In addition, Skarsgard’s Pennywise, though a murderous menace, takes a back seat to the children in the cast, who, in between bouts of terror, yuck it up Goonies-style and provide nice moments of cathartic levity.
The chemistry of the 2017 kids’ is superior to the mini-series’ children as are the effects of the movie. By today’s standards, the animatronics and editing of the TV-movie are cheesy, and from my anecdotal research it’s clear millennials don’t seem as scared by the first version as I was. Those problems are not evident in 2017’s IT, as CGI and digital editing are employed to the fullest and most realistic use.
The feature film is also not constrained by the need for goofy commercial breaks, but its structure is odd. The mini-series easily divided the two time periods into two nights. The kids defeat IT in the 1950s and the story breaks. It resumes in the present when IT has returned. The 2017 version has the kids defeat IT about 90 minutes into the story and then offers us an awkward leap to a few months later when IT returns and they must fight again. But then in the coda we are promised another chapter, which makes the whole effort feel like three parts and, in my opinion, a stunted and conflicted approach. It’s as if the producers were unsure whether or not to adapt the book or the TV movie, and tried to do both, which makes for a bit of a muddle.
I hope the irony is not lost that, like the monster itself, the story of IT lay dormant for 30 years, until movie executives woke it to cash in on the current obsession with reboots, sequels and franchises. I hope the promise of a ‘chapter two’ does not transmogrify into something like the Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street series. Will the kids be battling IT every few years or move on to other creatures that threaten small towns?
This may seem a silly question to ask, but we are now approaching a new Star Wars movie just about once per year, and, oftentimes, the more you exploit a fictional universe the less impact and intelligence you can pull from it.
I leave you with these thoughts as I plot and plan Part III of this movie review, to be published concurrently with the next iteration of IT.
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Cast: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton
Running Time: 135 minutes