By: Kevin Jordan
Less is more.
In one of the weirder quirks of movie scheduling, two Stephen King adaptations released within a month of each other. The first – The Dark Tower – was a bit of a disappointment financially and a major flop among critics. Personally, I thought it was acceptable. Now comes a new take on It, one of King’s most famous books. If you are like me, you remember the 1990 miniseries version of It as being really good. It also helps that I was roughly the same age as the kids in the movie the first time I saw it, not to mention it scared the shit out of me, even after multiple viewings. So far, most critics have given the remake the thumbs up and, in a vacuum, so do I. It’s a solid horror movie with some legitimately scary scenes and good acting on the kids’ parts. But, this isn’t a vacuum and if you ask me which version is better, I’m going with the original. Maybe it’s just kid nostalgia, but this new version didn’t hit the same mark for me.
My first thought about this remake was how they could possibly do justice to the source material with a two-hour movie. To be fair, the original miniseries is only a hair over three hours, but it is amazing what good (or bad) filmmakers can do with forty-five extra minutes (the new version is two hours and fifteen minutes). Unlike the miniseries and the book, the remake doesn’t attempt to mesh the adult and child versions of the characters, choosing to focus solely on the events during their childhood. Don’t worry – a post-credits title card confirms that the adults will return to fight It, probably in 2019. The problem with cutting the adults is that much of the character development relies on the many transitions between the adults and the kids throughout the story. Watching John Ritter cower in fear at the mere mention of Pennywise returning is more powerful character-building than anything in this remake.
The character development is arguably the weakest part of this movie. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is mostly the character we remember. He’s the unofficial leader of the Loser’s Club (a name that is somewhat forced in this remake), has a stutter, is torn up after the death of his little brother, Georgie, and has a crush on Beverly (Sophia Lillis). However, he’s not the same powerful force that Jonathan Brandis depicted. New Bill is scrawny and never believable as any kind of match for the school bully, Henry (Nicholas Hamilton), let alone Pennywise. His singular obsession with finding Georgie’s body consumes his character and the actions of the group. Gone is the deep sorrow and recovery he found in the bonds formed with the group in the original, which was much more relatable and sympathetic than this new Bill.
Beverly is probably the most fleshed-out character and this movie may have worked better had she been made the leader instead of Bill (a divergence from the source material that could have worked out really well). Everything about her is kept intact, with the exception of being sexualized quite a bit and given a bit of a bad-girl reputation (smoking, stealing, generally not giving a shit). This choice works well, especially when coupled with her sexually abusive and really creepy father. She is the one character who noticeably gets stronger after joining the group and does so naturally.
Unfortunately, the rest of the group aren’t nearly as well-defined as they should have been. One review I read wrote that several of them blend together. I realized how true that was thinking back about how long it took me to distinguish new Eddie (Jack Glazer) from new Richie (Finn Wolfhard). We just know Eddie as the little kid with the fat, overprotective mom and Richie as the kid that won’t shut up. We recognize Stan (Wyatt Oleff) due solely to his Jewish background – completely missing the straight-laced, fact-oriented personality whose denial of Pennywise nearly ends them all. Ben (Jeremy Taylor) doesn’t blend in to the others only because we know him as the fat, new kid. Shallowest of them all is Mike (Chosen Jacobs), whose sole purpose is be the grandson of a sheep rancher so he can provide a sheep-killing gun instead of a slingshot. But he’s still black, which is important because it pisses off Henry.
Speaking of Henry, talk about doing a menacing and scary character wrong. Original Henry was a slow burn, starting out as a typical, if not slightly more dangerous, bully and escalating to every kid’s true nightmare by the end of the childhood events. New Henry is already at 9.5-out-of-10 on the rage scale when we first meet him. The scene is still the same, with Henry (and his goons) grabbing Ben and threatening to carve his name into Ben’s stomach. In the original, the threat was terrifying enough, but this time Henry makes it as far as carving a full letter H, somehow making it less terrifying. Like with getting a shot at the doctor, the idea is far scarier than the actual occurrence and this movie forgot that. That 9.5 never goes lower, as Henry screams most of his dialogue and always looks like Al Pacino in Scarface (you know the scene).
And that’s really the crux of why this movie didn’t quite do it for me. More is not always better. Doubling down on singular traits is what shallow shit like Fast and Furious does, which brings me to Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). Original Pennywise is the traditional trickster character, appearing as a clown because kids like clowns (despite modern pop-culture) and that is how Pennywise ensnares them. At times, he looks like a regular clown and is charming until Tim Curry kicks it into his evil gear. New Pennywise only has the one, evil gear and is so evil-looking he might as well be wearing a sign reading “keep back at least 200 feet.” Skarsgard spends the entire film staring out from underneath furrowed brows and mumble-hissing his lines. Yes, this is much more obviously scary Pennywise, but all of the nuance is gone. It works for this movie because that is likely what the director envisioned, but it only scares on a surface level.
On the note of less-is-more, there are a couple of elements that stand out as poor creative decisions. The first is Pennywise’s “scary” teeth, which, thanks to CGI, appear to have been ripped out of a Langolier. The second are the decisions to show us things that the original only implied. The stomach carving, Pennywise biting off Georgie’s arm, and Pennywise clamping down on Stan’s face (which Stan miraculously survives) are just some of the examples. The third, and most glaring, is the rock fight scene. It’s put to rock music and incorporates slow motion shots and dumb slapstick humor. This was a pivotal scene in the original film and this new version treats it like drunk karaoke. There are also the standard horror movie clichés like the kids wandering off in a haunted house and Pennywise inexplicably not killing the children despite having at least three of them dead to rights (again, he literally has his teeth clamped down over Stan’s face at one point). They even shoe-horn in the line “beep-beep Richie,” which will make zero sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the original or read the book because, in this film, Pennywise says it to Richie while chasing him and it’s the only time the line is used in the entire film. It literally makes no sense in this context, even as a line from a clown.
I realize I’m being harsh on a movie that I said is a pretty solid horror flick and you might think it’s all because of how I feel about the original and the book, but you’d be wrong. This movie’s issues are its own and would still be there if the original and source material never existed. They just look worse in comparison. On the flipside, they kept the story intact and the story is great. Between that and the good scary scenes (notably, the garage-projector scene, the synagogue scene, and the clown-room scene), I can honestly say it’s a solid movie that’s not without some issues. And, yes, I do miss Tim Curry. Like I said, nostalgia.
Rating: Ask for three dollars back and hope they do Pennywise right in Chapter 2.