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It movie review: cheap thrills in a shameless cut-and-dried cash grab

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The most basic reading of Stephen King’s doorstop novel about a murderous shape-shifting clown, and of the famous 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry as the red-nosed villain, is that fears we fail to conquer as children return to haunt us in adulthood. But you’d never know that was a key theme – or even a theme at all – going by director Andy Muschietti’s grotesquely superficial adaptation, which obliterates the subtext and throws the baby out with the blood-imbued bathwater.

The book and the mini-series alternated between timelines distanced by several decades. A group of adults battle the makeup-caked monster in present day, while extended flashbacks detail their traumatic first attempts to defeat it as kids. Both invoke a profound point saliently made, in recent years, by – of all characters – the protagonist of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: that “you can’t run away from your own feet.” As in, you can’t escape things that are inherently part of you.

The scope of Muschietti’s movie, however, is limited to the terrorised pipsqueaks and jettisons their adult selves, containing effectively half the story. Why? So you’ll return for the next instalment, of course. This deathly serious, exhaustingly banal, cut-and-dried cash grab not only fails to bring anything new to the table (and indeed, takes away the nub of the work) but is, in effect, a 135 minute trailer for the inevitable sequel.

The first appearance of the clown, who is called Pennywise (now played by Bill Skarsgård) heavy-handedly sets the scene. The moment arrives right after little Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) takes a trip into a shadowy cellar, with creaking stairs and other bump-in-the-night clichés, and right before a bolt pistol-wielding man delivers ham-fisted words of wisdom to young Mike (Chosen Jacobs) about the terrible realities of a dog-eat-dog world.

It is about as cinematically rich as a haunted house at an amusement park – and not one of the good ones.

When Pennywise is introduced, looking up through a sewer drain, his eyes shine like a demon and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score climbs towards jabbing intensity. The tone is rock-heavy, Muschietti’s direction smothering prosaic elements that packed understated punch in the mini-series: the paper boat floating down the street, for example, or Georgie’s bright yellow raincoat – now stripped of vibrancy in a muted, musty colour scheme.

Georgie’s stuttering older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is a member of the so-called Loser’s Club. These put-upon, up-against-It kids confront a situation common in horror stories, battling otherworldly forces (the Krueger-esque antics of the murderous clown) while juggling human elements that are just, or almost as scary (being tormented by a switchblade-wielding local bully). The story is set in the late 1980s.

There is also Mike, Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Beverly (Sophia Lillis) the obligatory chubby kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and hyperchondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer). The back-talking bigmouth of the pack is Richie, played by Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things – an infinitely smarter and more entertaining production, which, given the similarities in retro-ness, genre tropes and Stand By Me-esque coming-of-age story, It now lives in the shadow of.

Tommy Lee Wallace, director of the It mini-series (which is very good, until it eventually degenerates into a cut-rate creature feature) understood that clowns are pretty freaky as is; you don’t have to do much to make them resemble the stuff of nightmares. Muschietti and his costume designer Janie Bryant adhere to no such philosophy: their Pennywise looks like something designed by Rob Zombie – with bloodshot eyes, streaks of red makeup, a painted on (rather than plastic) nose, and ginger hair instead of red novelty shop wig.

It is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of Bill Skarsgård under those bucketloads of gnarly makeup, and amid all the sound and fury. Where Curry found room to make the character his own (perhaps influenced by Michael Keaton’s similarly erratic, scenery-chewing graveyard performance in 1988’s Beetlejuice) Skarsgård struggles to be heard above the nerve-jangling brouhaha.

In several scenes, the director’s idea of a good scare is to summon zombie-like apparitions to holler gibberish at the kids. That is about as cinematically rich as a haunted house at an amusement park – and not one of the good ones, either. The young cast’s performances are impressive, and Chung-hoon Chung’s camerawork occasionally interesting. It is nothing if not tonally consistent (albeit: formulaic to the point of being algorithmic) though the same could be said of a headache that just won’t quit.

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17 responses to “It movie review: cheap thrills in a shameless cut-and-dried cash grab

  1. Hell hath no fury like asshurt fanboys. And few things are as uproariously side-splitting as the petty ad hominem and meaningless word-puke they hurl when someone dislikes a film the love, as perfectly exemplified by some of these comments. So very sad pathetic and hilarious. Utter crap film btw.

  2. What a spot on review. It’s weird how similar my thoughts are to yours. Now I don’t feel crazy, because everyone seem s to Ben hailing it as a triumph in modern horror.

  3. Kids in “don’t go down there alone” peril for hours … forgotten in minutes.
    Excellent young actors, and flashes of King’s brilliance in coming of age matters, but, in horror terms, the boatloads of special effects pale in comparison to a couple of genuinely terrifying parents.
    As in MAMA, the director appears to be striving for visuals more disturbing than the universal nightmares his audiences might imagine. IT may gross a billion, but it says nothing worth thinking about.

  4. So you didn’t enjoy the movie. You accuse the director of being heavy handed. I have heard of very few horror movies that have gone for the delicate touch. Oh, the HUMANITY! Subtlety and horror are like oil and water. It is difficult to get them to mix successfully. As for setting up for a sequel, well, I can think of a lot of movies that have done that.

    I thought that it was the object of every media item, whether movie, TV, book or even your column, to provide money for the people who invested in it’s creation.

    Mr King is in the same boat. He writes books that are popular. He may have started off writing for the love of it. I doubt that is still the case.

    Andy Muschietti makes movies. He does so for a studio system that wants money. Nothing else. Just money. If a movie fails to realise about three times it’s costs, it is a failure. If it turns out that the movie is GOOD, that is a bonus, but popularity is much more important because that means money. If Andy turns out great movies, but they don’t make a profit, he is pretty well finished in the business.

    Money is what makes the world go around. It’s just about the only thing that does now, which is both tragic and to the detriment of all of the arts. There are exceptions, of course, but they are increasingly rare.

  5. This review is laughable at best and may even be a cry for attention or views, which is ironic given what you complained about. Muschietti and company didn’t change Pennywise just for the sake of it. He’s an ancient creature that’s portrayed a clown at various times for centuries. Also, you really think they didn’t do enough in the two hours to satisfy as a standalone film? I’m sincerely glad you don’t direct. It was chalk full of scares and of teens becoming friends. Does everyone have to like the movie? No. But actually know what you’re talking about before printing

    1. I honestly don’t think he is searching for attention, just expressing himself and his own opinions, none of which should bother you, given that millions and millions of people would side with the people that liked this movie and disagree with this review. While I don’t agree with everything he said, it kind of is a little selfish to underestimate what he is capable of doing, just because of one simple review. For me, the film was fine, but I won’t be giving my full opinion on it, because nowadays, people get a little frustrated with another person’s opinion, as seen in these comments. I do agree however, that they needed to split the book, that way we understand the story better and get more development, so that we can dive in to the next story. The scares were kind of cheap, and I wish Pennywise did more of the talking like he did in the book, that’s my only gripe, but that alone doesn’t ruin the film for me because there is always the sequel for that concept, which I am really looking forward to seeing.

  6. I couldn’t disagree more with your review, and based on it’s opening weekend numbers you’re very much in the minority. Skarsgard did an excellent job reinventing Pennywise and making it his own. And how did you expect them to adapt a 1,000 page book into one movie? Yes, it’s tiresome when studios split books into sequels for cash grabs, but this was absolutely the right choice to tell the story. It would be impossible to make IT into a two hour film. You come off as pretty arrogant in this review.

    1. “Based on it’s opening weekend numbers you’re very much in the minority…” First: opening weekend numbers refers to, what, the box office? Let’s be clear: box office measures profit, as in how many people paid for tickets, but does not measure what those viewers thought of the film. Fifty Shades of Grey had good opening weekend numbers, too – does that mean it’s a good film? Second: critics are often in a minority because – forgive me all you self-declared Normal Viewers out there – critics tend to know more about film than non-critics. Or, at the very least, they have rarefied opinions which they can articulate more persuasively than Average Joe’s “yeah, it was good” or “nah, it sucked.” That’s what makes film criticism worth reading. Anyone who thinks a critic’s job is to shepherd clueless consumers through the bewildering process of deciding what film to see – how can anyone but you know whether you’ll like something or not? – is setting themselves up for disappointment. A critic’s job is to consider what they’ve seen, place it in some sort of context, then express their own feelings and impressions. By that score, this review is a job well done. For what it’s worth, I thought IT, the film, was a decent coming-of-age flick but found the fantasy aspects too literal and overstated – why all the damn CGI? – rendering the “horror” mechanical.

      1. “critics tend to know more about film than non-critics.” Really? In what way SPECIFICALLY? Has this particular critic ever made a film? NO. Then why are you so quick to give the benefit of the doubt that this guy knows anything more than, as put it “non-critics”? I’m a filmmaker and non-critic. I want to do how you think one is qualified to give their “rarefied opinions” without ever making a film? Why should I take this dude’s “criticism” as anything more than an Average Joe’s bloated ego gone amok. This film was a very entertaining watch. The fact that this critic gets paid to write a bunch of drivel without nary a positive note about it makes him an automatic disqualification from being taken serious as a “critic”. This, unfortunately is the case in many of today’s film criticism. It’s all a bunch of snark without anything positive merits. And because of that, it is an illegitimate profession.

      2. Great response, JJ…and judging from the response just below, I shutter at the state of society when so many have absolutely zero understanding of the weight of their opinions vs those of others with professional (or at least experiential) credentials.

        Along with ubiquity of available information, comes false sense of ubiquity of knowledge and understanding.

        1. Enthusiast media is replete with people who think they know better, but seldom have a grasp of the craft that they’re covering. Too often I’ve seen the personal politics of critics creep into their critique which seems to be written to persuade consumers to punish wrong think. Buckmasters review of the The Red Pill being a prime example.

          Film critics are not in a rarified air with superior abilities at interpreting film or any other media or product. They’re a consumer with a platform, and I feel are becoming less and less relevant as punters get a feel for quality through word of social media and/or mouth

    2. “on it’s opening weekend ”

      Its*

      No apostrophe. Love it when some insecure buttmad attempting to sound smart outs himself by failing at middle school grammar. :)

      1. I agree with you completely, but in my opinion, the movie was fine, but not a spectacular piece of horror. The people that have comments below are offering constructive criticism, but then lashing out and calling this guy out. To be honest, while I don’t agree with 100% of this review, I wouldn’t be furious about it, because there are probably millions and millions of people who wouldn’t agree with this review, but some of these comments are kind of rude, just because they can’t accept only a single person’s opinion and just work their way around it in a positive fashion, such a shame. I definitely won’t be giving my full opinion on the movie without some of these people getting a little upset with me, but I am somewhat looking forward to the sequel of this movie when it comes out.

    3. Nice response, but a little harsh at the end. Anyways, Box Office numbers don’t determine whether a film is good, that’s just how many people were willing to check it out. But I do agree with you that this movie should just tell the story of the kids without cramming the whole book into it, and it perfectly worked. I read the book and it was pretty good, and while this movie does use infamous tropes and cliches like “The Damsel In Distress” concept, it does follow some of the source material really well, while adding easter eggs readers of the book can easily find. I am definitely looking forward to the sequel.

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