Saturday, September 23, 2017

Review: Stephen King's It (2017)

I saw It and I mostly really enjoyed it. I am a fan of Stephen King's original novel -- I think it is his best work -- and feel that despite a couple of sad blunders, the recent film adaptation (which its closing credits make clear constitutes "Chapter 1" of a presumed two-parter) is about 80% what I would want to see out of an adaptation of a horror epic this nuanced and great. I would probably even watch it again someday, and I intend to see the sequel. My review:

The good:
  • The overall tone. As AV Club's Katie Rife astutely notes, the visuals are particularly excellent: "Cinematography from Chung Chung-hoon, Park Chan-wook’s longtime DP, gives the film a richness and texture that’s far beyond that of most Hollywood films, let alone horror films."
  • The casting, especially Finn Wolfhard as Richie -- of whom Andrew Barker writes, "Wolfhard all but steals the show as the gang’s cheerful antagonist Richie" -- and Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise. My biggest concern going in was my deep love of Tim Curry's iconic portrayal of the killer clown in the 1990 TV-miniseries version of It -- the great character actor is basically the best thing in a generally mediocre movie. The new remake is thankfully a better movie and Skarsgard is terrific in the role, not as great as Curry but very scary and amusing if a bit over-exposed: "The more we see of him, the less scary he becomes" Chris Nashawaty correctly deduces.

The bad:
  • The sexist "Beverly used as bait" problem, as well documented by Jackie Perez, who writes that "Beverly is stripped of her power and equality when she’s taken by Pennywise the clown in order to propel the six boys into the sewers to rescue her. The tired and sexist trope of using female weakness to show male strength goes directly against everything Beverly stood for in the book." Indeed, I found the kidnapping subplot to be the movie's absolute low point -- it is both sexist and too narratively boring and overused. Why not just have the Losers including Beverly head down to the sewers to defeat It, for which they already have more than sufficient motivation at that point? Why does Pennywise even choose Beverly? He always seemed most interested in Bill. 

  • The needless backgrounding of Mike Hanlon, the Losers' Club's sole black member. When It downplays Mike's character and role, it omits the complex racial history of Derry and the racism Mike experiences -- he is bullied by villain Henry Bowers but the racial motivations for it are sidestepped. As Kristen Yoonsoo Kim writes, "the racism that Mike faces is so watered down that he loses some of the individual purpose in the kids’ fight against evil." Indeed so. For example, why does Henry never utter the word "nigger" when tormenting Mike? Especially in these troubled (real-life) times, when open racism is a constant front-page issue, the film's choice to avoid that word feels out of place and weird -- an omission that causes more discomfort and dissonance through its absence than it would if the film just went for it and told the truth. 

  • Furthermore, regarding the gratuitous flattening and marginalizing of Mike in this movie, why does Ben Hanscomb need to take over Mike's researcher role? Can't a black kid be a smart kid in American cinema? Besides, likable though he is, Ben doesn't need more to do -- he has his hands full with the film's amplified Bill - Beverly - Ben love triangle.
  • The film's amplified Bill - Beverly - Ben love triangle. This stems from the film too weirdly sexualizing Beverly. For while foregrounding her sexual nature allows for some Carrie-esque moments in the bathroom sequences, it kind of ruins the dynamics of the kid Losers in the film. Instead of fitting in with the guys as a tomboy, Bev becomes a highly sexualized object of desire from the get-go. My memory is that in the novel, Ben's feelings for Bev don't really come out into the open until the adult phase of the action. Am I mis-remembering that?

The strange:

In the theater where I saw It, it opened with video footage of Stephen King in a neutral studio setting introducing the film and saying how blown away he was by director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of his favorite work. Now I love Stephen King, both as a pulp author and as an irascible left-centrist public figure, but he seemed downright awkward in this introduction video. He was clearly reading from a teleprompter -- I could see his eyes reading and I think I saw the teleprompter screen reflected in his glasses.

King has always had a fraught relationship with film adaptations of his books, famously despising the very best one, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), even making a TV miniseries version in 1997 as a kind of public "I'm taking it back" gesture. And as A.O. Scott notes, a great many King adaptations are mediocre or worse, so maybe this isn't a very high bar. But it was interesting to me that someone took the time to film this footage of King and place it up front -- King subtly asserting his authorship? A precautionary measure to assure audiences this isn't another Dark Tower (2017) fiasco?

Anyway, horror fans or King fans should go see this film. It is fun and mostly scary, though a couple of the clown attacks are so over-the-top as to be silly rather than convincing (including, IMO, the first one). The final battle is, as Scott correctly states, boring and unaffecting: "The climactic sequence of It sacrifices horror-movie creepiness for action-movie bombast." And obviously, as I've said, big sexism and racism alert. But It is worth your time for the cinematography, a few scares, and Richie's one-liners alone.

Richie sez: "If you don't like this movie you can fuck off!"


  1. I agree with all your good and bad points -- although I would have liked to have seen more Pennywise as a character and less as an ineffective jump scare; Skarsgard was at his best when he was talking -- but I came away ambivalent towards the film.

    I didn't hate it -- I was expecting it to be terrible -- but I didn't love it either. I don't have any particular fondness for the book and I wonder if that's why I have a lukewarm reaction to the film.

    1. Well, I understand your lukewarm reaction -- I think part of my positive reaction is surely attributable to my love of the book. The movie got just enough things right -- the house on Neibolt Street, Pennywise himself -- that I could sort of occupy the sweet spot where my love of the book exists. But the movie is uneven and too jump-scarey, as you've correctly noted. "I would have liked to have seen more Pennywise as a character and less as an ineffective jump scare; Skarsgard was at his best when he was talking" -- exactly!