BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC This week the movie industry bemoaned there limpest summer ever, hopefully giving some studio honchos a moment to rethink the trend of larding up what was once a season of innovation and fresh ideas with a seemingly endless string of sequels, remakes, franchises and corny old super heroes. The fall trend of Oscar-worthy releases might relieve us a bit yet one of the most-hyped films of the early fall season is another Hollywood no-brainer: an adaptation of horror icon Stephen King’s 1986 novel, It, previously brought to the small screen as a mini-series in 1990 starring Tim Curry as a maniacal clown Pennywise. While originality is not this big-screen adaptation’s strong suit, it is undeniable that the film has been brought to the screen with a lot of loving care, aided by an able cast of young actors and Chan-wook Park’s cameraman Chung-hoon Chung (who shot 2016’s exquisite The Handmaiden) bringing the terrorized New England town of Derry eerily to life. If only a real shot of inspiration could bring the story’s creepy possibilities to life.
The timing is right. It sounds like I’m typing a line from a dystopic novel but we are currently citizens of a society where the once-common figure of “The Clown” has gone from romping on children’s shows to being legislatively outlawed by town’s fearful of violent clown-painted mayhem. We’re in a “scary clown” moment where Juggalos march on Washington and seemingly-sane friends will protest loudly if you put a clown picture on your Facebook timeline. King’s story captures the temper of our times, Pennywise the clown is first spotted crouching in a sewer where he soon snatches little Georgie, pulling him down into the abyss. It’s a primal moment set in a world that’s recognizable, making it a lot more visceral than all the CGI’d quasi Hellraiser-style effects to come.
Taking a cue (and one if it’s stars, Finn Wolfhard) from Netflix’s Stranger Things, this version moves the action from the late 1950’s to the late 1980s, with lots of MTV-era hits blurting out on the soundtrack. Turns out it is not just Georgie but other Derry kids are disappearing with alarming frequency, and seven put-upon kids known as “The Loser’s Club” start a banana seat investigation of who is behind the the evil deeds. Pennywise isn’t the only monster stalking these kids, there’s sadistic bullies and even more devious adults who makes these kids everyday lives pretty nightmarish as well. Over the course of 135 minutes the rag-tag bunch of kids will face down their horrors, both in this dimension and beyond.
Purists might’ve screamed but focusing on a group of seven kids makes this adaptation pretty ungainly and repetitive, as each kids gets a scene of being bedeviled by an adult and another “jump-out” moment with Pennywise haunting them from the dreamworld. Inexperienced director Andrew Muschietti gets some good performances from the kids but seems clueless on how to thread these events together gracefully or how to supply any building drama in the story. Swedish actor Bill Skarsgård ain’t necessarily bad as Pennywise but stretching his head with CGI effects has all the wonder of screwing around his some dopey photo app. Rather than building a sense of momentum the film just goes big in the end, making the kids battle a giant underground dungeon of animated demons Goonies-style in a deadening sequence that seems like it is a just few keystrokes of modification away from being included in any effect-driven blockbuster.
With that evil is conquered, at least until It Too (not its real name alas) hits theaters with the concluding half of King’s story, set 27 years after the events here. Most fans know the adult section is a bit of come down from the punchier first half, and after this ultimately dispiriting opening section it will take more then Pennywise to drag me down this sewer of mainstream studio horror for its closing round.