Sec­ond take on teenage chills

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

It’s in­ter­est­ing to think of the movies that most scared you when you were a kid. When the tele­vi­sion ver­sion of It screened in 1990, I was by then too wise and ma­ture to hide un­der my bed. I mean, that same year TV also un­locked the gates to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Now, that fright­ened me.

The new, su­per-hyped film ver­sion of It didn’t shock me ei­ther, at least while sit­ting in the cinema. There are lots of jump scares to be sure, but age ac­cus­toms one to them. How­ever, the more I have thought about the movie, and dis­cussed it with my 12-year-old son, the more un­set­tled I feel. That’s a credit to the direc­tor, Ar­gen­tinian Andy Muschi­etti, to the spot-on teenage cast, which in­cludes Aus­tralian ac­tor Ni­cholas Hamil­ton, and most of all to the man who wrote the novel in 1986, Stephen King.

The post-view­ing think­ing and dis­cus­sion took me back to what King did with the novel. It digs deep into themes that course through his pro­lific ca­reer: child­hood an­guish and the shad­ows that lurk be­hind white picket fences in small-town Amer­ica.

Pen­ny­wise the Danc­ing Clown is there all right, with an un­nerv­ing singsong voice and teeth like some­thing out of Alien, but he’s the man­i­fes­ta­tion of some­thing much more or­di­nary, much more com­mon: de­gen­er­ate hu­mans. That goes to the acutely psy­cho­log­i­cal ti­tle: the source of terror is not de­scribed as he or him. “It knows what scares us most,’’ one of the kids says, “and that is what we see.’’

Even back in 1990 I re­alised there was a dis­tinct evil about Pen­ny­wise. And Tim Curry in the role was some­thing spe­cial, a fact his re­place­ment 27 years down the line, Swedish ac­tor Bill Skars­gard, knows too well. He de­cided to do the role his own way, and it works. He morphs across lines that should be un­bridge­able, from child­like friend­li­ness to de­monic de­prav­ity. And of course that is ex­actly what John Wayne Gacy did a few years be­fore King pub­lished the novel. He dressed as a clown. He lured and killed 33 boys and young men.

It trou­bles me a bit that my son knows this now — bloody Wikipedia! — although at the same time I’m pleased he’s so en­gaged when we talk about movies and books. To con­tinue in parental mode for a mo­ment, I wouldn’t let Syd see It to­day, but I would in a cou­ple of years.

The MA15+ rat­ing is a touch strict, I think. The sex in King’s novel is not in the film. The rat­ing is for “strong hor­ror themes and vi­o­lence”, and yes, there is a lot of that. Muschi­etti’s pre­vi­ous film, the su­per­nat­u­ral Mama, was am­ple ev­i­dence that he knows how to raise the goose­bumps. Though per­son­ally I think the right au­di­ence age for It is 13-16, the same as that of the chil­dren at the cen­tre of the movie.

The main group is de­rided as the Losers Club: stut­ter­ing but strong Bill (Jae­den Lieber­her), be­spec­ta­cled, in­tel­li­gent smart-alec Richie (Finn Wolfhard), over-moth­ered asth­matic Ed­die (Jack Dy­lan Grazer), clean freak Stan (Wy­att Olef) and, join­ing a bit later, chubby new boy at school Ben (Jeremy Ray Tay­lor), African-Amer­i­can his­tory nut Mike (Cho­sen Ja­cobs) and, per­haps most im­por­tant of all, spunky Bev­erly (Sophia Lil­lis), who is wrongly teased as the town trol­lop.

The teasers are led by a smaller group of boys a cou­ple of years older, headed by the nearpsy­chotic Henry (Aus­tralia’s Hamil­ton). The cast is near-per­fect. Ev­ery one of these kids, even knife-wield­ing Henry, is be­liev­able. Watch­ing them took me back to another movie based on a King book, both for the per­for­mances and some of the themes ex­plored, Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986).

In front of these kids is Pen­ny­wise, along with other grotesque in­car­na­tions such as zom­bies and a liv­ing head­less corpse. The su­perb scene where Bev­erly’s cut-off hair shoots back up the bath­room basin to stran­gle her is, well, grip­ping. Be­hind these kids — be­hind Pen­ny­wise too per­haps — are the adults in their lives. Bev­erly’s bor­der­line in­ces­tu­ous fa­ther, for ex­am­ple, or Ed­die’s smoth­er­ing mother, or Henry’s tough po­lice of­fi­cer dad.

The movie is set in the late 1980s in Derry, a fic­tional town in King’s home state of Maine. There’s a clever nod to how pop­u­lar hor­ror was at the time when the kids walk past a cinema show­ing Night­mare on Elm Street 5.

The open­ing scene is per­haps the best in the movie. It is long and full of a seat-edge ten­sion that would work for a 14-year-old viewer, who might not know what’s go­ing to hap­pen, and for an older viewer who will know. In­deed, the know­ing is more shock­ing.

Ben and his lit­tle brother Ge­orgie are in their bed­room on a rainy day. Ben makes a pa­per boat. Ge­orgie runs into the street to float it. The boat races along the gut­ter and slips into a wide drain. When Ge­orgie goes to re­trieve it he sees some­thing in the drain. It’s Pen­ny­wise, smiling.

We move for­ward to the fol­low­ing sum­mer, to the Losers Club and the bul­lies. Light is in the air and dark lurks be­neath. There are sto­ries of chil­dren go­ing miss­ing.

Mike looks up old news­pa­pers and re­alises that ev­ery 27 years some­thing bad comes to Derry (it’s 30 years in the novel, but 27 is the cin­e­matic dis­tance be­tween the first It and this it­er­a­tion.)

King’s novel un­folds in two threads: the ex­pe­ri­ences of the chil­dren are told in flashback from the present set­ting, in which they are adults. Muschi­etti tells only the child­hood story, in a much more lin­ear sense than the novel, and I think that’s a clever so­lu­tion. It turns an 1100page book into a tight, for­ward-mov­ing, thrilling, dark and sad movie. He will do the adult story in a se­quel (and though I think Skars­gard is ter­rific, I’d re­ally, re­ally, re­ally like to see Ben Men­del­sohn, who re­port­edly turned down the part, as Pen­ny­wise).

King has been on my mind lately, partly be­cause of It and the other new film based on one of his nov­els, The Dark Tower. When you con­sider his book-to-film ca­reer, he is hard to beat. Stan­ley Kubrick’s The Shin­ing is top of my list, but I know others will go for Reiner’s Mis­ery or Brian de Palma’s Car­rie or a non-hor­ror one such as Frank Darabont’s The Shaw­shank Re­demp­tion. I’d add another Darabont, the death-row drama The Green Mile, which I think is one of Tom Hanks’s best per­for­mances.

I liked It a lot. Its af­ter­math is so busy in my mind, that I’m tempted to award it four stars just for that. But based on what is on the screen I’ll stick with 3 ½.

Bill Skars­gard as Pen­ny­wise, the man­i­fes­ta­tion of de­gen­er­ate hu­mans, in It

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