Review: “It” (2017)

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It’s safe to say that “IT” has earned a fevered anticipation (including a record breaking teaser trailer) not felt in the horror genre for many years; while nostalgia is a potent reason for the excitement, a whole new generation has the opportunity to face its fear…but will they enjoy it like fresh popcorn at the circus or is it a stale recycling of a beloved property?

Imperfect in many ways but overall, very satisfying not solely due to the long, 27year cinematic hibernation for “It” to awaken again but because Andy Muschietti’s (“Mama”) vision is both an excellent short form adaptation of the Stephen King source material but because of the rabid fan base of the film and book, carves his own niche that offers brand new material and reinvention of well-known characters and their dealings with the unearthly Pennywise and the darkness cast over the small town of Derry, Maine, this time updated to the summer of 1989 and with more than few surprises in this magic show.

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For fans of both the original book and 1990 television miniseries from director Tommy Lee Wallace (“Halloween III: Season of the Witch”) are well aware of the story and know that’s 1,138 page breadth present a massive undertaking and especially in regards to the former, some portions had to be excised for clarity, flow and development while in respect to the latter, budget limitations and network censorship were in full effect. Thankfully, “IT” had a healthy payroll, a proper and awesome hard “R” rating and enough energy that old fans and new converts will find something to enliven their appreciation and eagerly awaiting the second chapter.

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Of course, we can’t start anywhere but with Bill Skarsgard, whose performance as Pennywise The Dancing Clown brings his own unique and marvelous twist to the character. When first revealed, many mocked the design but the lanky frame of Skarsgard and his mix of mischief and malevolence, it fits perfectly. There have been many debates about the demeanor of Pennywise in his literary essence and he harbors many of the hallmarks made famous by Tim Curry’s gleefully grotesque performance but Skarsgard elects to be less talkative and humorous; he prefers to intimidate, bully, delighting in the bevy of fear he can create in so many forms. His hunger is quite literal; drool drips lecherous from his lips, his eyes widen and trademark teeth grow to a bite that in lesser hands (or mouths) may have been cartoonish but here is genuinely unsettling. This is embodied fully with Pennywise spending very little time enticing his prey as he much prefers to go for the kill but like any pitiless predator, he loves to play with his food just enough that flesh is tender and the fear an ample seasoning. It’s not as delightfully vaudevillian as Curry’s work but it much more in line with the hunter this eternal being is and will have you believe that Skarsgard not only can pull his own weight and ruffles but really is the eater of worlds and of children, without question or mercy.

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While Pennywise is the centerpiece and the beloved face of the franchise, you can’t count out “The Losers Club” the champions of the downtrodden, protectors of the weak, the sons and daughter of Derry and a crew many continue to sympathize and identify with over the last 30 years since the novels publication. The cast is really the strongest suit, the very heart of chapter one of this saga and while some of the actors are more adept than others, all performances deserve immense praise.

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Finn Wolfhard (probably the most metal name ever) a beloved part of “Stranger Things” which this film obviously apes in parts is the real standout here making “Trashmouth” Tozier live up to his name and persona and steals the show almost singlehandedly though it couldn’t have succeeded as much without the banter between his character and Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak.

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The sensitivity and stoicism of Bill Denbrough is communicated well by Jaeden Lieberher but this is one where I feel the late Jonathan Brandis set the bar a bit out of reach with his incredible performance though the denouement of the film and his peace with Georgie’s death are genuine and heartbreaking.

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Sophia Lillis is simply fantastic as Beverly Marsh – tough, smart, funny while also being the dream tomboy next door; she really has it all. Bev’s poverty is about equally stated in the miniseries but sexual promiscuity rumours were not as commonplace and pervasive in the late 50’s at least in open discussion but here in the later years of the first Bush administration, we see the damage done to Bev. It comes both by the extreme female bullying the plagues so many young girls but also the unnatural gaze and intentions of her father which are more far implicitly stated and played out with harrowing results.

Jeremy Ray Taylor has Ben Hanscom much more shy and reserved, less believable as the romantic in the miniseries and in the traditional sense but he’s genuinely irresistible and a total gem in the role; he definitely has “the right stuff” (part of a recurring joke that had the theater erupt with laughter) and Ben’s fear with a newly introduced scare involving the Derry Ironworks explosion during the Easter Egg Hunt is fresh, fun and frightening.

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I feel that Wyatt Olaf’s portrayl of Stan Uris and Chosen Jacobs’ of Mike Hanlon were underused, though I liked Stan’s impression of “IT” as it was unique to the property and very original; Mike’s fear was the definition of close to home but didn’t work out as well as there was a lack of build up and the scares too short. I was also extremely disappointed that Henry Bowers (and by default, Butch Bowers) overt racism and anti-Semitism being completely absent from the film. This is so important to both of these characters and their development and how even amidst the Loser’s Club, they still feel the burden of being outcasts.

Bowers, as a whole is arguably the most terrifying threat in “IT” (whichever the source or incarnation) and while Nicholas Hamilton adds some additional dimensions that are enjoyable with the onscreen mayhem, it’s just not as unnvering as the miniseries effort of Jarred Blancard. Without giving any spoilers, I am also struggling to figure out how Bowers will appear in the second chapter given his fate in this first portion of the story.

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It’s difficult to offer a comprehensive and honest review with touching on some missed opportunities from the book that could integrated, some more easily than others but most possible, though I want to gush about how great it was to finally see Eddie’s encounter with the leper on screen. Not quite a dream come true but certainly a perfect nightmare.

As they elected to adopt the updated 80s setting, it is unfortunate they did not include the prologue with Adrian Mellon is not only timely but absolutely terrifying and while to some it may have lessened the impact of Georgie’s first encounter with Pennywise, the bumper that opened the miniseries didn’t detract and actually amplified the menace of the Dancing Clown without a word but many a scream.

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With the aforementioned teaser trailer, I was elated to see Patrick Hockstetter on a missing person poster and while he is included in the film played by Owen Teague, his full potential is wasted, especially in relation to his demise which is beyond unnerving and likely could have been added sans a large preface (like the original text) and without feeling shoehorned. His end here feels cheap and cheesy; the only thing missing here was the mark.

While I can understand why Eddie Cocohran (who is discussed in the film by name) and his belated brother Dorsey (not mentioned) was too bloated of a segue to adapt, his inclusion is a plus and a nod worthy of mention.

Finally, having Beverly’s father Alan Marsh actually be sexually abusive felt compelling and while original scripts apparently called for an on screen onslaught, I feel it conflicts too deeply with his character in the both the book and miniseries where he is a controlling father with a puritanical, patriarchal bent, the unnatural, illegal and perverse desires that manifest themselves with Pennywise are more accurate and unfortunately don’t appear here with the miniseries excising the sexual content but delivering one hell of a punch with Ms. Kersh. With this incarnation, Marsh is easy to abhor but the relationship between father and daughter in the text is far more frightening.

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Score is so important to the franchise and while Benjamin Wallfisch (“A Cure For Wellness,” “Lights Out”) has immense talent and ability to blend dark, classic motifs that ratchet up to the tension while also providing warm floral tones that capture the magic of youth. This combines well with 80s favorites that will have many smiling and singing along but still pales in comparison to Richard Belis work on the 1990 miniseries which ranks among my personal top ten of all time for the genre and the television foray had the spirit of the late 50s with great oldies that were a perfect fit. Wallfisch still has a winner here; it’s simply a different battleground and is a diminished victory in respect to the war.

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Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography is stand out especially in respect to the various appearances of Pennywise, gleefully playing with the shadows to make his entrances, exits and especially with the terrifying encounter with Georgie extraordinarily effective. Also of note is the incredible set design, especially when it comes to It’s lair deep in drainage catacombombs and the House on Neibolt Street, a funhouse of untold fear.

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“IT” is not a particularly “scary” film but that doesn’t mean it lacks intensity, unease or harrowing horror as it is rife with all of those qualities and many more; it simply plays more like a very dark fantasy, a coming of age film where hormones, harassment and matters of the heart are overwhelmed by an eternal evil. It’s an ageless premise and with such a fresh cast and a well worn balance between adult horror and youthful hilarity, “IT” deserves the hype it’s attained and the respect it’s due; we all float down here…

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