Saturday, September 9, 2017

It movie review.

Stephen King is one of the most singular creative voices in literature. Having forged a unique style primarily rooted in cult classic horror tales concerning the supernatural and evil animals. However, King's novels also afford filmmakers a chance at tremendous emotional heart and dramatic depth, sometimes with influence taken from King's own life and personal struggles. Frank Darabont and Rob Reiner are among those whose treatment of King's work has yielded great rewards, and even tends to highlight my feelings that while King is an admirable and inimitable writer, his stories are typically better accentuated by what other writers bring to his tales.

And much like last August's The Dark Tower, it's been a long road to the big screen for his popular 1986 novel It, which many may know was previously adapted into the ABC miniseries starring Tim Curry. But from what I've heard from fans of the Les Miserables sized book, that series did little justice to the material, whittling down its content to fit cable regulations and a three hour timeslot. With fans becoming eager to see the story done justice, Warner Bros. has decided to split the epic story into two separate chapters covering two different timelines, with this first entry, under the leadership of Mama director Andy Muschietti, following its core cast of characters as children. So how does the new take float...?

Set in the late 80's, the film takes place within the Maine town of Derry, a place with a complex and deeply troubling history, none the least of which are owed to a string of mysterious child disappearances every 27 years. Dismayed that the missing children seemingly go unnoticed by the adults in the town, a group of kids nicknamed the Losers (headed by Jaeden Lieberher's Bill, and joined by Jeremy Ray Taylor's Ben, Sophia Lillis' Bev, and Finn Wolfhard's Richie among others) soon find themselves the target of an ancient and menacing shape-shifting monster, taking the form of the demonic dancing clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), that preys on those children and their fears. So it's up to the social misfits to team up and piece together the mysteries if they hope to break Derry's curse, and survive It's sadistic hunger.

I've made my criticisms of Hollywood's greedy book-splitting following Harry Potter no secret, with films like The Hobbit suffering dearly because of such issues, so the last thing I feel like I wanted was to see this trend get reignited. However, given the excessive content and weighty themes, I feel this is one of those rare occasions where such a move makes sense. And unlike most two-parters that feel like a price-gouging attempt to prolong a series, the case for It is an entirely different story, this first entry feels like its own self-contained entry than an overlong setup to a gigantic climax. Great care has clearly been taken to ensure that the movie reaches a natural and satisfying conclusion, tying up loose ends even as it sets more up for the future.

Where It largely works is in the interplay between characters. It features an extensive leading cast of no less than seven young actors, which I would normally assume to be an overly ambitious number of characters to set up, but thanks to the extended running time and the expansive focus, each character feels fully defined and deeply engaging. Despite the film extensively showcasing the club as a unit, the film wisely and efficiently lends time to specifically focus on the individual players, build their personalities and give them appropriate time to engage with their fears and their troubled home lives, and to prevent any of them from blending in with one another like a background extra. Despite Jaeden Lieberher garnering most of the attention as the movie's moral center and designated commander (terrifically so I must say), the rest of the young ensemble players are just as worthy of commendation for how naturally, and how lovingly they plays these roles, with Sophia Lillis' fragile yet warm Bev, Jack Dylan Grazer's fearful hypochondriac Eddie, and Finn Wolfhard's sarcastic and defensive Richie being among the standouts.

If feeling like it's drawn from the same cloth as fellow King story Stand By Me, that's certainly no accident. Despite the advertising placing heavy emphasis on the horror elements and the main monster, a good chunk of the film's meat is heavily focused on the tumultuous personal lives of the children. One thing I commend the film for is for making the town of Derry feel like its own character, with every home and street bearing its own distinct soul and life blood, with its own set of frights even without clowns. The environment surrounding the Losers is one of relentless abuse and torment, with bullies of all ages treating them with aggressive toxicity. Many of these follow in classic - if tired - tropes of King's, but effectively showcase inconceivable, but painfully all too real and relatable psychological damage, whether it be the lingering and uncomfortable leering from Bev's own father, the domineering and obsessive control of Eddie's mother, and the whole group earning the ire of sociopathic teenage bully Henry.

If It is guilty of anything, even as someone without knowledge of the book, I can still see a great deal of content that needed to be cut for theatrical release. Despite a lengthy two-hour fifteen-minute running time, the film certainly wastes no time in going from scene to scene to the point of rushing. This ensures that the film isn't boring, and yet it may have actually benefited from some extra footage added. On top of that, in the case of a genre being incapable of dropping gimmicks, the film does feel the need to succumb to jump scares, only a few of which feel cheap to be fair, but I wish the film had decided to tone down those particular beats.

But frankly, I don't care about any of that, because it is rare in this day and age that we should be able to get a mainstream horror movie of this caliber that is so genuinely terrifying to experience. Whereas most mainstream horrors are so bereft of decent stories or genuine frights, so much so that they fall back on the cheap and lazy jump scare factories, It suffers from no such shortcomings. Thanks to that aforementioned heart supplied by the Losers, and Muschietti contributing obvious passion and inventive vision, It is able to overcome what could have become a for-hire hackjob.

Going back to Derry feeling like its own character, like any aging relic, it's also a home to dark and grisly secrets. At times the town may look like a lively and nostalgic thing of beauty, but other times more closely resembles a hollow and rotting corpse bleeding with tragedy, with the mystery behind the town being the perfect place for the devilish monster to exploit the fears of its inhabitants, blurring the line between imagined and real fears to the point that the two become one and the same. There's also an element of dark comedy to the nature of the town, and of Pennywise himself, not too dissimilar to the vibe of Sam Raimi for example. Bill Skarsgard is the definition of a proper supporting role, a vicious and commanding presence both on and off the screen - of which he spends a considerable amount of time in the latter case, and as scary as his presence is, it's the anticipation of what he can do that makes the film so sweat-inducing, reliably aiding the horrifying tone with a sadistic, blood-curdling, and utterly inhuman performance.

And yes, even the aforementioned jump scares prove more a benefit to the film than a burden. I cannot for the life of me describe the film as lazy in anyway, given the story is too strong for me to label it as such, and it's not as if these moments are the only way the filmmakers know how to scare the viewer. Those jump moments are used sparingly and effectively only as a last resort, sometimes serving as build-up to bigger scares than serving as the scares themselves, as is the case with what may have been the most terrifying segment of the film, involving a slide projector that is sure to be the root of my near-future nightmares.

And that just may be the best, and most perfect thing for It to be: a nightmare. While I wouldn't be so quick to call it a horror classic, it may very well be the best mainstream horror release of the last few years (though I'm sure that may have some to do with my apathy to the genre). Even disregarding just how effective the film is as a horror flick proper, the incredible depth and dimension of the leading characters alone is impressive, another strong entry into the most heartwarming King adaptations. The fact that it also works as a great horror movie is icing on the cake, and though it still remains to be seen how the upcoming second chapter will stick the landing, this is still a highly enjoyable time on its own merits.

Sleep tight.

****1/2 / *****

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