Thursday, September 7, 2017

Review: "It"

Just a few quick thoughts. Sam Watermeier is handling the main review over at The Film Yap, so please head there to check out his more detailed criticism.

I am entirely innocent of Stephen King's horror novel or the TV miniseries adaptation from the early 1990s. You might say I'm a virgin of "It." (Yes, that's an inside joke for those of you who are familiar. More riffs on this in a bit.)

Taken on its own merits, "It" is an effective supernatural thriller/scarer that painstaking builds a pervasive mood of creepiness and despair. It relies entirely too much on "boo-gotcha" frights, and at two hours and 15 minutes, the jump scares quickly lose effectiveness. But it builds rather than loses momentum as it goes, which is always preferable to a movie that starts strong and sags.

The town of Derry, Maine, in the late 1980s of the film's setting is a place of claustrophobia and rot, where the pretty middle-class house facades hide moldering foundations, and seemingly every adult is unhelpful at best and actively malevolent in the higher likelihood.

I enjoyed the cast of young actors, whose characters call themselves "the Losers," though it's certainly no squad of "Goonies" or "Stand By Me" in terms of how deep an impact they make on us viscerally.

The most interesting by far is Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a rebellious girl who's been tagged as the school slut for dubious reasons. She's a mix of brashness and self-hate, plagued by a dad who walks right up to the point of sexual abuse, demanding that she always be "my little girl." Rather than just being a victim, Bev has internalized the torment and uses it to her advantage. There's a scene where she uses her burgeoning feminine wiles to dupe the town pharmacist, who returns her flirting with alarming enthusiasm.

The other standout is Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the smart, shy new kid who's a library fiend and secret poet. He takes a shine to Beverly -- actually, all the boys do -- and we keep thinking they're going to end up together. Emotionally and logically, that would be the most satisfying. But he's the short fat kid, so that's not in the cards for a mainstream Hollywood film.

My understanding is in the book the African-American kid (Chosen Jacobs) occupies the writer/chronicler role, and I guess we also couldn't have the black kid be the smart one. Damnable expectations.

The rest of the boys line up into more conventional slots: the hypochondriac, the loudmouth, the worrywart, etc. Ostensibly the main character, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is rather a dud, notable only for his grief over his young brother, Georgie, who's the first victim in a rather gruesome scene.

The presence of Finn Wolfhard, the main kid in the "Stranger Things" TV show, was discordant for me. It's like when all the same goombah actors turn up in mafia movies and shows.

It's not hard to discern that bullying is the real theme of the movie. The evil clown/spirit Pennywise (an excellent Bill Skarsgård) feeds off of fear. Killing his victims seems to be just a byproduct of his life cycle. Once we learn this, it's only a matter of time before saying "I'm not afraid of you" becomes their main weapon.

The makeup and special effects for Pennywise are first-rate. He sort of resembles Larry from The Three Stooges on acid. I liked how his two front teeth are twice as long as the rest, which throws us off visually just a smidge. Skarsgård speaks in a mix of childish sing-song and guttural croaks that put a shiver down my spine.

The young actor playing the school bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), is in some ways more scary than Pennywise. He actually resembles him facially, which led me to some incorrect suppositions.

Henry terrorizes the other children with an enthusiasm that is much more familiar to me from my own childhood encounters. People always claim that bullies become bullies because they learned the behavior. I think that's true in some cases, but most kids who bully other kids do it simply because they enjoy it.

Other than the jump scares, my main complaint about "It" is the lack of first responders. At no point do any of the kids go to the authorities for help. Ben gets his stomach carved up by Bowers, and they don't even go to the hospital. And they never even attempt to bring in a adult to help them battle Pennywise.

I get that that's a theme of the piece -- how grown-ups turn a blind eye to abuse they see right in front of them. One of the most powerful momenst is a fleeting one, when Ben is being tortured by Henry's gang at the side of the road and some older folks drive right by, refusing to heed his cries for help. And the fact Henry's father is the town sheriff might make 13-year-olds hesitant to report a crime.

But at some point it just becomes too much. There's no trusted teacher they could confide in? Somebody's mom is a nurse or doctor? Has an uncle in the next town who's not infected by the Derry disease? My credulity was strained to the breaking point, and beyond.

Now let's talk about virgins. What's next is a spoiler for the book, but not the movie.

I've been told by reliable sources that the battle with Pennywise ends with all the boys having sex with Beverly. Something about bringing the group together, cementing their bonds in a time of duress. So the Losers' story concludes (for now) with a goddamn gangbang.

My understanding is the film's original director, Cary Fukunaga, wanted to preserve this sex sequence, and ended up leaving the project over creative differences. (He's still listed as a screenwriter.) I'm all for artistic vision, but having a movie end with a bunch of 13-year-olds lining up to screw the only girl in their group would be a death sentence.

Also, how heteronormative: couldn't the boys just have anal sex with each other to achieve the same end?

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