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"It" (2017) Review by Keith LaFountaine

SPOILERS FOR IT (2017) BELOW

It is a mammoth novel. At over 1100 pages, containing a huge assortment of characters, and spanning over 200 years of mythos, you can imagine just how hard this novel is to adapt. It's not just an issue of plot, it's an issue of time. While King has over 275,000 words to tell his story (the equivalent of a 4,500 hour film, if 1 script page is equivalent to one minute of film time) Andy Muschietti has given himself roughly four hours -- around 240 pages -- to adapt both halves of these novels.

A still from  It  (1990)

A still from It (1990)

The 1990 miniseries showed that this novel is both incredibly hard to adapt, and impossible to water down. While Tim Curry shines through, in that adaptation, as Pennywise, the rest of the film around him is rife with bad acting, poor writing, stilted dialogue, and cheesy effects. This miniseries covered the entirety of the novel, but even its three-hour runtime wasn't enough to effectively adapt King's story. Additionally, this adaptation avoided almost all of the violence, sexuality, and dark humor that made the novel unique, and memorable.

Andy Muchietti's It suffers, too, from this inability to capture the temporal expansiveness of King's novel. The first chapter of the film, clocking in at a little over two hours, covers the majority of the plot points contained in about half of King's novel. However, it fails to capture the depth, and the intricacies contained within those pages. Furthermore, its horror is executed in the most lazy, and frustrating, way: jump scares.

Let's begin with the writing, though.

This adaptation of It was originally written by Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer. Fukunaga was originally attached as writer/director for a long time. You may know Fukunaga from his directorial efforts on films like Beasts of No Nation and Sin Nombre, along with his directing work on the first season of the HBO show True Detective.

Fukunaga was fired from the project after it had been mired in development Hell for quite some time. After being fired, he shared some details about why he was given the boot, and what the producers wanted his film to be.

I was trying to make an unconventional horror film. It didn’t fit into the algorithm of what they knew they could spend and make money back on based on not offending their standard genre audience. Our budget was perfectly fine. We were always hovering at the $32 million mark, which was their budget. It was the creative that we were really battling. It was two movies. They didn’t care about that. In the first movie, what I was trying to do was an elevated horror film with actual characters. They didn’t want any characters. They wanted archetypes and scares. I wrote the script. They wanted me to make a much more inoffensive, conventional script. But I don’t think you can do proper Stephen King and make it inoffensive.

The main difference was making Pennywise more than just the clown. After 30 years of villains that could read the emotional minds of characters and scare them, trying to find really sadistic and intelligent ways he scares children, and also the children had real lives prior to being scared. And all that character work takes time. It’s a slow build, but it’s worth it, especially by the second film. But definitely even in the first film, it pays off.

It was being rejected. Every little thing was being rejected and asked for changes. Our conversations weren’t dramatic. It was just quietly acrimonious. We didn’t want to make the same movie. We’d already spent millions on pre-production. I certainly did not want to make a movie where I was being micro-managed all the way through production, so I couldn’t be free to actually make something good for them. I never desire to screw something up. I desire to make something as good as possible.

We invested years and so much anecdotal storytelling in it. Chase and I both put our childhood in that story. So our biggest fear was they were going to take our script and bastardize it. So I’m actually thankful that they are going to rewrite the script. I wouldn’t want them to stealing our childhood memories and using that. I mean, I’m not sure if the fans would have liked what I would had done. I was honoring King’s spirit of it, but I needed to update it. King saw an earlier draft and liked it.
— Cary Fukunaga

Ultimately, Fukunaga and his producers were trying to make two different films: Fukunaga wanted to make something akin to The Shining, or Rosemary's Baby, whereas his producers wanted him to make the next Conjuring film.

When Fukunaga was booted from the project, the producers hired writer Gary Dauberman (writer of Annabelle and Wolves at the Door) to make extensive changes to Fukunaga and Palmer's script. They also hired Andy Muschietti, writer/director of the 2013 film, Mama, to replace Fukunaga in the director's chair.

Sadly, what Fukunaga divulged in that interview is completely true. While some elements of his script has been kept, much of it was re-written to fit Muschietti's vision (which, in turn, fit Hollywood's vision). By this I mean to say that Muschietti's It is full of poor dialogue, jump scares, and very flat characters.

Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Part of this stems from what I mentioned above -- trying to adapt a huge novel into a relatively short script. Supporting characters, like Henry Bowers, or Beverly Marsh's father, are fleshed out in the novel, and given compelling backstories. In the film, they are defined by very rigid, and thin motivations. Henry Bowers, for instance, is a bully because his father is a violent drunk. That's it. That is the entire motivation behind this bully's extremely violent, and destructive tendencies. Beverly Marsh's father has no motivation, nor any backstory. He's just a looming, abusive figure that is shrouded in darkness.

The real issue with the writing of this film, though, is the depiction of Pennywise the Clown. Obviously this character is essential to the novel, and to the overall story.

Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Bill Skarsgård is fine as Pennywise, though he is very forgettable. His performance can be summed up as "forced" -- a combination of whisper-talking, and overacting. Pennywise's horrific actions are augmented by poor CGI, which takes away from both the character, and the Skarsgård's performance.

Furthermore, this Pennywise never feels like an organic part of the story. Pennywise is an old entity, spanning well beyond the lifespan of the children. Yet we never get a feeling for that age beyond some vague dialogue which speaks to it. Furthermore, because of all of the jump scares, Pennywise never feels scary. In fact, all of the scares in the film feel very forced, and inorganic to the atmosphere Muschietti attempts to set up.

Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Photo by Brooke Palmer - © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The main cast is good, though, and they are the saving grace of the film. While Pennywise, and the fear surrounding him, feel inorganic and forced, the interactions and chemistry between the core characters is strong. They are funny, endearing, and realistic. 

The real standout performance in this film comes from Finn Wolfhard, who plays Richie Tozier. Carrying the majority of the comedic relief on his shoulders, Wolfhard is able to punctuate each scene he's in with authenticity and endearing realism. 

The rest of the cast works well, even if they don't quite fit the character descriptions we remember from the novel. In this respect, while they may not replicate the characters we have envisioned, they certainly embody them. The performances are all solid.

In fact, ironically enough, the younger performances are much better than their adult counterparts. Part of this could be from the shallow writing, or the stilted dialogue the adults are often stuck with, but it is worth mentioning.

© 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

© 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The real issue with this film comes from the jump scares, though. Jump scares, by themselves, are not inherently evil. They are most certainly lazy, but they aren't the worst thing ever. A horror film can still be very good if it has a couple of jump scares in it. However, like many other things in the filmmaking world, less is more

Muschietti does not abide by this adage, as everything from Pennywise's interaction with Georgie to the climactic third act are rife with forced jump scares, grating musical cues, and dramatic lighting. 

That first interaction with Georgie helps set up the entire film, both in terms of tone, and in terms of scares. The script has jarring shifts in tone, which are best exemplified by Georgie chasing his boat down the street happily, running into a road block, and then meeting Pennywise. In a matter of a minute or two, we change the entire tone of the film three times, and without warning. This happens throughout the film continually, with varying degrees of success (blending horror and comedy can work, it just depends on how you do it).

My opinion of Skarsgård's performance is complicated, and this scene perfectly encapsulates why. There are fleeting moments where he captures the essence of Pennywise as a character -- this lure for children that is used so he can feed -- and there are moments where he feels like he is trying to be scary (which, as we all know, generally doesn't work; just like when someone is trying to be funny, it comes off as forced).

Skarsgård oscillates between these two positions frequently throughout the film. When he releases some balloons to reveal his face to one of our core characters, it feels forced. It's supposed to be scary, but it isn't. When he is playfully tortures Eddie, who has broken his arm, he inhabits the comedic, and terrifying, nature of Pennywise as a character. I don't know how much of this is Skarsgård's performance, and how much of it is the writing, but Skarsgård as Pennywise is wildly inconsistent, to say the least.

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I guess those are the two terms I would use to best illustrate my feelings about this film: forced, and inconsistent.

None of this is to say that the film is unwatchable -- if you don't mind jump scare horror, similar to what James Wan provides (though Muschietti is not nearly as skillful as Wan when it comes to delivering said type of horror), then you will probably like this film. 

However, from my perspective, as a filmmaker and a film lover, Muschietti's It is the kind of film that exudes all of the issues the horror genre currently has. It's full of forced scares, and light on depth and characterization. That doesn't mean it can't be enjoyed, nor does that mean it's devoid of any quality; it just means that, as an adaptation of its excellent source material, and as a film, it fails in a number of capacities.

My Top 9 Favorite Horror Films (So Far) by Keith LaFountaine

After railing against horror films -- or, at least, modern horror films -- in my last post, I think it is important to lend a bit of context as to what I consider "horror". Therefore, after you finish up reading this list, please feel free to visit my previous blog post (link is below).



9. Deathgasm (Jason Lei Howden, 2015)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON NETFLIX (US) | NR | 86 MIN. 

Deathgasm is relatively new to the horror scene, having only been officially released two years ago. However, taking some inspiration from Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, and other horror/comedies, Deathgasm is a surprisingly entertaining, hilarious, and startlingly scary ride.

The story revolves around a group of friends, all of whom are interested in death metal, growing up in a rather boring suburb. In an effort to escape the tedium of their lives, they form a band. While in this band, they accidentally summon an evil entity through some cursed sheet music, and all Hell breaks loose -- quite literally.

The most remarkable thing about Deathgasm is how well it incorporates its music into the narrative. Having gone through a death metal phase myself during high school, I could easily buy these kids as both avid metalheads, and aspiring musicians. 

Deathgasm is extremely gory, as well. It's actually surprising how much they get away with (though since the film is not rated, there really isn't any restriction on what they can do). Guts are strewn all over the place, limbs are ripped off, people are decapitated, and much, much more. 

It was an official selection at a variety of film festivals across the world, including the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, Sydney Film Festival, New Zealand Film and TV Awards, Fangoria Chainsaw Awards, Fright Meter Awards, and Molins de Rei Horror Film Festival. It was nominated for everything from best film to best effects, and won four awards.

If you are the kind of person who loves a good horror/comedy that doesn't skimp out on the gore, or the laughs, then Deathgasm is definitely worth checking out.


8. The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | PG-13 | 104 MIN.

The Others is the rare exception to PG-13 horror films, and their general poor quality. Starring Nicole Kidman in the leading role, the story follows a mother, Grace Stewart, trying to care for her two photosensitive children while waiting for her husband to return home from World War II. The children cannot be touched by sunlight in any way, or else they will be harmed, so Grace keeps the entire house shrouded in darkness, the only light being oil lamps they carry around the house. As you can imagine, weirdness ensues.

What The Others does so well is slowly, and methodically build tension. It doesn't rely on jump scares, but instead uses its natural narrative atmosphere to its benefit. Enrique Bello shows his immense talents as gaffer, and Javier Aguirresarobe captures everything beautifully with his cinematography. The tension truly is palpable in this film, and Kidman's performance is exquisite.

The narrative itself is also incredibly intriguing with plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep you interested. it never fully reveals its hand until the end of the film, though, which makes it a thoroughly enjoyable experience from beginning to end.

If you like old fashioned ghost stories, atmospheric horror films, and/or Nicole Kidman you will love The Others.


7. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆

AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON NETFLIX (US) | R | 99 MIN.

The Descent is essentially two horror films in one. It starts of with one premise, executes it perfectly, and then takes a wild left turn into crazy town. What ensues is violent, terrifying, and wholly engrossing. 

The Descent follows a group of women who go on a caving expedition, and end up getting trapped in the cave, and have to fight their way out.

What's more amazing about this film (directed by Neil Marshall, who also directed the episodes "Blackwater" and "The Watchers On the Wall" for Game of Thrones) is how well all of these characters are built up, and how well they are torn apart. All of these women are well written, and their descent into the cave (pun intended) acts both as a catalyst for the horror, and the beginning of a terrifying character analysis.

Don't get me wrong, though, it's not all dialogue. The Descent is a truly messed up film, with plenty of blood to satisfy viewers, and plenty of atmosphere and tension to satiate picky watchers like me. It truly has it all. Best of all, it rarely uses jump scares (the ones that are there don't feel forced, either), and has an incredible location that naturally builds tension.

This film is brutal, terrifying, and sometimes poignant. I highly recommend it.


6. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆

AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON AMAZON PRIME | NR | 96 MIN.

This is the zombie movie that began the zombie moving craze (which was continued with the excellent sequel, Dawn of the Dead). The late, great George A. Romero created a film that was extremely scary, and had plenty underneath the surface in terms of social commentary. With an extremely memorable cast of characters, extremely taut direction (this was Romero's debut feature; he had only done one short film beforehand), and gritty cinematography, this film has stood the test of time, and aged well.

Night of the Living Dead follows a group of people who barricade themselves in a remote house after the dead rise, and begin to eat the living.

The effects are great as well. I recommend you watch the black-and-white version, not the colorized version (both are available on Amazon Prime), because the former feels more visceral, and is much scarier. The blood effects are surprisingly memorable, and the lighting is perfectly executed. The narrative itself is powerful, and the ending is one of the most gut-wrenching climaxes in cinematic history.

This is one of the best horror films ever made, and a vital installment in cinematic history. I highly recommend it to everyone -- just remember to watch the black-and-white version.


5. A Nightmare On Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆

AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON NETFLIX | R | 91 MIN.

A Nightmare On Elm Street is another essential film to see, both in terms of its influence in horror cinema, and because of its importance to the independent market. Wes Craven had directed eight films previous to Freddy's first film, but few of his features have withstood the test of time quite as well as this 1984 classic.

A Nightmare On Elm Street follows Nancy Thomas and her friends as they try to uncover the mystery behind their shared nightmares, and survive Freddy's relentless attempts to kill them.

What Elm Street did so well that few other films were doing at the time was incorporate surrealism into its horror. Not only is the catalyst for the horror brilliant in and of itself -- we all know how visceral, and terrifying, dreams can be --, the surrealist cinematography, the cutting-edge effects, and the relentless pace of the film all add to create an absolutely incredible experience from beginning to end. 

Elm Street is still terrifying, too. While it has this underlying atmosphere of very dark comedy (mainly utilized by Freddy's character), the film is very dark, very grisly (especially for the time it was made), and memorable. In fact, few horror films have as many memorable moments, locations, and characters, as this film does.

This is also the film that put New Line Cinema on the map, who became one of the most important distribution companies in American cinema (they are the reason we got Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films). It is an incredible success story for independent filmmakers to aspire to.

A Nightmare On Elm Street is one of those films you need to see. Watch the sequels at your own risk, though.


4. The Orphanage (J.A. Bayona, 2007)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★☆

AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON HULU | R | 105 MIN.

The Orphanage is a surprising horror film. On the one hand it is very creepy, with some extremely unsettling imagery, some terrifying moments, and a very unsettling story at its core. However, it is also very poignant, sweet, and oddly uplifting in spots. It's a weird blend of optimistic storytelling and cynical horror. It works, though, and has proved to be one of my favorite films (not just horror films) recently.

The Orphanage is about a woman, Laura, who brings her family back to the orphanage where she grew up. While she is there, her son begins to communicate with an invisible friend. As you can imagine, creepy things ensue.

Everything works well here, from the narrative (which slowly reveals its hand over the course of its 105 minute runtime), to the gorgeous cinematography, to the great sound design, to the exquisite lighting, to the powerful acting. The entire film is placed squarely on Belén Rueda's shoulders, and she consistently delivers throughout the film.

Fans of Guillermo del Toro's films (who is the executive producer of this film) will love The Orphanage, as it delivers his style of dark horror. However, viewers will also be surprised by its optimism, and the narrative as a whole.


3. Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON | NR | 64 MIN.

Freaks is very impressive horror film. Coming off the heels of films like Dracula, Frankenstein, and a wave of German expressionist films like Nosferatu, there was a surprising amount of content out there for those early audiences who wanted to indulge their fear. This film is very unique in that it used actual sideshow performers as part of its cast. Everyone, and everything, you see in the film is real -- no effects, and very little makeup.

Freaks follows a group of sideshow performers who discover that a trapeze artist, who has agreed to marry their leader, is only doing so for the sizable inheritance she will receive from doing so. Hijinks ensue.

This film begins as you would expect. There's a lot of flowery dialogue, some basic plot developments, and continued tension throughout the film. However, it's not until the final twenty minutes that the film really becomes terrifying, and truly scary. The amateur cast does incredibly well, the cinematography is great, and the lighting is beautiful.

Freaks also has the distinction of still technically being illegal to show in a few US states. Back when it was first released, so many people were shocked by its content that a number of US states made it illegal for anyone to show it. While those laws are not enforced anymore, they are still technically on the books.

This is an important part of cinematic history, and I highly recommend that everyone watches it.


2. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE TO RENT ON AMAZON PRIME | R | 91 MIN.

John Carpenter, like Wes Craven, is the perfect role model for young, independent filmmakers to aspire to. Carpenter had already made two features (Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13) when he created one of the scariest films, and one of the most enduring horror movie villains, of all time. Made on a budget of $300,000, Halloween proved yet again that you just need ingenuity, determination, dedication, and a great idea to make a film successful. Halloween ended up grossing $47 million in the US.

Halloween is about a psychotic killer, Michael Myers, who returns to the small town of Haddonfield after fifteen years, while his psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, pursues him.

Halloween sports the grungy, gritty cinematography we see in films like A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Night of the Living Dead. Carpenter creates a brooding atmosphere with this imagery, and its sound design (partly engineered by Carpenter himself). Jamie Lee Curtis is perfect as Laurie, and there are a ton of memorable, and terrifying, moments throughout this film's lean runtime.

Carpenter's Halloween is the perfect starting place for someone interesting in getting into horror, or for those who are interested in specific, genre-defining installments. It's also just an incredibly structured film, and essential viewing for all movie-lovers.


1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★★★★

AVAILABLE FOR VIEWING ON AMAZON PRIME | NR | 67 MIN.

This is one of the grandfathers of modern horror. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the first German expressionist films, and it was also one of the first horror films ever made. With its distinct production design, its revolutionary cinematography, and its twisting narrative all contribute to what is an incredible overall film. Even if you don't like silent films, I implore you to watch this one.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is about a hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, who uses a somnambulist to commit murders throughout a town. 

There are a ton of features which make this film an important installment in cinematic history, but it also proves to be quite entertaining. With a short runtime, taut direction, and revolutionary lighting, cinematography, and production design, this is definitely my favorite horror film of all time.