Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Olef, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Bill Skarsgård

Director: Andy Muschietti

Writers: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman

Of the dozens of adaptations that Stephen King’s bibliography has seen over the years, the 1990 It miniseries might be the most characteristically ‘King’ of them all. Some, like Stand by Me, only show a single side of King while others, like The Shining, are more characteristic of the filmmakers than they are of the original author. The Tim Curry It however was a series that fully embraced the crazy world of King and showcased all of his best and worst qualities. It had strongly defined characters and told its story with a lot of personality, but it was also filled to the brim with King’s most typical tropes and had a ton of weird ideas that didn’t all work. Although the series is so identifiably King and has pretty much set the benchmark for subsequent adaptations, it isn’t a series that has aged very well and I came along too late to find it at all scary. It was my hope that this modern retelling might allow me to rediscover this bizarre tale as the horror that it’s supposed to be.

It starts in 1988 in Derry, Maine, with stuttering teenager Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) giving his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) a paper boat. Georgie takes his boat outside to play with and ends up running into Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), who entices little Georgie before dragging him into the sewer to his bloody demise. The following summer Bill remains convinced that his little brother is missing, not dead, and enlists his friends Stan (Wyatt Olef), the Jewish germaphobe, Richie (Finn Wolfhard), the foul-mouthed dirty-minded troublemaker, and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the sickly momma’s boy, to help him get to the bottom of what happened. Each has an encounter with a mysterious being who takes the form of each of their greatest fears, as do Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new kid in town, Bev (Sophia Lillis), a troubled young girl, and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the African American outsider. Together they form The Loser’s Club as they team up to decipher the mysteries of Derry and its pattern of vanishing children.

The movie’s first horror scene is also the miniseries and novel’s most famous moment, the fatal meeting between Georgie and Pennywise. Here the movie makes a much stronger attempt than its TV counterpart to be scary, shrouding Pennywise in shadow, playing ominous music, and having the two characters almost whispering to each other. This plays to both the film’s advantage and its disadvantage. Although this Pennywise is a hundred times creepier than Curry’s version ever was, that creepiness can surprisingly work against the character. Curry’s murderous clown was silly and playful and thus approachable, which makes it easier for us to believe that Georgie would be enticed by this strange man in the sewer. This clown is silly in the wrong way, behaving so creepily that there is no way a real child would ever give him the time of day. When the scene reaches its gory conclusion, it’s an outcome that we can see coming from a mile away. It’s scary enough on the surface but it doesn’t have that deeper level of horror that would’ve paid off on rewatch because it just isn’t believable enough (which I know is an odd criticism for a movie with a supernatural killer clown, but still). This, I think, is indicative of a problem the movie has with finding the right tone, a problem that lessens many of the scares that follow.

With that said, there are nevertheless a lot of scary moments that do work very well. When Ben sees a headless boy skulking around the library, it is revealed in the most jarringly unsettling way. In some moments when Pennywise decides to embrace his inherently silly side and roll with it, as in one scene when he visits Bill and plays around with Georgie’s corpse like a talking dummy, he becomes all the more disturbing. There are some moments that don’t work particularly well because they are so obviously computer-generated (such as when Pennywise appears out of a projected image), but when the CGI is used well, as in the moment when Stan sees the distorted figure of an unnerving painting come to life, the movie can be very scary indeed. The film also uses its recurring image of balloons to sinister effect while the earlier version… really didn’t. The balloons here are all red and are often seen completely motionless, making them all the more eerie, and they are often used to foreshadow a scary event, thus inspiring a feeling of dread whenever they appear.

The movie also works well when it focuses on the kids and the coming-of-age aspect of the story, but even that can suffer from tonal inconsistencies. Each kid is perfectly cast and is given a clear personality and a story arc, albeit some do inevitably get more focus while others, namely Mike and Stan, are marginalised. Each has their own struggle, whether it’s a devastating family loss, abusive parents, or being an outcast, and the movie does a good job of relating each of their individual scares to their anxieties. Together they make a great ensemble with some marvellous chemistry and are all allowed their own moments to shine. The standouts for me were Bev, the only girl in the group whose troubles stem from living with her incestuous father, and Richie, the erratic trash-talker with a one-liner for every occasion. Again some moments don’t quite work due to the movie’s sudden shifts in tone such as the rock fight where the over-the-top music and slow-motion undercut the seriousness of the moment leading up to it or when Bev is inexplicably seen by Bill walking down the street in bright lights and slo-mo when he literally saw her just two minutes earlier.

Still, when the movie works, it works. Sometimes it takes things too far, and sometimes not far enough, and sometimes it just can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be. It clearly wants to join the ranks of The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and be taken seriously as a terrifying horror film, but the very nature of its story and antagonist means that some parts are going to be inherently silly, and that’s something it’s not always ready to accept. Sometimes the movie will be silly and fun and other times it will be dark and serious. At moments it’s quiet and subtle and at others it’s loud and over-the-top. These varying tones clash with one another so often that it’s difficult to get a clear grip on this film. The movie wanted to be so many different things that it didn’t always know what was the right tone to go for or how to balance them against one another. While I did enjoy watching this movie, do think it has a lot of strong qualities, and found it to be so much scarier than the 1990 version that it hardly merits comparison; I don’t think this movie has a strong enough sense of identity to go down as a classic. Maybe my mind will change when Chapter 2 comes out.



The Dark Tower

Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick, Jackie Earle Haley

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Writers: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel

I had high hopes for this one. I read The Dark Tower series as a teenager and have been waiting for an adaptation ever since (it was always my feeling that a TV series would have served the books better than a film, but hey, I’ll take what I can get). Stephen King started writing this series in the 80s and it took him decades to complete what he hoped would be his magnum opus. The idea was to write an epic series akin to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns that would serve as the centrepiece of his literary universe, and it is a superb read. The Dark Tower has since been trapped in development hell as different filmmakers from J.J. Abrams to Ron Howard have attempted to bring this extensive, complex narrative to life (with Javier Bardem attached to star at one point). All roads have thus led us here, to Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, a film which sadly leaves this decades-long journey unfulfilled.

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed. The Man in Black is Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), a sorcerer who seeks to destroy the Dark Tower, the structure at the centre of the universe protecting all the worlds from the evils outside. The Gunslinger is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of an ancient order and the only man who can protect the Tower. A young boy called Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) has visions of these two and of the Tower, visions that his mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and therapist dismiss as dreams brought by the trauma of his father’s death. Believing his visions to be real and determined to learn their meaning, Jake follows them to an abandoned house where he discovers a portal to Mid-World, the world in which the Dark Tower stands, and there meets Roland. The Gunslinger takes the boy under his wing and together they must pursue the Man in Black and stop him from destroying the Tower and bringing all the worlds to ruin.

Having been in development for so long and subjected to reshoots following negative test screenings, I think most people who watch this film will be able to tell that this is the work of a studio. It is business-like in its approach and never takes any chances with the story. In the original book series, you are dropped straight into the desolate, fantastical land of Mid-World and follow a mysterious, morally ambiguous protagonist on an uncertain quest. Here the protagonist is a teenage boy in New York who discovers that he is the key to saving the universe. We know that he’s troubled because he speaks to psychiatrists and skips school but he has no real personality to speak of. His father is dead, paving the way for Roland to step in as his surrogate father, and he possesses abilities that he does not understand. He isn’t so much a character as he is a plot device, there to take the story wherever the studio feels it has to go and to prompt the exposition wherever the studio feels its needed.

The two best and most strongly defined characters are, not coincidentally, the two who most closely resemble their literary counterparts. Elba’s Roland is a melancholy warrior, haunted by the ghosts of his past, and he brings a strong sense of weight to the role. This is a man who has experienced pain and loss we can hardly fathom and has become cold and numb with time. The humanity that his surrogate son is supposed to inspire never quite hits home but I’m inclined to lay the blame with the script rather than the actor. McConaughey meanwhile hams it up as the Man in Black, but never so much that we cannot take him seriously as a villain. He walks that fine line between being eccentric and menacing and hits just the right balance. Casting these two is far and away the best thing this movie did and anytime these two came together, I felt like I was actually watching the Dark Tower movie I had been waiting to see. It makes me sad that their performances could not have been realised with a better script with a greater vision for King’s epic.

Most of the scenes that make up The Dark Tower seem like they were included simply because those are the scenes that you need in this kind of movie. When Jake discovers the portal in the abandoned house and activates it, the house comes alive and attacks him. There’s no build up or even much of a conclusion to this scene, it’s just something that happens and is then forgotten about as soon as it’s over. The movie’s crime isn’t that it’s terrible, but that it’s unimaginative and forgettable. The book series was often dark and strange and, while not all of its ideas worked, one of the things it had that this film did not was vision. The world King built is immense. The characters he created are iconic. The themes he explored are resonant. Here the studio decided to play it safe, making a generic movie with a simplified story, watered-down characters and a non-threatening PG-13 rating. The movie attempts to appease fans of King’s work while still appealing to a wider audience and it fails at both. It’s not as bad as I feared it would be, but it falls short of even my most conservative hopes.