10/03/2017 – Stephen King: It (2017)
Directed by Andy Muschietti
As good a year as horror is having, Stephen King may be having one just as good. He’s already co-written a book (with one of his sons which has unsurprisingly already been optioned) and a novella but has also had five(!) adaptations of his works made into films while two more were made into TV series. Okay one of them is a sequel to a fairly obscure remake of Children of the Corn but still, six major adaptations is impressive for a career let alone one year. Of those, four have received great reviews (It, Gerald’s Game, and 1922 of the movies and Mr. Mercedes in TV) while the other two are the box office bomb The Dark Tower and the embarrassing redo of The Mist for TV.
But quantity is no surprise for adaptations of Stephen King. Since the release of Carrie in 1976 and discounting sequels which aren’t direct adaptations and original works for the screen by King, there have been 44 theatrical releases, 10 miniseries, 7 TV movies, 6 TV series, 4 episodes, as well as comics, stage, and song adaptations. Since 1976 (the premiere of Carrie, here is a list of all the years that no new direct adaptation debuted; 1977, 1978, 1981, 1988, 2000, 2008, 2012, 2015. They’ve run the gamut from the terrible to some unimpeachable classics. Primarily they take the form of horror (classics include Carrie, The Shining, but also include action (The Running Man), thrillers (Misery), and dramas (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile).
I can’t speak to the quality of his writing since the only book of his I’ve read is the great and highly recommendable On Writing. I have seen a ton of his adaptations though and even when they are real bad (the 2002 version of Carrie, The Mist show, and Dreamcatchers may be the nadir with Under the Dome and the King directed Maximum Overdrive putting in solid efforts) and no matter how often they, like reportedly his writing, often struggle with their endings (aside from The Mist where the changed ending for the screen is one of my five favorites ever and by far the highlight of the movie), they are almost always interesting and memorable. He’s prolific sure, but his works have made for some great source material and extremely varied. I could spend paragraphs more just discussing his work on the surface but for now this will do.
Going into this I had very, very, very low expectations. Despite all the positive reviews and craploads of money it is making, that trailer makes me crack up in all the worst ways. The way they repeat the iconic “they all float down here” line until it is meaningless, the pathetic Pennywise design, and that weird thing he does as he comes out of the water (complete with that sound effect) elicited a level of embarrassment for everyone involved in its production not seen in a trailer by me since that for A Haunted House. Not to mention this comes to us from director Andy Muschietti who’s short Mamá was very good but the expansion of it into Mama was lousy with some downright laughable CGI that the camera lingered on for far too long.
Let’s not pretend the original miniseries was some unimpeachable classic. The first half (which is what this movie covers) is very good with some great child acting (Including young Seth Green and Ginger Snaps’ Emily Perkins) and a fantastic Tim Curry performance as Pennywise. The second half is a forgettable mess with some very TV movie quality acting (that John Ritter is in it should say enough but surprisingly he has fans). It hasn’t aged great though and it shows its TV origins. Tim Curry really is the reason it should be watched and the best argument against remaking it since his performance is irreplaceable and iconic.
But you know what they say about people who condemn out of ignorance; they usually die still believing they were right and nothing all that bad usually happens to them. So, I went and saw It (a title that is not confusing at all to talk about in conversation) in probably the ideal environment. I saw it in a theater completely by myself. Turns out, I was pretty much on the money.
It is a rather good modernization of Stand by Me (which was yet another great movie made from a King novel) awkwardly stapled to a crappy horror movie. The good is that like the child actors are all talented and imbue the stereotypes they play with likability and compelling acting. Well the younger kids anyway. The older kids are even sillier than the older group in Stand by Me complete with someone who really wants to be Kiefer Sutherland. Aside from some few references and the fact that the Loser’s Club let in a black member, this town is basically still the idealized 50s era small town out of every King adapted movie. But I’ll give the movie its due, they all felt like fully realized characters that I genuinely cared about and my only complaint was there wasn’t more of these scenes.
I don’t think anyone could complain about wanting more from Chapter 1. The movie is overstuffed and paced like an overloaded mobility scooter; slow and prone to breaking down. I was casting out a weary sigh as the composer fell on his scare chord and the film abruptly shifted from “coming of age” to “generic modern horror”. The CGI is just as dodgy and overused as it was in Mama, the monsters had me busting up laughing, the “they all float down here” line becomes meaningless through overuse, and Pennywise looks just as stupid as he does in stills (aside from when shadows crop out everything but his face). I should not be yawning when I’m not laughing during the set pieces and riveted in the drama.
I’m not sure exactly who this movie was trying to scare but it was trying reallyhard to and failed miserably. There’s no way Andy Muschietti has ever heard of the word subtlety or what it could possibly mean let alone why it’s a good thing. There’s no building terror, just loud noises and attempts at being grotesque instead come off as silly. In fact, the movie’s biggest problem is Pennywise himself, or rather itself (no, I don’t know how I sleep at night either). I wouldn’t even say Bill Skarsgård is the problem since he’s fine I guess. It’s that I can feel the strain of the movie as they force him into the movie as many times as they can because they assume we are getting bored. Hell, his clown appearance only really makes sense for one person considering the whole “taking the shape of their fear thing”. Not that those forms look any less stupid, but at least I can chalk that up to poor execution. Pennywise himself just feels like an unnecessary relic who really wants to be Freddy Krueger (which I’m taking as intentional since the fifth film in that series is clearly advertised on a theater marquee). He’s funny when he tries to be scary and palm to the face embarrassing when he tries to be funny.
I’m still not sure where I fall on this movie. I left reasonably satisfied especially with the way the two mashed together movies came together in the end which is impressive enough. I can see why it did so well since it has the coming of age drama for the critics, the stupid poorly executed horror, the fact that clowns suck and are inherently unsettling, and the name recognition of It, King, and Pennywise for the masses. I just can’t call a movie which was so bloated (the movie could have really ended like five times before it did) and fails on so many levels a good movie.
Bonus Episode #2 – Stephen King: Gerald’s Game (2017)
Directed by Mike Flanagan
After the rather mixed quality of It and the garbage fire of The Mist, that still left four Stephen King adaptations this year. Since 1922 isn’t out until later this month (I’m gonna make sure to get to it, don’t worry), Mr. Mercedes manages the dual sins of being too long for me to get through for this feature and being on a channel I don’t get, and The Dark Tower manages the dual sins of not being released on DVD in time and apparently being absolute garbage, that leaves only one choice. On paper, Gerald’s Game is a tough sell as it is an adaptation of one of the least liked King novels. The reviews being so positive is enough to get my attention but considering my reaction to It clearly not enough. No, the main reason the movie had me excited was the man directing the movie.
Mike Flanagan is a name you should get used to if you are reading these since I can almost promise that he has two more titles (Absentia and Ouija: Origin of Evil) which will appear in this year’s marathon. 2011’s Absentia was his first step into horror, but the great Oculus was his breakout title in 2013. He next made the long delayed (and still not properly released in the US) Before I Wake, but it was two titles released in 2016 that made him someone to watch. Hush was a fantastic straight-to-Netflix title and one of the best horror movies of the year. It was especially impressive considering the home invasion genre is a hard one to make consistently and believably compelling. Ouija: Origin of Evil on the other hand managed the rare feat of taking a much derided but successful board “game” adaptation and made it into a critical hit (if not as big of a box office one) in the sequel.
The movie stars Bruce Greenwood as the dick of a husband and titular Gerald (and really the movie wastes no time establishing this) while Carla Gugino plays his wife. Some reluctant role playing on Gugino’s part turns quickly into rape fantasy and near spousal rape. Then we get some pretty despicable scenes as he keeps her tied up while having this conversation that no means no and he victim blames her. Of course, I was spoiled just as the movie was starting that SPOILERS he dies, doing so as a result of a heart attack and which eliminated the impact of it. It would have been so much better to go into it and having that moment be a surprise. I don’t care how central it is to the plot of the movie and presumably any description of it (which I avoid for a reason), it really does seem like something that would be better off not knowing. I really don’t get the analysis that says spoilers improve enjoyment of a movie because it soured me on it quick, put me in a bad mood, and I lost all interest. END OF SPOILERS
The movie never seemed to recapture that interest, though to be fair, this is one miserable and depressing movie (and not in the comforting way when you are down) that really wallows in it so it’s not like it was going to cheer me up or make me forget myself. That’s not an insult and in a way, I admire the movie for truly embracing something truly unpleasant without the need to make us feel any better. Any brief glimpses of hope are few and far between and almost immediately yanked away. Logic says that being spoiled on something maybe 20 minutes in is such a minor thing and shouldn’t dictate enjoyment of a movie (the tooth pain from having dental crap done combining with chronic headaches certainly exasperated it), but logic doesn’t always come into emotions and emotions will always affect how we enjoy something (this was originally expanded upon in a long rambling paragraph so you are welcome for sparing you all it).
SPOILERS Most of the ensuing movie follows Gugino as she ties to escape with only a feral dog that she had been nice to earlier (and frequently gnaws on his dead body) as any company. She starts hallucinating that he is actually alive and he acts like her view of what he was, eventually joined by a version of herself who acts as more of the encouraging side of her mental state to the taunting husband illusion. There is no one around to hear her, her body and mind are failing, and time has already been slipping away. These attempts to escape and discussions of her marriage with the alternate versions of the couple are complemented by flashbacks to awful memories of her mom hating her and of her father masturbating while he held her when she was 12 during a solar eclipse and how that moment destroyed her childhood despite all the effort she did to repress it.
It’s a thin line in a survival horror movie like this or Buried or Frozen where the viewer knows the person/people at the center can’t escape until the end and especially when you have access to a clock (or in this case a Netflix progress meter which kept popping up for some reason), it can be hard to stay engaged since even on a first viewing you know she isn’t going anywhere for a long while. Both those movies succeeded at this task for the most part so it’s not impossible, just difficult.
The end though… The scene where she slices open her hand to get it through the handcuff is genuinely hard to watch but in a compelling way and for a moment I was actually drawn in as she struggles to and manages to escape. As the movie draws to a close and she fakes amnesia in order to help bury the events yet is still tormented at night, it felt like the film is finally coming together as it ties into what she did with that incident in her youth.
She also has an unexplained illusion a creepy tall man which I liked for precisely that since movies too often seem to have to give a Freudian explanation for everything and not just let some things feel representative of a mood. That is, it was unexplained until the ending went and fucked this up to reveal that it was apparently some creepy necrophilia obsessed serial killer and robber with physical deformities (the movie went really overboard with describing him) who was convinced she was the one who wasn’t real. It’s a horrible, stupid fucking ending that I feel retroactively justified my bad mood throughout. It’s really random and the only explanation I can think of is that they were trying to make us question what is truly real but in the end, it just made me hate Stephen King’s ability to end things more. END OF SPOILERS This is not how I was hoping this month would start but hey, more to write about…
Next up: The 1962 version of The Phantom of the Opera as I take the time to discuss horror remakes.