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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