Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Film Review: IT

Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

There is a reason that this horror movie has become a crossover hit: it focuses on character and story before scares.

Stephen King's novel IT has been called the Moby Dick of horror novels and I don't think that this accolade is overrated.  It has been constantly in print since it has been written because as dense as the book is, it taps into some deeply primal fears in novel form.  The story had been adapted into a fondly remembered mini-series, but fans of the book lamented the inability of the TV to capture the fully-realized, ethereal world that King created.

This version by director Andy Muschietti, gets almost everything right in this adaptation.

First of all, instead of covering both the story of the children and the adults, Muschietti along with screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunga, and Gary Dauberman slice story down to only the story of the kids.

The story focuses on the small town of Derry, Maine during the summer of 1989.  This is the summer after Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) went through the trauma of his brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) goes missing.  He has a core group of friends in class clown Richie (Finn Wolfhard), hypocondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and slightly neurotic Stanley (Wyatt Oleff).  This group also falls in with new kid/fat kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), put-upon black kid Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and outcast girl Bev (Sophia Lillis).  Together they form a "Losers Club" that find comfort in each other as they are picked on by violent bullies like Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton).  But their troubles are worse than they know.  Bill is obsessed with finding Georgie, who is just one among many children that have gone missing.  They soon begin to encounter a horrific, monstrous clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard).  As the group tries to survive these encounters, they start to realize that the clown facade is masking literally monstrous creature preying on the children of Derry.

This is a story that is straightforward and easy to latch on to.  Like the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, IT does a good job of translating the fears of transitioning from child to teenager.  They sometimes hit the idea of "facing your fear" a bit too hard, but they generally avoid being too heavy-handed, so as not to impede the enjoyment of the story.  And despite how scary the story it, Muschietti makes it truly enjoyable.

The second thing that the movie gets right is how they capture the nostalgia of 1989.  I happened to be the exact age of the main characters in 1989 and the filmmakers captured the feel for the era perfectly, down to the double billing of Batman and Lethal Weapon 2 at the local movie theater.  Yet they don't over saturate you with nostalgic references, but instead do a great job of creating the atmosphere.

The third thing that IT does very well is capturing that awkward transition into adolescents.  Our heroes are not little kids, but they are not fully semi-independent teenagers.  Our heroes feel the odd loneliness of responsibility creeping in.  And at the same time we sense their feeling of powerlessness at their youth.  The adults all come off as out of touch or slightly sinister, causing a greater sense of the kind of alienation you feel at that awkward stage.

Normally I have a strong revulsion to vulgarity with younger characters.  But here it comes off as an odd combination of innocence and immaturity.  Richie makes a lot of crude sex jokes, but they sound like they come from a child who doesn't understand half of his own filth, but is just getting a charge out of saying things that are naughty.  It reminds me of how my brother and I used to repeat Eddie Murphy jokes all the time without fully understanding their meaning.  It is also reminiscent of little Eliott from Steven Spielberg's ET calling his brother a vulgar name at the dinner table, causing the mom to yell and laugh at the same time.

Speaking of Spielberg, his influence on this movie is very clear.  Muschietti uses the camera to great effect.  His scares are not only the jump scares.  Instead he uses the frames to create a real sense of terror.  He also doesn't waste the background space, often filling it with disturbing images that you aren't quite sure are meant to be there or not.  But outside of the horror side, Muschietti captures this time of life the way Spielberg did, making it not only scary but almost magical as well.  The wide, wooded vistas are not just filled with threats but also possibilities and freedom.

There's a scene where all of the Losers, including Bev, swim in a pond in their underwear.  The young boys cannot help but stare at their female companion.  But rather coming off as creepy, it rings true to the confusing and compelling awakening of the libido in teenage boys; their fascination seems to be in proportion to their awkwardness and confusion.  Contrast this to overtly inappropriate scenes of Bev with her father (Stephen Bogaert) that leave you sickened with its predatory and incestuous overtones.  Thankfully the movie does not show any inappropriate sexual encounters (as the novel infamously does)

And with seven main characters, the character development could have felt light.  But the movie does a good job of balancing the ensemble.  Each character is given a distinct look, voice, and story arch.  The relationships get complicated, such as the burgeoning love triangle between Ben, Bev, and Bill.

If you notice, I haven't spoken much of the horror element.  As I am not a horror fan, I may not be the best person to evaluate its merit.  I have spoken to a number of fans of the genre who were disappointed in this area.  But I found the scares to be not too overwhelming, but enough to keep me on the edge of my seat.  Skarsgard's Pennywise doesn't get close to the subtle menace of Tim Curry's version from the mini-series.  But he is sufficiently scary for the purposes of the story.

The guiding theme of the movie is facing your fears.  One of the sharpest growing pains of this time of life is moving from the fearlessness of childhood to the anxiety of adulthood.  That encroaching world can feel suffocating and terrifying.  Watching the kids face their fears was a powerful reminder that the key to overcoming what scares you isn't to avoid it, but to bravely confront it.

In the end, the story is ultimately a story of friendship tested in fire.  I pray we all have those friends who walked through the fires of adolescents to find themselves forged into the men and women they are on the other side with those bonds solidified into who we are.

IT, in this sense, is more than a horror story.

picture by  Yasir72.multan

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