It Wilts in The Shadow of Its Predecessors

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It (2017)

Director: Andy Muschietti

The newest adaptation of It arrives at a curious point in time with it being the third version of an idea that has soaked into the grain of pop culture vernacular. It started with the exhaustive novel by Stephen King in 1986, where King, certainly not the first to suggest the idea, created a sinister clown named Pennywise. This created a spark that led to a bang that was the 1990 television dramedy on ABC.

The It miniseries was a part of that weird period in the late 80’s and 90’s when ABC, the family network, decided they wanted to adapt some morbid shit from America’s favorite novelist. Perhaps none more morbid than It. The book can be described as a dark contemplation of childhood trauma, but, translates to a lot of television melodrama through the filter of the ABC network. Despite the sugar coated outer shell the miniseries still has some heavy duty themes working beneath its surface, and the first half of the miniseries is admirably treated. American households tuned in and Tim Curry’s Pennywise entered through the eye holes and exploded in the minds of millions of young kids who sat down on a school night and watched family programming of a clown tearing children apart.

The miniseries created a cultural phenomenon of literally everyone being afraid of clowns. Now clowns have their own subgenre of horror movies, and have taken their rightful place among fear totems of western culture. Twenty-seven years later the generation that was convinced clowns live in the sewers and eat children are taking their own children for a concentrated blast of clown horror.

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Though we’ve seen many remakes come and go, a majority with a deflating poof, few of them have such a vast source material adding depth to the film mythology, and the new adaptation mines the horror gold left behind by not just the novel, but the miniseries as well. However, this new adaptation lacks the very important narrative thread that the two predecessors had. Because of this the story never seems to find its footing, rather it feels like a series of events we have to endure before the eventual ending. None of these scenes are necessarily bad, but they do little to reinforce character arcs as if it were leaning into the book and miniseries to fill in some of the story gaps by cultural osmosis, or perhaps vital character building was brushed aside in favor of more loud obnoxious scenes involving the clown. For instance, the characters of Mike and Stan are given very little to do and along with Richie have no discernible arc, as if there was no need for them at all.

Therein lies the difficulty of adapting such an arduous source material. Stephen King had an infinite number of pages (and he used almost all of them) to fully develop these seven characters and the miniseries had two crazy nights. In the two comparatively short hours of the new film It ends up getting caught in an awkward limbo between an emotional character drama about the pains and fears of childhood (Stand by Me with a homicidal clown) and a tense horror thriller (Alien with a scary clown?) and never commits to either, so both the character moments and the horror scenes end up being unsatisfying half measures.

The saving grace of It is the performances of all the young actors, including Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise. When he’s not being hidden away behind obtrusive CG effects and irritating noises he is convincing. His opening scene is of note with his horrible toothy grin and the subtlety of his blood thirsty drooling. It’s one of the few well earned scares mostly because there is little reliance on CG effects and loud noises yelling at us to be scared.

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Sophia Lillis shines brightest as the strongest character, Beverly. The scenes involving her and her father are more frightening than Pennywise in all his forms. Bill Denbrough is supposed to be the lead role here and Jaeden Lieberher gives a strong performance, but this feels more like Beverly’s film. Where Bill’s struggle with the loss of his brother is perfunctory and forced at times, Beverly’s struggle with an abusive father, and as a female coming of age, are the truest expressions of fear, giving Beverly an inner strength the rest of the characters, including Bill, don’t possess. This is why there is a feeling of being cheated when Beverly is used as the damsel in distress to get the boys into the sewer for the finale.

Maybe in 27 years the fear of clowns will still be invading our lives enough for another film maker to want to adapt King’s novel, and maybe they’ll create something good enough to endure. The 1990 miniseries had it relatively easy in creating the first wide spread depiction of a killer clown. The new film tries and fails at reinventing the “scary clown” and ignores all the more intriguing possibilities the story presents, creating another unfortunate remake here and gone in a poof.

-James Merolla

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