Can it be my turn now?

 

One of the best examples of films in the found footage sub-genre is 2014’s Creep.  In keeping with other great series like Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch and Grave Encounters, Creep capitalized on the found footage technique as a successful plot device, and delivered unconventional scares with an original premise.  Its sequel, which was just released on Netflix, boasts an impressive Rotten Tomato score but I’m not sure why.  Creep is a movie with undeniable power and even greater potential, marred by plot twists that make you think they had a computer generate the script.

The viewer is immediately introduced to the film’s protagonist–yet another amateur filmmaker, this time a woman.  She’s desperate for a good story because her web site isn’t getting any traffic, and she’s experienced with lonely men because they’re her focus.  That’s essentially the setup, but everything past that point seems frustratingly impossible for a movie based in reality and set in modern day.

The videographer finds out almost immediately that the serial killer is at least a strange man, and then not long after, he explains to her pretty convincingly that he is, in fact, a serial killer.  It’s plausible enough that she doesn’t believe him, but the fact that she’s not alarmed enough to abandon the project anyway is hard to believe.  He even shows her a video of one of his murders.  Maybe if they had introduced a plot showing that she was desperate for money for some particular reason this might seem plausible, but otherwise it really doesn’t.

For protection, the woman arms herself with a pocket knife in her sock.  A pocket knife.  In her sock.  If the guy were 80 years old or she were cat-woman, I might buy it, but otherwise, the scene where she films herself putting the knife in her sock and says “I’m not stupid,” is actually pretty stupid.  Think she’s able to get to it when she needs it?  I won’t spoil it for you.

At one point in the movie, the killer delivers one of his characteristically bizarre and vaguely suggestive lines, to the effect of “the barrier between us is that we are wondering what each other looks like naked, and we have to eliminate all barriers for this film.”  Not totally surprisingly, the videographer agrees (he is a murderer after all).  The surprise comes when he finishes posing nude for her, and is clearly going to let the whole exercise end there–he’s more of an exhibitionist and manipulator than a pervert.  Her reply, unbelievably, is the title of this post.  As if that would be safe with anyone, anywhere, ever.

These glaring flaws stick in your mind as the film progresses, effectively building tension and making us guess what will happen next.  Effective details make the film captivating.  One of the more tantalizing being the mention of having the videographer make an 80-minute film, same as length of Creep 2.  The acting is worthy of the dialogue-based plot, the camera isn’t too shaky, the creepy to scary ratio is pretty good,  but the film is capped off with extreme disappointment.  Just before the conclusion, the killer reveals that he wants their film to show the videographer murdering him.  She’s comfortable taking the axe and doing a few practice swings at his neck, confident, I guess, that he’ll stop her eventually.  It’s when he hangs himself instead and says she has to save him that it becomes too much for her.  She threatens to leave, but accepts his confession that he’s actually just a compulsive liar who likes attention.

After more puzzling plot points, the climax has the videographer following the killer out to a remote spot in the woods at night (because why not?).  He confesses that he’s decided to bury her alive, but she manages to escape.  Helpless and wandering aimlessly, the killer calls out to her, and inexplicably, she charges at him out of the safety of her hiding spot.  What follows is the least believable stabbing ever filmed, making the audience think the director is intentionally obscuring some trick that it will reveal at the end, when it’s actually just sloppy film making.  Then there’s the final scene, which contains what you could call a twist, or a final scare–or you might, as I would,  just call it bullshit.

I can understand the high rating from critics on RT–given the way they determine fresh versus rotten–there was enough to like about this movie to keep all the reviews close to luke warm.  I can also understand the disparity between the critics and audience scores, but to be more useful to its users, the web site ought to add an asterisk specifying that the movie doesn’t make any god damn sense.  It’s a shame to follow the inventive original with something so stupid, especially when a few different decisions would have made it, at the very least, watchable, if not one you wanted to see again.  In terms of bad sequels, this one’s up there with Jeepers Creepers 3.

 

That was harsh.  It’s not that bad.

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It’s Not a Game

13 Demons is dark entry in the satire subgenre, addressing the role of media, pop culture and modern social issues.  Although the plot line is ostensibly similar to that of Beyond the Gates–a group of kids finds themselves forced to play a game in order to resolve some supernatural crisis–this film is quite a bit darker.  And, by coincidence, 13 Demons also features a throwback setting similar to Beyond the Gates, in many ways reflecting 80s horror.  This film, however, focuses on a D&D-style role playing games, rather than the VHS board game format.

The opening scene shows two men sitting in a filthy, cramped apartment, totally absorbed in respective video games.  They are interrupted by the third roommate, who is brandishing a board game he claims was banned because it caused players to be come obsessed and commit violent acts.  The familiarity of the plot and the concept itself were almost enough to turn me off before the movie got going, but I soon realized that the style of the story was worth watching.  The actors manage to begin the film as a group of almost-too-realistic stoner losers, not particularly interested in fantasy role playing or anything other than being generally nerdy and unproductive.  As the film progresses, they effectively demonstrate their transformation to brainwashed slaves of obsession, eventually becoming gaunt, pale, and clearly unstable.

There is one place where a lack of inventiveness actually helps the script: in forming the audience’s expectations.  The hallucinatory adventures of the group, and the slow descent into madness never seem entirely real, nor entirely imagined.  The viewer is given enough time to really think about what makes us want to actually be these archetypes, and how our fantasies or desires can cloud our judgment.  It’s not until the final scenes of the movie that you can be sure what happened, and by then, you’re fully convinced that it’s the most horrific reality possible.

You Said that to Me Once, After Stabbing a Man 39 Times

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The Chucky franchise has lasted a lot longer than anyone probably imagined it would when the original came out back in 1988.  With Brad Dourif doing the voice acting (Lord of the Rings, Graveyard Shift and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Chris Sarandon (Princess Bride) as the hero, it was an iconic film at a time when interest in the genre was peaking.  Against all odds, a film about a foul-mouthed voodoo doll that comes alive and kills people was actually scary, and well-written enough to watch repeatedly.  Not to mention funny.

The next two installments continued the tradition of terror and humor.  Both were reasonably watchable and creatively terrifying, for the most part.  I tuned out between Bride of Chucky and now, but with Netflix releasing the newest installment in October, I figured I’d give it a try.

I was almost immediately surprised by how intriguing I found the concept of Cult of Chucky, the effects and even the set design.  While the very first scene was too poorly written to be anything but funny, the strength of the series has never been the writing.  As the scenes progressed, the very original story line became clear.  I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that the franchise has retained both the great Brad Dourif, as well as Alex Vincent, who played Andy, the boy being terrorized in 1988’s Child’s Play.  Vincent may not be the strongest actor, but I was less thrilled to see Jennifer Tilly back in the mix.

Loyal to the original, the film sports genuinely terrifying effects, amusing winks at the audience and creative kills that rival any Saw film (while also offering more than simple gore).  In terms of effects, Chucky’s facial movements are a highlight, appearing simultaneously more realistic and more surreal than we’ve seen in previous films.  As far as creative kills are concerned, they’re abundant, and they’re original enough that I didn’t immediately know how a person would die when they walked into a scene (which is often how 2 and 3 felt).  And I’m guessing it might just have be a wink when we hear Chucky refer to the institution as a “cuckoo’s nest.”

All the films have an undercurrent of humor, predictably strongest in the original, but Cult of Chucky contains one of the most outrageously funny scenes I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.  I actually went back and watched it a second time, and I probably will again before long.  Dourif really shines in this movie, more so than in previous sequels.  If you have no other interest in the movie, just fast forward to the part after Chucky gets his scalpel and encounters the old lady in the hallway, who introduces herself to people by assuring you that she’s a ghost, and no one but you can see her.

While the second and third installments were basically Chucky inexplicably being resurrected and doing the same stuff he did in the original but in different locations (ala Jason), Cult of Chucky really ups the ante with an entirely new idea for its tiny terrorist.  Instead of just one, this time there are many Good Guy dolls, all inhabited by the earthbound spirit of mass murderer Charles Lee Ray.  For another twist, this time, when the doll finds his intended victim, he saves her life, ostensibly to keep her alive long enough to enjoy torturing her and killing her himself.   Despite these interesting divergences, the film also maintains the best existing elements of the series, not least of which is the voodoo ritual from the original.

The solid writing of Child’s Play never really carried over to sequels, and Cult of Chucky is no different from its predecessors in this respect.  While so much of the film looks and feels polished, glaring logical inconsistencies seem almost too obvious to be unintentional. For one, the setting for the main plot: the prison/insane asylum/graveyard/winter resort with extraordinarily lax security.  The aesthetic alone is incomprehensible, looking like it could have come out of Ex Machina or Alien: Covenant.

The behavior of the staff assigned to this ludicrous institution, in particular, is absolutely impossible to believe.  Not only do they bury their inmates, apparently on a regular basis, but they seem to run the entire complex of ultra-modern private suites and treatment rooms, housing its collection of bat-shit criminal residents, without any protection of any kind; all the armed security guards are outside the facility.

The staff is uniformed as if they were some kind of healthcare assistants, and indeed, they do administer medications to the inmates, but they don’t seem to do much else.  After simply asking permission, inmates are allowed to walk outside the facility unaccompanied.  At one point, Chucky searches the halls for weapons, approaching a computer desk with drawers labeled as follows: “Office Supplies”, “Sharps” and “Linens.”  None of these drawers are locked or secured in any way, they don’t even have locks on them.  The drawer labeled “Sharps”?  It just contains scalpels.  NBD.

The medical techniques employed by this particular establishment are, at best, questionable.  Besides the fact that in a movie set in modern day the inmates are being subjected to shock treatment (and a little sexual abuse here and there), the mock funeral for an imaginary dead baby was a little strange.  Later, they commit a man without any kind of medical assessment, for punching a security guard.  And YET.  None of this disrupts the suspension of disbelief, makes it less scary, or causes the plot to fall apart at any point.  The updates necessary for a movie set in modern day are improvements, the scares are as effective as ever, and the revelation of Chucky’s new ability at the end is icing on the cake.  She’s solid throughout, but the leading lady really shows her skill in that last segment.

I would have never expected to have any desire to write an entry on this movie, or do anything other than turn it off halfway through and add it to my list of Rotten Pumpkins.  But this movie just works.  It works as well as any absurdly-conceived horror movie I can think of, reminiscent of the quality Tremors 5 achieved.  It’s a true highlight of the series, and a worthy addition to any Halloween lineup.

 

You’re Not Real, You’re Only Made of Moonlight

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Netflix just released Gerald’s Game, based on the 1992 Stephen King novel that had never been adapted for the screen.  King’s work has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in recent months.  In addition to Gerald’s Game, there was the release of King’s miniseries adaptation of Mr. Mercedes, then the overwhelmingly positive reception of It, and the announcement of the soon-to-be Castle Rock series.  Yet another King story, 1922, will be available on Netflix later this month as well, not to mention the second season of Stranger Things, also coming in October.  Netflix made a smart move filling out its King collection.  They’ve got at least one subscriber who is a die-hard fan of his work, and who thinks (I do) that Gerald’s Game might be the best Stephen King adaptation ever.

Combining elements of body horror with the purest form of psychological thriller, the real-life conflict in Gerald’s Game hearkens back to King’s classics like Misery, but also invokes the blurry line between imagination and reality that we’ve seen in films like The Shining.  The survival elements of the story could have come right out of Alive, or The Descent, showing insight into the psychology of a person who knows their next decisions will determine whether they live or die.  All this complexity arises out of the simplest of premises: an accident during an ostensibly innocent sex game leaves you trapped, unable to call for help or even move.  In the age of voice-activated phone calls and sychronized accounts, the director’s management of details in the story is essential to suspension of disbelief, but this adaptation handles it perfectly.  How many of us have a land line on our bedside table anymore? And how often is your cell phone close to, or completely drained of its battery life?  The pieces are arranged masterfully, allowing the seamless progression of the nightmare.

Gerald’s Game relies heavily on the performances of two actors: Bruce Greenwood and Carla Gugino.  They exist in a microcosm that the director broadens through memory and inner monologue, much like the structure of the scifi film Gravity.  Both deliver on all counts, playing characters that exist in reality as well as their alter-egos, as imagined by the Gerald’s wife, Jessie, during her ordeal.  While there are two subplots that mostly indirectly influence the main plot line, the audience walks away knowing that they were essential to understanding the characters as presented.  The director was also careful, however, to leave enough to our imagination that we’d have plenty to speculate about.  Enough, in fact, that the certain scenes of the movie can be interpreted in multiple ways.  This is the hallmark of great psychological tension.  In multiple scenes, the camera assumes Jessie’s viewpoint and moves from side to side as she observes her surroundings.  The effect of the technique is the same for which John Carpenter’s Halloween was (and still is) so heavily praised 38 years earlier, but with a more fundamental role in this film.  The tension is built from the psychological degeneration Gerald’s wife suffers, so the viewer must assume her perspective in order to appreciate the process.  The first-person camera technique accomplishes this beautifully, and shifts the focus from dialogue and external factors to inner monologue and memory. This transition could have been so easily botched that it’s a real accomplishment for the director to have made it work the way it did, and a treat for viewers.

The character development, unique crafting of the story, and the struggle to discern reality from imagination are all common to King stories, but one of his least-used tools–the twist–is also present in Gerald’s Game.  The twist can be most effective when the revelation encourages the audience to rethink their presumptions about previous events in the plot, which is where this movie excels.  The twist is what makes the real and the imagined less distinct, and I think that’s what made this particular story so satisfying for me.  Some horror fans might strongly prefer either the supernatural or the reality-based plots, but Gerald’s Game has the ideal balance of both.  The function of the twist here serves a similar purpose to the one from the 2001 film The Others.  The viewer can re-live the story in his or her mind, adopting whichever perspective (real or supernatural) makes the story most compelling.  Specifically, the Moonlight Man can be seen at various points of the movie: (1) as being entirely imaginary (in the form of death, visiting to take prizes from those he claims), or (2) as leaving tangible evidence of his very human presence, or (3) as a combination of the two.  Even beyond the very real threats the protagonist faces during her ordeal, the role of psychological trauma in her life is the unifying force, the phantom undermining and eroding her belief in herself.  It is the ultimate threat existing in the grey world between dreams and reality.  And in the end, it is Jessie’s belief in herself that saves her.

Gerald’s Game is an artistic and stylish take on a deceptively simple story.  King fans as well as casual horror fans will be satisfied with the balance of tension, plot progression and character development, and so will viewers who are just looking for a good story.  In the long line of great King horror films, this one sits up at the top, putting it on par with the best of the genre.

If That Was a Gust, then It Learned an Instrument

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The isolation of the small town and the resignation of its inhabitants contrast with its evocative name, Bright Hope, just as its existence contrasts with its desolate surroundings.

One of the best, if not the best horror movie out of 2015 had to be Bone Tomahawk.  Set in the classic 1890s version of the old west we all imagine, this gritty character-driven thriller might be the first ever horror-western, and it manages a working balance between the two.  Impeccably cast with lead actors like Kurt Russell and Matthew Fox, the depth to the roster is the film’s strength.  Other great talents from the film include Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson and David Arquette.  All of them get the chance to flex their thespian muscles, and in the process, deliver one of the most uniquely crafted and yet hauntingly familiar stories ever depicted in a horror film.

Like the greatest westerns, Bone Tomahawk’s foundation is a great script.  Writer and director Craig Zahler has written two western novels that, by his own admission, share some of the same themes as Bone Tomahawk.  It’s probably no coincidence that a rare, high-quality horror script came from a novelist, but it’s even rarer to find such well-placed humor in a scary movie.  Emphasizing quick, sharp banter and the rugged cowboy mentality the audience expects, the film finds a good home in the traditional western action genre.  It sets the tone with a bleak opening scene of two murderers callously rifling through the pockets of the men, who, while sleeping, they’ve just killed.  David Arquette personifies the cowardly scoundrel, tagging along as the sidekick to a less cowardly, more ruthless companion.

Like the best horror films, this movie keeps us guessing about how far the film will go, and what we’ll be shown, right from the opening scene.  Seizing the attention of its viewers, the film’s haunting, dreamy pacing draws us forward, until the abrupt shift, when the two scoundrels reach a burial ground.  It doesn’t hurt that this cemetery closely resembles the one from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, but I imagine there are historical reasons for that.  Still clueless as to what to expect, viewers are then treated to one of the most brutally realistic attacks I’ve ever seen.

Playing on the classic and very real fears white men felt while in indian territory, the film explores political and moral issues, but on a deeper level, Bone Tomahawk plays with questions of evolution.  The isolation of the small town and the resignation of its inhabitants contrasts with its evocative name, Bright Hope, just as its existence contrasts with its desolate surroundings.  We’re introduced to the residents of Bright Hope, and, early on, get the impression that they are good, honest, and sometimes very amusing people.  As upstanding as they seem, the utter simplicity of their lives is startling, radiating a primitive quality, as if their sense of civility were as fragile as their survival.  The most explicit example might be the town saloon, where everyone meets to plan the rescue mission, appropriately dubbed “The Learned Goat.”

With a sparing use of music, mostly scoreless, the film creates a mood of total sincerity and realism despite the air of the supernatural suggested in the opening scene.  Effectively, one of the first lines spoken in the film addresses this unique combination of natural and musical, in reference to the sound of the wind.  The source of that sound, which turns out not to be the wind at all, is one of the most creative and effective devices I’ve seen used in any horror movie.  It’s not until the end of the film that the audience feels confident, and even then they’re not sure, that they know whether the brutal attacks have been committed by a supernatural force.  This satisfying effect is due to the brilliant invention of a vocal anomaly the Native American group, known as troglodytes, has developed.  Of course, their disconnect from societal norms goes much further than an aversion to modern technology.

Wrapped up in all this is a truly romantic love story.  The power of one man’s love for his wife, in fact, is the catalyst for the entire plot.  In some films, this might feel contrived, but here, characters are so well-developed that you believe their in their motivations as if they were real people.  There is a strong sense of morality projected, mostly by the main protagonist, Kurt Russell, but which is felt throughout the movie in the quest to save an innocent life.  Of course, in traditional western fashion, those residents of Bright Hope who are able feel obligated to assume the role of the vigilante.

To me, the most satisfying conclusions to westerns and horror films share a special form of catharsis, a combination redemption and retribution.  In other words, I’m a big fan of the Spielberg ending.  Bone Tomahawk doesn’t go quite that far, remaining safely in horror territory with a fittingly tragic resolution, while finding the necessary balance to distinguish itself from the hopelessness of films like After.Life, Ravenous or The Mist.  I should clarify that I don’t lack appreciation for what you might call the final-scare endings, where the bleakest conclusion is the last piece of the puzzle to make the film’s point, as in The Thing and The Invitation.  And what discussion of a Kurt Russell horror film would be complete without mentioning the sci-fi horror film that redefined the genre, John Carpenter’s The Thing.  Russell gives his best horror performance since–and maybe his best ever–in Bone Tomahawk, delivering his lines with the same gravity of the alternate character, but an original personality necessary to the plot.

The final confrontation is too groundbreaking for a writer of my talent to even attempt a description, but suffice it to say the film’s scattered omens of pushing-the-boundaries horror are fully realized.  You have to know the difference between effective, meaningful violence and Rob Zombie blood-and-guts, to even conceive of a scene so viscerally disturbing.  Not to mention the special effects that went into the scene, which somehow came off as both genuine and essential to the story.  The final result is an unprecedented merging of genres in a seamless, deeply moving story, highlighted by authentic detail, witty dialogue, inventive humor, and most of all, passionate performances by the actors.  Oh, yeah.  And it’s scary as hell.

If you like westerns at all, go find this movie.

The Losers’ Club

Tim Curry is one of my favorite actors in a long list of on-screen talents I’ve admired over the years.  He was never accused of having talent like Meryl Streep, but he was always interesting and effective in his roles.  I know him for his comedic parts (though I’m not familiar with Rocky Horror), but one of the roles he became most famous for was that of an iconic villain–Pennywise the Dancing Clown.  Curry’s distinct voice (check out his three studio albums) and bizarre mannerisms were perfect for an interdimensional being manifested in the shape of a clown, and his performance is one of the most commonly credited elements of the 1990 film It.

It’s ironic that my third entry is the first about a movie, given that movies were the reason I created the blog, but the intro and the context of the book were too important for this one.  Just reading my previous entry you’d probably get the sense that there’s a lot in the novel that just wouldn’t translate to the screen, and that’s the case with both the 1990 miniseries It and the first half of the remake that was released in 2017, The Losers’ Club.  Both succeed despite these unfilmable scenes, and both suffer in places based on decisions to avoid putting something on screen.

The humor in each movie is very different, but both manage to capture the spirit of a King-esque story.  The actors from the miniseries delivered more serious performances, but thoroughly conveyed the genuine camaraderie so essential to the story, whereas the 2017 film focused more on the whimsy and immature humor of the kids.  The second half of the modern rendition will feature the adults, and the approach to humorous elements may change, but for the first installment, the script keeps comic relief close at hand.

The music from the 1990 miniseries is vastly superior.  Both the original score, and the popular songs mentioned in the book (or added to reflect the time period), are superb.  Those from the 2017 film are not, at all.

The boys’ collective infatuation with Bev is conveyed much more effectively in The Losers’ Club, and the actors’ appearances much more closely matches the book than those of the miniseries.  While this is satisfying for those in the audience who have read the book, it has the effect of making the group cohesion seem pedestrian and banal.  In what was probably the strongest original scene from the new film, they did capture the romantic tension with Bev, when she is rendered unconscious by Pennywise.  Ben’s kiss to revive her was the closest the movie ever got to the fairy tale roots of the story.

One of the primary motivators for a remake was the complaint many viewers had of the 1990 version, that it was too tame, and the question of why the miniseries format?  The decision to go with a miniseries is one King has often made with his books and short stories, and it’s probably responsible for a great deal of the success of Tim Curry’s Pennywise.  For one thing, the run-time is significantly longer than any studio would have granted in 1990 for a Stephen King horror film.  Back then, an 87-minute Jason movie was all an audience expected, so, a thoughtful, character-driven thriller would have been a tough sell at three plus hours.  As for why it seemed tame, the answer is slightly more complex.  The obvious explanation is that television just didn’t broadcast racial epithets, frequent explicit violence and kiddies using cusswords.  But there’s more to it than that.

The novel actually involves fewer maimings in its 1300 pages than many people probably imagine, and the effect of those not included likely could have been achieved through implication and off-screen action.  Where The Losers’ Club included carnage, it was usually unnecessary and sometimes ineffective.  There are also non-violent details in the book that are not included in either movie that would have made for a grittier experience.  One non-violent element that greatly improved the conclusion of 2017’s version was the house on Niebolt street, Derry’s ultimate haunted house, completely absent from the miniseries.

The best case for the inclusion of more violence came from Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise, in the scene where he actually rips off Georgie’s arm on-screen.  In another example, though, the confrontation between Ben and Henry Bowers, neither film includes the rough-and-tumble action from the book which demonstrates that Ben is more than just a fat kid.  2017’s rendition showed the severity of Ben’s stomach wounds, but none of his response, which serves to establish the special hatred Bowers had for him, and the fear he had for Bowers beyond what others in the group might have felt, as well as Bowers transition from standard bully to possessed murder.  An even worse attempt at depicting the story’s violence without purpose came in the 2017 film when Henry murders his father.  While the miniseries avoids Henry’s father and his home life entirely, The Losers’ Club condenses dozens of pages of character development into a 5-minute scene.  In those five minutes: we see Henry for the second or third time, we see his father for the first time, Henry’s father yells at him and fires a pistol at the ground, Henry’s attention is drawn to a balloon tied to a box with a switchblade, he stabs his father in the throat and we get the impression that he’s being driven insane by Pennywise.  It’s more than abrupt and less than effective, because knowing that Henry’s father was mean and probably violent doesn’t add anything to the character.  Even if it were going to add something, the script has Henry unceremoniously killed off in the final act after being bested in a totally meaningless confrontation with Mike.

Violence wasn’t the only edgy material the book contained that the films do not.  Neither film really touched on the racial issues which are so crucial to the plot of the book.  If anything, Henry was more racially-motivated in the 1990 miniseries, whereas aside from the stray insult or epithet, the 2017 Henry Bowers doesn’t seem to see color or creed.  In interviews and articles leading up the film’s release, it was said that issues like abuse and racism would be laid bare.  Instead, the Black Spot speakeasy, burned down by white supremacists in the book, becomes a hazy incident of Mike’s house being burned down, with his parents inside, for vaguely racial reasons.  Instead of hundreds of pages of context for Alvin Marsh’s spartan habits, his fragile mind and Beverly’s consequently damaged psyche, we get two ominous scenes and one line that only indirectly references abuse in the 2017 film.  And it’s not even the kind of abuse she suffers in the book.  Because of course, like the modern Freddy Krueger, all modern horror movies need a sexual-sadist element shoved into the plot.  Edgy without purpose nor effect, in my opinion.

As for the depiction of Pennywise, both movies should get tremendous credit.  While Tim Curry deserves most of the praise for the miniseries manifestation, 2017’s Pennywise is a success for a combination of reasons, not least of which is Bill Skarsgard’s performance.  Modern Pennywise is much closer to the one in the book, both in his costume and his physical appearance, especially his hair.  The clowns play different roles in each movie, though.  Curry’s clown is only seen during surreal hauntings suffered by the Losers (and in Georgie’s encounter), an ethereal presence.  In the modern version, the clown basically an actual monster waiting in the sewer, or the basement, or wherever, physically present to attack.  That’s a total divergence from the book but is incredibly effective in the way that I think a lot of potential ticket-buyers wanted: they wanted a clown with big fangs to jump out of the dark, that’s what they remember about the story.  Ironically, that version of Pennywise isn’t really a part of the original plot, it was more of a visual device employed by the miniseries to make the movie scary.  It makes sense not to rigidly portray the mercurial interdimensional being of the novel for any movie adaptation, but the 2017 Pennywise really does boil down to a clown with fangs in the dark.  They improved the scariness of the costume and the teeth, but that’s about it.  Both should be praised for their voice acting, each adopting a different style of creepy for the role.

The difference in their physical presence is partly intentional.  Audiences found the idea of a scary clown jumping out of the dark more accessible than a mythical being that feeds on our fears.  Even the 1990 version addressed that view.  Unfortunately, that leaves the audience of the modern version without any semblance of the fairy-tale horror context that makes the story special.  This deviation makes the ultimate showdown at the end between the adult Losers and Pennywise seem random.  A giant spider is the ageless interdimensional being’s ultimate manifestation?  Just because spiders are scary?  No, because (1) the atavistic fears aroused by that particular form are delicacies for the creature that feeds on fear, (2) the creature’s essential identity is female, (3) the mythical qualities the form evokes, and, (4) most importantly, It wants to breed.  Not that either film fully addresses the context, but the miniseries made a more sincere effort.  The same goes for the meaning behind “we all float down here,” the tagline adopted by the remake.  Rather than building to the final battle to save Audra from the immobilizing web spun by the spider, which we see in the miniseries, the Skarsgard Pennywise simply makes his victims hover in the air inexplicably.  This precludes the spider idea being included in part 2.  Sure, victims floating in mid-air makes the phrase fit visually, but doesn’t actually have anything to do with the plot.

My post about the novel is called “Magic Exists,” both because it’s a quote from the author’s foreword, and because of the role “magic” plays in the story.  Magic is given a complex and mystical role in King’s book, so guess which movie tried harder to adapt the idea?  Beyond any obligation to loyally adapt books for the screen, let me just point out the ultimate consequence of the cosmetic interpretation of the Losers’ Club’s confrontation with Pennywise: the villain is a clown with fangs who can be beaten into oblivion by a handful of determined children.  That’s the special thing about this story that the Skarsgard movie misses entirely: the presence of a mystical power which binds together seven friends through their love for each other.  Children somehow destined to be pawns in a war between cosmic forces.

The evil force in the story was never meant to be conquered with baseball bats and construction debris as the kids do with Skarsgard, but they are able to wound Tim Curry’s Pennywise using Eddie’s inhaler.  This is a brilliant translation of a scene that actually occurs in the book when Eddie is an adult, facing the spider.  Viewers are primed for this weapon of faith with the scene between Eddie and the pharmacist, who disillusions him by explaining the meaning of placebo.  It’s clear that his belief in the inhaler is the actual weapon.

Another accomplishment for the miniseries was the ending, which felt very complete.  The television audience didn’t want to see Bill cheat on Audra with Bev only to have Bev and Ben run away together at the end, so they smoothed out the rough edges and Bill stays loyal to his wife.  One of the most tragic elements of the novel is the amnesia suffered by the group in between their battles with Pennywise.  While forgetting the childhood nightmare is central to the plot, it wasn’t until I read the book that I realized the whole group forgets each other almost immediately.  1990’s It briefly evokes that plot element by telling the viewer through Mike’s narration that they sometimes have to ask each other’s names, but goes no further to describe their total disconnection.  They leave us with the satisfying feeling you get at the end of the best King movies.  Like you’ve witnessed people go through something traumatic, and experienced their triumphs and losses in the battle.  We’ll have to wait and see how the remake treats the conclusion, but it will certainly be very different.

In the pantheon of great horror films, the miniseries took stage in 1990 with a stylish, timeless story, crafted perfectly for the King audience.  The 2017 remake has affirmed Its‘ status in the genre, and possibly bridged the gap for a modern audience who might be interested in a deeper meaning behind the scares in horror movies.  As the so-called Master of Horror’s final word on fear, I think Pennywise sets the standard for storytelling in psychological supernatural horror.

Magic Exists

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We’re told that members of Losers’ Club used the phrase “you bet your fur” frequently as kids, though we see little evidence of that.  I guess it left an impression on a lot of readers, because it’s even included in the 1990 miniseries adaptation.  It’s the scene where John Ritter tells Ben’s story about going out for track to spite his cruel gym teacher.  Except I’m pretty sure (and a lot of other people feel the same way according to my Googlings), that John Ritter says “you bet your fern.”  And why shouldn’t he?  Neither phrase makes any more sense than the other.

If I had to pick, though, I kind of like “fur” better.

The King

That’s a weird way to start my discussion of Stephen King’s It.  Specifically, it’s going to be about how much I enjoyed being introduced to the hidden world of Derry.  While I had seen the movie enough to have some of the dialogue memorized, I was thrilled to find that there are elements of the book that could never be translated to film.  Fans call it King’s magnum opus.  They compare it to The Stand and The Dark Tower series for its epic scale.  Of the seven or eight Stephen King novels I’ve read, this one was easily the most epic, most ambitious and scariest, so I can see why it’s so highly regarded.  In fact, It ended up being on the bestseller list longer than any other novel in 1986.

I find the title alone ambitious, not to mention the sprawling, surreal plot which includes the inventive concept of a monster that takes the shape of whatever scares you most.  It’s been described as the author’s comprehensive thesis on fear.  There are parts of the book that feel more like a philosophical and psychological exploration than a novel, and they add a lot to the story.  It’s not just fear he invites us to examine, though: it’s childhood, friendship, maturity, time, and even good and evil.

Derry

With this incredible story, King proves that magic exists.  Mike Hanlon reports to the reader as if in testament to some vital knowledge.  The stories of the local history, as well as families and friends, have enough depth to become real, and enough detail to be vivid.  Some of them go back a hundred years.  In the beginning, the characters in the book are as skeptical as the reader (all except for Mike).  We’re introduced to the more fantastic elements gradually: we encounter a clown seeming to stand on top of the water, before we encounter a blinding ball of light hurtling toward the boundary of the universe.  That’s one of King’s best tricks, I’ve found.  He makes you feel like it took as much convincing for the main character to think something funny was going on as it did you.

Peppering in tragic incidents from Derry’s past, King paints a picture of an ancient curse of some kind.  These short excursions into the past show us that Derry’s form of evil can disguise itself in natural conflict and tragedy.  Being a horror novel, you get pretty far into the book thinking it’s just coincidence that every corner in town has a dark story behind it, before it’s revealed that the thing haunting Derry affects more than just the people It attacks. Here is a monster that haunts an entire area, not just when the lights go out and the car won’t start, but all the time, vaguely reminiscent of the latent evil described in Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher.”

Fear Itself

To add to the terror, the monster can literally shapeshift into any form that scares you.  The number of phobias addressed over the course of the story is staggering.  Off the top of my head: being lost in the dark, being eaten by animals, being eaten by monsters, drowning, zombies, lepers, spiders, leeches, rats, earthquake, flood, fire, lynching, and good ol’ axe murderers, not to mention clowns hiding in the sewer.  So yeah, it’s got the fears and phobias covered.  Dealing with any one of those would be bad enough, but as it becomes clear that all of them exist within the monster at any time, the reader sees that the threat is much more profound.  Not just existing in one place or time, the monster of this story is interdimensional.

The historical accounts are so vivid and important in establishing the unspoken horror of Derry that I think you can only experience them by reading the book.  Along the same lines is one of the book’s most inventive and exciting scenes: the Smoke Hole.  Rather than resort to the very predictable treehouse, so common for children in any small town, the seven friends who make up the Losers’ Club have a future architect among them, and so have the insight to make a hidden underground clubhouse.  As are so many of the events that lead to the book’s dramatic conclusion, the Smoke House scene is fated.  At times of hesitation or indecision, one of the Losers often has a premonition that guides the group to the next step.  In this case, one of them just happens to have been reading about this Native American ritual where the elders sat around a fire in a small hut, with just a small opening for smoke to escape.  As people were forced to leave from inhaling too much smoke, the chosen ones would be determined.  Those so blessed (or cursed) would then experience a profound vision, advising them on how to approach some importance decision.  When the kids argue over who will be in the smoke-hole and who will stay outside in case of an emergency, the mysterious force surrounding them makes the decision clear.

Not only does the underground clubhouse keep the kids safe from the marauding bullies who are after them, it also becomes an essential tool in their quest.  As advertised, the smoke-hole works, and two of the kids experience an intense, shared vision.  They’re transported, not to another place, but through time, to an ancient forest.  They see the place Derry will eventually be, but before anyone had ever set foot on that land, and possibly even before any people existed.  What do they discover?  That It really does come from Outer Space, sort of.  It crashes and buries Itself deep in the earth, waiting for fertile minds on which It can feed.  The kids actually experience a nascent form of earth that no history book will ever describe.  They also feel the presence of a cosmic force.  The one that chose them to see the vision, they realize, is the same one that decided who would be present.

Tropes and conventions that would seem hackneyed in another context are avoided through the overarching concept of fate and interconnected events.  The worst of the bullies is Henry Bowers, who serves not only as a living threat (“You can get them if they believe, half-believe, or don’t believe at all”) to the Losers, but also as a sort of conduit for evil, influencing the others in his gang to be complicit in the attacks.

The buildup seems interminable, but the resolution is commensurate.  When the ultimate confrontation is finally forced on the children, the town of Derry is consumed in a storm that causes most of it to actually sink into the ground, as if the evil that lived below was gobbling up everything in a spasm of rage.  The gang of murderous bullies and the clown converge on the kids in the sewers, and the reader sees present and past narratives in alternating chapters, culminating in Bill’s last use of the magic that bound the Lucky Seven together.

I could write a essay on the sewers alone as a symbol and narrative device.  What could be more terrifying than a labyrinth of sewer tunnels of supernatural complexity with monsters and murders waiting around the corner?  Bill discusses how scary they are with his father in one of the only exchanges between them that indicates any intimacy.  His father tells him that there are big rats and it’s dirty, but worst part is that people get lost.  Maintenance workers go down there to fix pumps and end up wandering in the dark until they die.  That would be enough, but with the added dangers the kids face, it’s the ultimate setting for an encounter with evil.

Disappointment

A couple of things that disappointed me were in the sewers, though.  Actually, almost everything that disappointed me happened during that sequence.  While King references the deaths of Belch and his other friend in passing, when the sewer scene finally comes we don’t get to see what happened.  There’s no explanation of how Henry made his way out or when he encountered Frankenstein’s monster.  That would have been a cool scene.  Also, it could have been that I was too eager for the big finale that I was reading too fast, but I thought going back and forth between the kids and adults was pretty confusing.  I saw the artistic value in the parallels and the continuations of character’s memories that lead into each chapter, but I thought it muddied some of the most crucial plot points.  Honestly, I also thought the House of Usher routine was distracting.  I guess it comes down to pacing.  For 85% of the book you’re spending time contemplating little vignettes and then piecing them together with other plot points, then all of the sudden you’re blazing through action-packed scenes and alternating between two different times, 30 years apart, AND the town is being destroyed.  It’s a little much.

Chüd

I thought it was contradictory for the kids to read that the ritual of Chüd involved biting the tongue of the evil spirit and telling riddles–the loser being the one who laughed first–if Bill and Richie could laugh all they wanted in their inter-dimensional showdown with the Pennywise.  I know it was just imagery, but he insisted on carrying through the biting-the-tongue metaphor, so why not leave out the parts where they laugh out loud?  Maybe King hadn’t had any good chucks lately.  That was such a cool idea, I was disappointed to see it blemished.

Sewer Orgy

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the orgy in my list of sewer criticisms.  I really wanted to like it.  I wanted to see the value in it and think that it was atmospheric or symbolic or something.  It wasn’t, really.  It does make sense that the kids would get lost on the way out, and it was important to demonstrate the potential for the magic to fade, and I even think an act of love of some kind makes sense as resolution, but “you have to put your thing in me,” isn’t necessary.  On the sewer floor in the dark?  A description of each one and Bev’s thoughts about the process itself?  I didn’t need to know about that.  I also kind of thought it made the blood bond at the end seem anticlimactic.  Hey–the big orgy gave us magic power and all…but let’s hold hands in a circle and make a promise!  Anyway, that’s all I need to say about it.  Unfortunate inclusion, I think.

Amnesia

The sudden dispersal of all the adult characters at the end was probably unavoidable, but did they all have to completely forget each other?  It’s a powerful element of the story, and it clears up the conflict with Bev and Bill and Audra, but what about Bev and Ben?  Doesn’t make that much sense to run away with someone you have no memory of.  Whatever inconsistencies the logic of the story suffers at the end are redeemed by Bill’s revival of audra.  What a cool idea, that it’s his belief in the magic of Silver–just like it was when they were kids–that defeats the evil power of It.  The reader gets the feeling of completing a puzzle in these final moments, knowing that Mike buys the tire repair kit and Bill finds the bicycle seemingly by coincidence.  Even more powerful is the feeling of a mystical inevitability about all the events described, as if there were some underlying truth of existence which the story reflects as a mere shadow.  Not so much the orgy, but everything else.

It’s almost universal when describing this novel to focus on themes of coming-of-age, friendship, and childhood, which are undeniable strengths.  I think, though, that King’s representation of magic might be the highlight.  The stories we experience as readers, the characters we meet–all of it so real and surreal at the same time–create a unique quality that I’ve never read or heard of anywhere else.  It’s form of power or myth or spirituality, almost like a religion, that is probably best described as magic.  I think that’s what makes It less like a book, and more like a door to a world.  I can think of no other horror story so ambitious, and the pay-off is profound.  It’s not so uncommon for a book to make you feel like you know the main characters, but it’s less often that a book makes you reevaluate your own friendships, and makes you feel like the story you read is some alternate-universe version of your own life.  It exemplifies the value of creativity in horror, chilling readers both with tangible, real-life threats and more abstract, conceptual terrors.  The reader is blanketed in the minutae of daily life in Derry, and yet each description feels essential to the narrative, another helping in a feast of story.  King is known as one of the great, if not the greatest, “master” of horror, and the story of the Losers’ club and Pennywise is a masterpiece.  King’s foreword probably says it best: “Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists.”