From the Archives: Dan and Andy get ready for IT

From the Archives: Dan and Andy get ready for IT

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Dan Scully: This week brings us the release of IT, the next in a long line of Stephen King adaptations which have been popping up with increased regularity as of late. What separates this from all the others is the fact that it’s the first which could be considered a remake. Granted, the source material for this adaptation is the not the movie but the novel, yet one can’t help but feel that ANY adaptation of King’s epic tale will always exist in the shadow of the 1990 made-for-TV miniseries.

While the quality of the original film can be debated, there’s no questioning the affect it had on people of my generation, who were quite young when it was released. I cannot count myself among them, for I had not seen the film until after my inaugural reading of the book. I was about 19 years old at the time, a little hormonal, a little edgy, and a lot posturing as a cultural purist (love for Blink182 be damned), so the film didn’t really work for me.

That said, I revisited it the other day and found that, despite how limited it is by its medium, there’s a lot to love.

But enough about me. What’s your history with IT?

Andy Elijah: There is undoubtedly a lot to love. Part of which is inherently about nostalgia. IT was one of the first things that I remember truly terrifying me. My brother told me about it- some movie where a demon clown kills a little boy. As a little boy, well, that was basically a nightmare scenario to me. So as much as I felt repelled by it, I also felt compelled to see it- the way that horror works for a lot of people.

So I watched it on VHS multiple times growing up, before buying the book to take away on my first summer at sleepaway camp (1999). True story; After I started reading the book, I woke myself up two different nights screaming from a nightmare. After embarrassing myself thoroughly around my cabinmates, I decided it best to put the book down. I only recently bought myself a new copy, hoping to actually read it this time.

So the property of IT is an inherently visual one to me. Perhaps the most important factor in considering IT, is that it’s a made for television two part miniseries that aired on ABC. That meant that it had to get by not on gore but on family friendly thrills. Which is quite hard to pull off considering it’s about an evil demon that murders scores of innocent children. Somehow though, they made it work. That is, what I think, made it a beloved movie for me growing up. Sort of the sinister, darker side to a movie like Hocus Pocus. Make no mistake — this was white knuckle fright for me when I first saw it. Yet as I grew older and my taste matured and I needed harder material to give me the same kind of thrill, it became more of a comforting movie, and less a source of fear. It’s more in line with Stand By Me than it is something comparable like A Nightmare on Elm Street, despite also being a movie about a sinister paranormal force that prays on the fears of young children.

You said there’s a lot to love about the movie, and you are right. What do you love about it?

Dan: I think you said it best. As a family friendly movie based on a very VERY family UN-friendly text, what I love about it most is the unabashed commitment exercised on all levels of production to adhering to a pretty impossible task. When moments are cheesy, it’s not because the filmmakers backed down from anything chancy with their limitations in mind. In fact, I’d say that the they were likely very aware of these limitations and sought to meet them head on. This is the type of production which, had it been made in 2017, would struggle to play its inherent goofiness with a straight face. I’d bet good money that it would either be overflowing with knowing winks and nods, or worse, it would be bland as hell.

Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise The Dancing Clown is one to savor. A proper Pennywise should be able to bounce from kid-friendly to terrifying and back in the blink of an eye, while still feeling dreadfully imposing (the way that even the most innocent things feel to a child), and Curry does this effortlessly. In doing so he created a monster on par with any in the annals of horror cinema. Not a single spooky clown exists outside of his shadow.

He’s so good, in fact, that long before I ever read or saw the movie, I came across my aunts movie tie-in edition of the novel, which prominently features Curry’s Pennywise on the cover, and gave myself nightmares simply by having made eye contact with the photo. Bill Skarsgard has some huge shoes to fill.

I will let you decide whether or not that pun was intended.

At the risk of opening you up to spoilers I must ask about your awareness of plot differences between the movie and the source material. How much do you know?

Andy: So I lied a little bit when I said I hadn’t picked the book back up again since childhood- I recently gave the audio book a try but ended up quitting my Audible subscription. Nevertheless I got a couple hours into the 45 hour behemoth, and I can see all the critiques of the book being virtually unadaptable. It’s just a massive work, with so many left and right turns into different corners of the world of Derry, ME, the endless shadows of a small town where Pennywise wreaks havoc. The first big chunk of the book involves a gay bashing incident where the victim ends up being murdered- and Pennywise may have had something to do with it. These are characters never introduced to the mini-series, which made the wise choice to stick close to the core story of the Losers Club and their battle with Pennywise.

The one thing I am definitely aware of is that in the book, (SPOILER) all the boys of the club lose their virginity to Beverly in some kind of pact. Which, if they’re about 12 years old in the book, is uh, pretty fucking weird, Stephen King. On my recent rewatch of IT, I had the DVD commentary turned on in the second half, where director Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch) comments directly on this. His conclusion: that was simply too weird, and he decided to leave it out. I am glad he did- because you can’t lift that onto the screen without the story becoming basically all about that. King is such a talented writer, he could bury any fucked up detail of a story in a dazzling array of language. His mind so full of crazy shit that we are willing to move on as a reader. I don’t think that happens as easily in a movie. Plus I think he was either on a lot of cocaine at the time he wrote this book, or was newly sober. Either way, he was missing a few screws. From what I understand, whether or not to depict the “child orgy” —two words that should really never go together — may have been a key factor behind original director Cary Fukunaga’s (True Detective, Sin Nombre) departure from the job, and his eventual replacement by Andy Muschietti. That makes me sad because Fukunaga is undoubtedly the better of the two directors.

What do you think? As someone who read the book, does that scene really add anything substantial to the story? Do we need it that badly? Or is it wise to cut out a scene that might otherwise distract from the movie?

Dan: It’s a tough call. With IT being such a massive text (it really is much more a history of Derry, ME than just a story about a monster clown) by the time we get to the, um, running of the train, it ends up being so deeply earned, the characters so thoroughly built, that it’s actually rather moving. There are a million different ways that King could’ve portrayed the Losers Club sharing a bond and “becoming adults” as a weapon against IT, but to make it something so odd and conceptually ooky is a Stephen King idiosyncrasy of the highest order. I truly love it, partially because it’s so bold, but mostly because it purposefully wears the magic of sex (as viewed through a newly hormonal youth’s eyes) on its sleeve. Even so, I certainly do not envy any filmmaker who would try to put it on screen. I won’t say it’s impossible, but I’m pretty sure it will never be done, and for good reason. I think King may have captured lightning in a bottle. It’s the one instance where something so inherently difficult managed to work wonders. Then comes the question of “do I really want to see it on screen?” The answer is a resounding no.

I am not sure if that was one of the items which caused Fukunaga to leave the project, but I do seem to remember him mentioning that the studio wanted to make a typical horror movie while he wanted to make something more. While I do think that Fukunaga is more than capable of doing the depth of the novel justice, I wonder if doing so would be redundant by nature. If I want the book experience, I’ll just read the book again (I’ve already done it twice – once in audio form). I agree that Muschietti is the inferior filmmaker, but I think that he’s the best second choice a studio could hope for, and honestly, what I want out of an IT movie is exactly that: a movie. So if this new version is just a typical mainstream horror film based on a King-minted premise, I’m down. At this point I am not looking for allegiance to the source material so much as I just want to be scared.

As a story consumer, the novel taught me two very important lessons that have stuck with me. At the time when I first read IT, it was easily the longest book I’d ever tackled. It was the first text that taught me how to appreciate thematic density, heavy detail work, and the importance of character over plot. It taught me how to appreciate larger works of art. If I ever sit down to watch an insanely long movie, I can thank IT for showing me that the time commitment, in the best cases, is a small price to pay for an incredible return.

The second lesson I learned was in how to process adaptations. King adaptations have always been a tricky thing. His concepts are endlessly marketable and deeply cinematic, but his stories are very much intended to jibe with his chosen medium. In doing the ITbook/miniseries double feature at a culturally formative time in my life I learned how to parse out just what each medium can offer a story as well as what they can take away. King has famously showed disapproval toward Kubrick’s The Shining (which he has softened on over the years), but the fact of the matter is that the novel simply isn’t cinematic. At the same time, a novelization of the film would have been unreadable. Kubrick and King, both masters of their craft, each told the best version of The Shiningfor their chosen medium. It’s why, after so many years and so many King adaptations, I’ve come to really appreciate the IT miniseries, and plan to view the new movie with an open mind. I’m pretty sure I know exactly what to expect, but I also think I’ve left plenty of cognitive space to be surprised.

What are you seeking in the new film?

Andy: In the new film, I am merely seeking a filmic adaptation of the source material. The ABC mini-series lies somewhere in between a film and television- It’s not completely either. So an actual cinematic representation of the novel is long overdue. I am honestly surprised that no one has tried it yet.

I am also hoping that it’s not just a scary movie. I understand what Fukunaga is talking about there- because as you say, IT is more of a cultural history of small town, post war America, than it is straight horror. It’s also about how these specific individuals deal with the changing times, and the universal experience of confronting your demons. I loved how deeply the mini-series got into its characters traumatic backgrounds. I think it was the first media material that made me aware that adults carry their childhood baggage with them until they deal with it.

Muschietti dealt with those themes fairly well in Mama, his 2013 Guillermo Del Toro produced horror flick, which starred Jessica Chastain. If you could overlook some of the film’s glaring plot flaws, there was a horror movie that doubled almost as a terrifying fairy tale, or a nightmare-inducing bedtime story for kids. He is certainly adept at mixing the inner lives of children with horror. Mama almost plays like an audition for the IT directing job. Unfortunately, Mama might be a good time, but it’s not the type of film that really stuck with me. IT deserves to be remembered. So I am afraid the material is slightly above Muschietti. That, and the screenwriter is a guy who worked on the Annabelle movie. I’m a little worried.

Aside from Tim Curry’s performance, we haven’t touched much on the original film. What are some other aspects of it that you think work? Against all odds, I think they nailed a great structure for the storytelling- to deal with each character one at a time in the first half, then keep the second half mostly rooted in the present day. And I love so much of the cast, some of whom still show up in supporting television roles today. Thoughts?

Dan: Without a doubt the two-part structure of IT  lent itself very well to the story. In the novel, King bounces back and forth between present day (1985) and childhood (1955) by ping-ponging between scenes with similar thematic resonance for each character, and Wallace’s film uses that structure brilliantly, which showcases the excellent casting. The children all match their adult counterparts with a degree of accuracy that probably shouldn’t have worked so well, statistically speaking. And that’s not saying they look the same either. In fact, none of them really look that similar at all, but they do all match in characterization. That’s also not to say that they match their book counterparts either, but in the vacuum of the film their collective consistency and accessibility is remarkable, and largely responsible for keeping the unwieldy nature of the material afloat. [Editor’s note: This was a great unintended pun.]

Another thing that I really like about the film is the sequence in which a young Eddie Kaspbrak, after being admonished by his gym teacher for not showering after class, heads to the bathroom alone. After turning on the water, all of the shower heads in the group facility activate and increase in temperature. When he tries to escape, each spout becomes sentient, extending from the wall to block his escape. It’s a beautifully spooky scene in that it is ripped directly from the overactive imagination of a child. At this point in the story it has been established that Eddie’s internalized fragility is exactly what kept him from joining the group shower in the first place, and in a non-horror movie one could easily see a kid like him imagining this larger than life scenario. It’s just what kids do. But here it is actually happening, and it’s capped with my favorite Pennywise moment from the film. The monstrous clown emerges from the drain (which he has expanded to accommodate his size in a lovely moment of claymation), and does his playful/spooky thing that I love so much. It’s a shame the the scene happens so early in the film considering it is, in my humble opinion, the high point.

Devil’s advocate time. You are clearly a bit more into the 1990 miniseries than I am, so let’s flip the script. What about it doesn’t work for you?

Andy: There’s plenty that doesn’t work. As an adult, the scares are really non-existent. They are meant to scare children, and they just don’t hold up remotely. Whenever that creepy circus music starts coming through as the POV shifts suddenly to reveal something that wasn’t there before…it lands like an underwhelming amusement park ride. Also, Henry Bowers and his crew are also useless, pathetic bullies. It’s annoying when there’s a bad guy who is just completely inept. Whenever he wanders onscreen, you kind of just roll your eyes.

The ultimate great sin though, was that ending. Basically, do you mean to tell me that this terrifying ghostly presence that can change shapes into whatever a child is most afraid of in order to kill them, actually exists in its true original form as a big-ass spider? Even as a child, I was left scratching my head at this climax. Not to mention the great ease with which the Loser’s Club ends up ripping it apart from limb to limb. It simply doesn’t work at all, and cheats the entire story that came before it. On the director’s commentary, Wallace talks extensively about it- how he knew he was fighting a losing battle with an ending that was inherently disappointing. He did his best to make it as cerebral and trippy looking as possible, but there’s only so much they could do with the budget and time constraints they had. Ultimately it seems like they did it, washed their hands and called it a day. For what it is, it’s fine- it seems like more of a problem on King’s end.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Jonathan Brandis a little, the actor who played young Bill. Brandis was a childhood favorite, who I loved in such movies as Sidekicks(with Chuck Norris!) and of course Ladybugs (with Rodney Dangerfield). He gives what might be the best performance here as the stuttering Bill Denbrough, who’s just lost his little brother Georgie. Bill is a leader, but he’s also a loser. He’s not cool at all, but he finds deep meaning in his friendships. He loves his friends and they love him back, despite being unpopular. I think he was a great model for me- a little boy who could be an outsider but still find his place.

I bring him up because, as I am sure you know, that Brandis committed suicide in 2002, at age 27. In remorse over the downward turn his career had taken, and the lack of good roles coming his way, he began drinking heavily and decided to end his life. His death has always haunted me a little, and in some ways comes off as eerily appropriate for his participation in IT. He peaked early like many child stars do, and never found a way to transition into adulthood.

Any thoughts on Brandis? And beyond that, what do you hope to see from the new one?

Dan: As a kid who grew up doing karate, Sidekicks was huge for me, and Brandis was very much a part of that. But outside of that film and my older sister’s obsession with any young male celebrity who managed to find himself on the pages of Tiger Beat, I never really had many thoughts about him. I guess his body of work just fell outside of my tastes as a youth. He was certainly talented, and his charisma shows in IT. I never knew much about his passing short of it being a suicide, but to hear that it was inspired by a reality that many child stars face is very upsetting indeed (although, as you said, eerily appropriate to IT).

As for the new IT, my biggest hope is that the new group of child actors will tap into the same reality that Brandis and his cohorts did 27 years ago. When it comes to Stephen King’s storytelling, it’s almost never the plot which resonates after the book is closed — it’s the characters, and the members of The Loser’s Club are some of his richest creations. If the new IT is to succeed in defining itself beyond of the shadow cast by Wallace’s earnest take on the material, it’s going to come down to the characters and the actors portraying them. I want to know the new Bill as well as I now know Brandis’ Bill. I want to feel his pain at the loss of little Georgie. I want to be scared by seeing a spooky clown and his many shapes through the lens of childhood’s free-flowing imagination. If Muschietti and crew can show me a story that gives me chills while driving home the “weakness as strength” theme which courses through the DNA of IT, I’ll happily call it a success.

And if this new flick does have a spider-monster, please let it be as delightfully tactile as the one from 1990, and please let it be used a little bit better.

This probably means nothing to you since you haven’t finished the book but I will say this: I don’t need the Turtle to make an appearance, but if it does, I might do a flip in the theater.

What does IT need to do to gain your approval?

Andy: All it needs is to be a distinct piece of art that doesn’t feel like it’s been test screened to death. That’s all that any movie really needs to be, in my opinion. It doesn’t mean that I am going to like it of course. But I at least want it to be an original piece of work.

It’s interesting how huge this movie already feels. I can’t think of the last horror movie that came with this much buzz ahead of it. The trailer broke records for views on YouTube. Perhaps it’s the clown thing, perhaps a lot of folks are like you and me and have some big attachment to the material itself. I’ve heard a lot of people who are not necessarily film nerds talking about it. Yet with this much buzz riding on it, I am obviously pretty nervous about it. I just want it to be a work with, ahem, teeth attached to it.

Most importantly, I don’t want it to be a collection of terrifying jump scares and nothing more. There’s plenty of movies like that out there already.

I also want it to be an emotionally compelling portrait of childhood traumas. Hitting all of these notes is a tall order to fill, and I feel like I’m setting myself up to be disappointed…But the good news is that this mini-series is already incredibly flawed. Unlike other “remakes,” there’s a very good reason for this one to be done again. It’s going to be completely different from the work we’re talking about- so fortunately there’s no real way to compare them.

Any final thoughts?

Dan: Just one. If the advance reviews are any indication, it seems that even the harshest critics and/or most obsessive King fans have all had something good to say about it. That’s good enough for me. With the knowledge that certain aspects of the text simply can’t be expected, it’s going to be very easy to take this version with a grain of salt, even though it sounds like I won’t have to. On top of that, Fukunaga will likely go off to do his own thing, rather than play in someone else’s sandbox, which is a victory in and of itself.

Tune back in on Friday for a full review of IT!!


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