(Updated with additional commentary on Pennywise’s general uselessness from Anthony and CJ at the bottom.)
Kevin: At a certain point in the new big screen adaptation of “It” – which just pulled in an astounding $123 million at the box office last weekend – we get a glimpse of a 1989-era movie marquee advertising “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child.” This got me thinking of what the original “Nightmare on Elm Street” would have been like if, rather than killing the teenagers whose dreams he invaded, Freddy Kruger just kept sort of letting them escape repeatedly until they all simply ganged up on him at the end and beat the shit out of him with pipes and baseball bats like he was a Yankees fan outside Fenway Park. If that doesn’t sound very scary, then be prepared because that’s pretty much “It” in a nutshell:
You are probably somewhat familiar with the main storyline of “It” even if you have not read Stephen King’s massive best-seller or watched the popular 1990 ABC miniseries, which chronicle the efforts of seven outcasts in a small Maine town to defeat the demonic clown Pennywise both as children and then later as adults. Unlike the miniseries – which skipped back and forth between both time periods – this version focuses strictly on the kids, while a planned second chapter will catch up with them as adults.
And therein lies the biggest reason why “It” isn’t scary: it’s essentially structured around characters who we know won’t be dying being menaced by a villain who apparently can’t kill them, perhaps because he also reads Variety and knows they need to stick around for the sequel.
Here is a typical scare from “It,” repeated many, many, many times: One of the kids walks into a room. He looks around and eventually sees something terrifying, like the ghost of a dead family member. Then Pennywise – who apparently can show up anywhere and as anything – appears screaming out of nowhere and starts running at him, causing the kid to flee up some stairs or slam a door. Then … I don’t know, I guess Pennywise gets easily winded and decides to call it a day, because the scene just kind of ends, only to repeated in a slightly different scenario with another kid just a few minutes later.
(Word of warning to you unoriginal douchebags planning on going as Pennywise this Halloween: If you want to truly stay in character, you should start doing a lot of cardio now to prepare for all the running after people, but not actually catching them, you’ll be doing that night.)
Honestly as the film went on I had no idea what Pennywise’s goal was. We are told early on that he apparently shows up in the town of Derry for one year every 27 years to feast on children, and he starts out with an extremely brutal killing of a young boy in by far the movie’s most shocking sequence. After that though he seems to be really nonchalant about racking up the body count even though it is summer and his deadline is approaching, but considering how good the summer movies in 1989 were, maybe Pennywise is spending a lot of his time at the local matinee enjoying “Lethal Weapon 2,” “Dead Poets Society,” “When Harry Met Sally,” and “Parenthood” among others.
It’s also unclear whether he is intentionally toying with the children because he feeds on their fear, but all that means is that by the 38th time he’s surprised one of the kids and then somehow allows them to escape his clutches after making another empty threat, he’s destroyed whatever sense of fear he could possibly evoke in both the characters and those of us in the audience. It’s equivalent to how the evil robots in the “Terminator” series could crush a human skull easily, yet in the later movies whenever they would get their hands on an actual human like Christian Bale they would just throw him 10 feet across the floor so he could run away.
Actually even though he doesn’t possess the power to fill a room with blood or grow 10 times his size like Pennywise, you could say the local bully Henry Bowers is a much bigger threat since he is always pulling switchblades and trying to straight up stab people for absolutely no reason whatsoever, like he was one of the more unruly patrons Swayze had to deal with in “Road House.”
This would be less of an issue if the kids comprising the so-called “Losers Club” were more memorable, but they are pretty much right out of the “Stand by Me”/”Stranger Things” template, with about one character trait a piece. One has a stutter, one is fat (although he also twice sustains severe gashes to his stomach, neither of which is ever commented upon again), one is black, one has a vagina, and the other three are kind of the same character since they seem to trade off on who is going to be the “hilariously” profane and/or scared kid in a particular scene. They also have a lot of lighthearted banter in between constantly almost being murdered by a demonic entity, most of which is not as funny as you are obviously supposed to think it is.
(This is also the kind of movie that really doesn’t trust the audience to pick up anything on its own. At one point the character Billy addresses the Losers before going to face his fears and for the first time doesn’t stutter, which would have been a nice subtle moment had another character not had to underline it with, “Huh, that’s the first time he’s never stuttered.” Later that same character sees the corpses of previously murdered kids floating in the air and says, “It’s the dead kids, and they’re floating.” Thanks for the update kid, we hadn’t noticed!)
Also, while I don’t need some type of “man I love living in the ‘80s, watch me moonwalk in my Members Only jacket while drinking a New Coke, and oh year remember Tammy Faye Baker?” era-establishing overkill, other than a couple of references to New Kids on the Block and Young MC, you’d be hard-pressed to tell whether this takes place in the ‘80s, ‘70s, or ‘60s. And while the town of Derry is obviously supposed to feel like a cursed place, apart from the kiddie slaughter every 27 years it seems like a pretty okay spot to raise a family. Either that or most people don’t leave because the property taxes in the rest of Maine really suck.
Now none of this is to say that “It” is a bad movie; it looks good, is well-paced, and the young cast is likable. But while director Andy Muschietti has delivered a polished and entertaining horror film, it’s hard not to imagine how much more creepy or interesting the film could have been in the hands of someone with a more distinctive style and vision, like Guillermo Del Toro or James Wan. As it is, while I won’t begrudge anyone who says they really loved it, I have a feeling that after the hype has settled down, this notion that “It” is up there with classic King adaptations like “The Shining” is going to seem as silly as the grown men exiting my screening claiming they were terrified. As for me, I was mainly left with a desire to check out “Nightmare on Elm Street 5” again. See ya soon Freddy!
Post Script: I will say that I am interested in seeing the upcoming “It: Chapter II,” because since it will be wrapping up the story there may actually be some suspense this time about who makes it to the end. With the opening chapter currently breaking all kinds of records at the box office I’m sure every agent in Hollywood is trying to secure their clients a part, so I’ll do some speculating on who we could see facing off against Pennywise as adults in their final battle:
I got kind of a Tobey Maguire vibe from de facto head-of-the-Losers Billy, but since he is sort of the lead character and with Hollywood being Hollywood, I assume Ryan Gosling is automatically at the top of the list.
Since they previously worked together on the horror film “Mama” (whose title creature bears a rather striking resemblance to the woman in the painting who attacks Stanley) and because she has red hair, there has already been speculation that Jessica Chastain is all but assured of being cast as lone female Loser Beverly, which would mean that she apparently grows up into a humorless stone-face since that’s all Chastain can play. I’d probably go with Amy Adams as a better red-headed alternative, or if I could really be bold, a CGI recreation of Christina Hendricks from the first season of “Mad Men.”
Since Ben is the “fat kid” and Hollywood assumes people never change from when they are children, I assume that Jack Black and Jonah Hill are already getting their screen tests ready. But I’d actually go meta by casting Jerry O’Connell since he actually did play the “fat kid” in King’s “Stand by Me” and still grew up into this handsome ladies man:
Richie is obviously supposed to be the foul-mouthed yet endearingly funny comic relief of the group, so I would honestly be shocked if we saw anyone other than Paul Rudd in this role.
Chadwick Boseman has played such towering real-life personalities as Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall, so playing a fictional character with no real personality to speak of like Mike should be a walk in the park for him.
Actually I forgot that the movie makes a big deal out of Stanley being Jewish, so obviously the only person for this role is Jackie Mason.
Other than his germaphobia there is really nothing that memorable about Eddie and you could pretty much cast anyone in his role, so fuck it, let’s just hire Jai Courtney and get this thing into pre-production as soon as possible.
Update: Anthony and CJ Add their Two Cents and Identify Pennywise’s Biggest Weakness … Doors!
Anthony: I have read King’s book, I have watched the original TV version with Tim Curry, and now I just sat through the newest version of Pennywise with the biggest forehead of all time. I have some thoughts as a viewer who almost always gives the villain the benefit of the doubt, because if I don’t like the villain I won’t like the hero (e.g. Alan Rickman, you will be forever missed).
But before I get to Pennywise, I just have to take a second to point out that the neighborhood bullies in “It” are quite fickle. They are literally carving their names into the stomach of one of the kids at one point, and then the next day they seem just fine and dandy with a good old-fashioned, non-lethal rock fight to settle their differences. I guess Mondays are a little rougher than Tuesdays for some people, and what is solved by a cup of good coffee one day takes knives the next.
Anyway, on to Pennywise. As Kevin has pointed out, he’s just really not an effective bad guy. Granted there’s a sequel coming, so he can’t kill the kids yet, but man is he easy to stop. For instance, there are several times in this movie when he is stopped by slamming a door in his face. Not a magical door. Not a door with spikes on it. Not even a door with a lock on it. Just a door. He does his shakey-shakey thing and lunges at kids who have the wherewithal to get to a door. Talk about finding kryptonite in the weirdest places.
And this brings me to the reason Pennywise is going to die from diabetes. According to what I remember from the book, I believe he likes to scare the children before eating them because it makes them tastier. He is basically seasoning the meat. Well apparently he has a heavy hand with it, because at several points in the movie these kids should be past seasoned and into pickled. If Pennywise actually chomped down on all these kids, he probably would have had to go into a diabetic coma for, ohh I don’t know, 27 years? Pennywise must be praying the Affordable Care Act is still around next time he wakes up so he can get his insulin shots paid for.
So in essence Pennywise scares the kids up until the point they all band together to beat the living shit outta’ him. Why would he do this? Freddy Kruger would definitely have a little fun time with you in your dream, but he’s not letting you wake up unless you are really lucky or really powerful. Jason Voorhees might clomp around a little and let those silly campers think he was actually hurt by that log in his face, but then he grabs them and breaks them in two on the same night.
Pennywise apparently couldn’t care less how long the meat simmers, even if that leads to his own demise. It’s like Magneto beating up on the individual members of the X-Men until they get together to kick his ass. There’s no one to blame but himself. Sorry for the nerdy reference but it’s real to me damnit!!
In summation, Pennywise has never seen a door that couldn’t stop him in his tracks, while Freddy and Jason know how to seal the deal. This is not a recipe for a scary horror monster, this is the recipe for a clown that needs universal coverage.
Kevin: Regarding the bullies, I’ll note that Henry Bowers pulls a knife on fat kid Ben and, unlike Pennywise, actually starts to follow through with his threat to carve his name into his stomach. Ben escapes but still has a bloody “H” carved into his stomach, and when the others see this, rather than alert the police or go to the emergency room, they have their one female friend flirt with the middle-aged pharmacist while they steal first aid supplies. Huh? Did they think that unless Bowers had actually finished carving “Henry” into Ben’s stomach that no one would believe that the well-known psychotic bully who constantly pulls switchblades on people was responsible?
Now that I think about it, considering “Stand by Me” was set in the ‘50s and “It” in the ‘80s, they could have had a great crossover opportunity by making Kiefer Sutherland’s switchblade-totting bully from that earlier King adaptation be the father of the knife-wielding bully Henry in this newest one.
CJ: That’s a good point about just closing the door. I feel like any scene where he jumps out and is like “HA HA HA, TIME TO FEAST ON THE BLOOD OF CHILDREN!,” any of the kids could have just shrugged their shoulders and said “Nah” and gone back to their Nintendo, leaving Pennywise to just stand around awkwardly for a moment before slumping off to the strains of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme.
On that point, how was anyone scared during this movie? Maybe it was just me, but the score, camera work, dialogue, etc., never really freaked me out, as opposed to a movie like “The Strangers,” where every time one of those psychos appeared you were ready to high tail it out of your own house to the police station. Whereas this jagoff Pennywise, I don’t know, shakes his head a lot and drools and everyone in my theater was jumping in their seats. If they are that easily scared then I guess they shit themselves any time they see a wet dog.
That being said, why is no one more disturbed by Mike in the movie? Everyone is talking about their fears of basic things (clowns, etc), and they get to Mike and he’s just casually like “Oh I’m terrified of my family burning alive. While you may see a scary hobo or a clown, I see hands desperately trying to pry open a closed door as they scream for their lives, which they will soon no longer have,” and the boys are just like “Yeah, that sure does suck Mikey. So Richie, is it ALL clowns, or just carnival ones?”
Kevin: Don’t forget, not only is Pennywise stymied by doors, but during the “You’ll float too!” (god if I never hear that again it will be the best day of my life) scene in the basement, apparently running up a few stairs is a bridge too far for him. I think the kids missed a golden opportunity to use their collective imaginations and trap Pennywise inside the only prison that he could never escape from: being surrounded by four hollow core wood doors of the kind that you would find in your average $20/night Atlantic City motel, and which your average angry drunken gambler could easily kick through after blowing his savings at the roulette table.
And speaking of Richie, what’s his deal when everyone else is explaining that the same demonic clown has been confronting them with their greatest fears, and he’s all, “Yeah well nothing like that has happened to me yet,” and they’re like, “So what’s your biggest fear?,” and he responds, “Clowns.” Huh, so maybe then you should be a little less nonchalant when we tell you about our collective clown-related experiences asshole. Also, why did Pennywise need to lock him in a room with a bunch of clowns to scare him, when he himself is a way scarier clown? For the first time all movie he could have taken the night off from coming up with a customized scary scenario, and just showed up at Richie’s door with a pizza and that would have been enough.
Finally, I talked in my review about how the movie barely goes out of its way to establish its 1989 setting apart from a few songs and the movie marquee showing films like “Lethal Weapon 2.” However, so far film critic Outlaw Vern is the only one I’ve seen who has caught what in retrospect is a pretty glaring omission: The complete absence of any “Batman” talk by the kids in “It.”
Because as anyone who actually was close to the age of these characters in 1989 would remember, “Batman” wasn’t just a movie, it was fucking event. The kids would have Batman posters on their walls, they would be wearing the Batman logo T-shirts (which would have to be a little faded since they would have been wearing and washing them since the previous year) …
… they would have been talking about how many times they’ve seen “Batman,” they’d be listening to Prince’s “Batdance” on a continuous loop …
… and since they are nerds they would also own a copy of the score by Danny Elfman. In short, if this was really a movie about kids set in 1989, the only name you would hear more than Pennywise would be Batman.
Actually since they obviously had to eliminate the scene from the book where the boys all lose their cherry to Bev, maybe “Batman” could have served a similar purpose in helping the boys lose their innocence, in this case representing the first time they fell into the collective sway of a massive studio hype campaign, leading up to finally getting to experience what they had built up in their minds would be the most amazing movie they had ever seen, and then realizing it wasn’t all that great but not wanting to admit it until years later.
Also, just to prove that summer movies were way better then, check out this list of the top movies at the box office from mid-July of that year, and notice that other than “Field of Dreams,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and “Dead Poets Society,” everything else came out within a few weeks of each other (and this is also back in a time when something like “When Harry Met Sally” could open 12th! at the box office and still go on to be one of the biggest hits of the year).
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