September 09, 2017

Movie Review: IT (2017)

via Express.co.uk
Have you seen IT? If not, you should - despite my criticisms, it's still a very scary movie and I think you're going to love it. This review includes some spoilers, so stop reading now if you want to see the movie with fresh eyes. In no particular order, here are my chief observations, criticisms, and takeaways from the movie:
  • The movie will be more meaningful to you if you've read the book.
IT (2017) received some very gentle plot revisions from the director in terms of what sorts of movie monsters the children feared, and there were a few scenes from the book that were either reinterpreted (the deadly blaze at the Black Spot) or completely ignored (Stanley's terrifying encounter in the water-tower.) Or, Bill's make-shift smoke-lodge and his vision of the great turtle. If you haven't read the book, then those things are meaningless to you, but if you have then you understand how they fit ever more deeply into the greater plot that ties everything together.

And then, there are other things from the book are included but never explained. For example, Pennywise's famous line, "Beep beep, Richie!", is without context unsettling all on its own, but it makes more sense in the totality of the book.

Another example of something taken from the book but not explained in the movie is the scene when Pennywise captures Beverly and hypnotizes her. Long story short, his head opens up like a big, toothy vagina and deep inside are seen three spinning lights, the sight of which puts Beverly into a catatonic state.

In the book, Stephen King uses these lights as a device to illustrate madness, insanity, and what lays beyond the outer limits of comprehensible reality. When Pennywise hypnotizes Beverly - an absolute but forgivable deviation from the book's plot - he's actually transporting her mind to the farthest limits of the universe where the fabric of reality begins to unravel. 

If you're a fan of Lovecraft, then you'll recognize this element of stupefying terror and incomprehensible horror. There's a much more elaborate method in the book used to return the (adult) Beverly from the thrall of the deadlights, but the method used in the movie is predictable yet satisfyingly effective.
  • The plot sprints to the finale at a blistering pace.
I was going to see IT just like I was going to see The Gunslinger no matter what the reviews said because I'm a big fan of Stephen King's writing, but I gotta say: have you ever noticed that Stephen King's books are frequently adapted very poorly to the screen? I think this is partly because the directors who make his movies are focusing on the visual horror as an end (and not a means), but also because King is the kind of writer who very effectively uses gross horror to illustrate fine reality.

As King himself is fond of saying, the most hideous monsters he can write are everyday people like you and me. All he needs do is to turn off the lights and watch what happens when food and water start to diminish. If you don't believe me, then you should watch The Mist which is perhaps the most oblique manifestation of King's horror philosophy.

Because King writes so much into his books, this results in multi-layered stories with a whole bunch of threads that require the nuance of the written word. When this dense bundle of narrative is translated from the page to the screen, this always results in critical cuts being made to important threads which would have created a more fulfilling movie so long as you've got an unlimited budget and upward of 10 hours to tell the story.

Movies are a different medium than books, so sacrifices must be made. Naturally, it's difficult to strike a balance between telling the story in its most pure and perfect state and the movie studio making a return on its investment. Despite the graphic and frequently violent nature of the book, IT is also very thoughtful and contemplative book. In King's book, these things aren't contradictory but complementary.

But in a horror movie? No matter how masterfully King wrote IT, the movie adaptation in 2017 has to compete with garbage like Annabelle (Creation), a movie so awful that it's bound for cult status immortality. For reasons that can only be explained by mass stupidity, people are lining up in droves to actually pay money to watch this eyesore of a turd.

So yeah, I get it: a balance has to be struck between storytelling and moneymaking. Unless IT was going to be an arthouse movie, chances are it would never get remade. What this means for IT is that achieving the balancing point between narrative and money required the plot of the movie to sprint at a blistering pace through each character's introductions, how those characters met, and the dynamics that evolved between them. IT might have been better done as a miniseries on Netflix or Prime so that the time was available to properly treat the 1,138 pages of King's IT, but instead we get two hours and 15 minutes to account for roughly 569 pages of content.

Despite the break-neck speed at which the plot moves in order to prepare for the movie's climax, I thought that the necessary compromises were effective and didn't ultimately detract from the movie.
  • The movie would be scarier if it didn't rely on computer graphics.
But you know what did detract from the movie? The computer-generated special effects. Part of what made IT (1990) so terrifying was that it made remarkably little use of special effects. There were a lot of practical effects in IT (1990) which - even if they're dated by today's standards - worked very well to make the movie frightening without distracting attention from the action on the screen.

IT (2017), on the other hand, didn't seem to integrate the special effects successfully. Sometimes during the movie I felt like I was watching Silent Hill (2006) - which was also a thoroughly entertaining movie - but Silent Hill was so thoroughly saturated with CGI that it more or less blended into itself. When IT (2017) uses CGI, though, it often feels like an interruption to the movie which is made worse by the irritating habit of CGI these days to appear muddy and indistinct.

So much of what makes IT (2017) terrifying has remarkably little to do with CGI: the haunted house on Neibolt Street, the clown room inside the Neibolt house, pretty much any scene featuring Bill Skarsgard's portrayal of Pennywise, Beverly escaping from her father, or the bully Henry being verbally assaulted by his father - these and several other scenes I could name thrived without any CGI at all, and the rest of the movie would have been improved if Skarsgard's Pennywise were given more screen-time without the use of CGI.
  • The movie would also be scarier if it used fewer jump scares.
I understand that different moviegoers want (and expect) to see different kinds of scares when they go to see a scary movie, but not matter how much I enjoyed so much of this movie, my opinion is that it made excessive use of easily predicted jump scares. Some people like jump scares, and then, some people like the Annabelle movies.

But me being the moviegoer that I am, the kind of horror I prefer is the slow, creeping horror. The horror that you see coming yet are powerless to stop. The horror that once it's touched you, it becomes part of you. The horror against which there are no physical weapons. The horror which makes you recoil from the people you thought you could trust. The horror which makes you question whether you truly deserve to live.

A great example of this kind of horror is found in the movie It Follows (2014), but for my preferences I've been equally (or even more) terrified by germ movies. There's a South Korean movie whose name I'm forgetting at the moment about the spread of a super-flu introduced into the country by illegal immigrants who were smuggled into the country in a shipping container. I'll ignore the deeper metaphor and what it says about immigrants and immigration, but even though that movie had a relatively low production value I found it to be so frightening that I had to stop watching about a quarter into the story. If IT focused more on the narrative horror instead of the visual horror, and also gave Skarsgard's Pennywise more screen-time, I think the movie would have been substantially improved.
  • This is the first of two movies.
This wasn't a surprise to me since I knew that when King wrote IT the book was actually two stories woven together: the story of the principals as children, and then the story of the principals 27 years later as adults. I knew going into this movie that it was going to be the kids' story, but there are a lot of people who think Annabelle is great weren't aware of this plot twist. For them, the movie probably felt like it ended on an empty note, but for people like myself who know the story and are aware of the broader narrative that King was trying to tell, the movie had a satisfying conclusion.

There's a metric tonne of stuff from the children's half of King's IT that I would have liked to see either included in the movie or where present in the movie just better explained, but as a stand-alone creation I thought that IT was very effective and equal parts terrifying and compelling. IT was a worthwhile movie experience, and I'm looking forward to seeing the story of the adults told in the second chapter in mid- to late-2019. If Pennywise-induced nightmares don't kill me, the wait for the second chapter will.

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