Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Halloween 2017: September 21

IT (2017)

A new cinematic version of Stephen King's “IT” has been floated – if you'll excuse the pun – for quite a while now. In 2009, right off the success of season one of “True Detective,” Cary Fukunaga was going to direct a two-part adaptation of the story. Unlike most other two-part book-to-movie deals, this one made sense. King's book is notoriously long and takes place over two time periods anyway. Kukunaga would eventually exit the project, which is one reason why it's taken until 2017 for this movie to get made. “Mama's” Andres Muschietti would direct the film instead. The new “IT” would quickly become the horror event of the Halloween season. People have flocked to “IT” in droves, making the film one of the biggest in the genre ever. I had doubts though. The trailer made the new movie look like a collection jump scares, that hammered the creepy clown note way too hard. So how does “IT” stand up?

The new “IT” updates the setting. Now, the year is 1989. The story is still set in the town of Derry, Maine. The city is gripped by a killing spree targeting children, seemingly centered around the sewer system. The latest victim is Georgie Denbrough. His older brother, Bill who has a stutter, is traumatized by Georgie's death. In his grief, Bill quickly gathers a new group of friends. They're all outcasts and affectionately name themselves the Losers Club. Together, they realize they've all seen weird stuff. In particular, they've all encountered a frightening clown. Soon, the Losers Club make plans to fight against It.

After finishing reading the book a few days before seeing the new movie, I wondered if any cinematic adaptation could do King's tome justice. King covers the entire history of Derry, provides extensive backstories for all the main characters (including the titular entity), and eventually extends into cosmic territory, pass the edges of the macroverse.  Muschietti's film ultimately does what an adaptation is supposed to do. It's more faithful to the book's spirit than its actual plot. Much of the narrative mechanics are different. However, the key events – the apocalyptic rock fight, the house on Neibolt street, the blood in Beverly's drain – are maintained. The film covers Derry's extensive history better than the 1990 television film did. Many elements are changed but 2017's “IT” nails the important stuff. You get a sense of the town, of who the Losers are, and the enormity of the evil they're up against.

Helping matters greatly is the exceptional cast. Each actor playing the Losers is perfectly cast. They're all so good that it's hard to pick a favorite. Jaeden Lieberher captures Bill Denbourgh's personality, showing the vulnerability his stutter causes but the innate leadership skills the other see in him. Jeremy Ray Taylor is great as Ben Hanscom, showing the big boy's intelligence without underselling his loner status. Jack Dylan Grazer expands past Eddie Kaspbrak's hypochondria to create a more active character. If I had to pick a favorite, it would probably come down to Sophia Lillis as Beverly or Finn Wolfhard as Richie. Lillis nails the tough resourcefulness central to Beverly Marsh's personality, while hinting at the girlishness that makes the young boys love her. Wolfhard, meanwhile, is hilarious as Richie Tozier. Wolfhard's Richie gets off a lot of good ones, capturing the character's smart ass appeal that covers a greater vulnerability.

The new film's cast is a hands-down improvement over the 1990 version in every department except for one. Bill Skarsgard is good as our new Pennywise the Dancing Clown. He's suitably creepy while capturing the utter joy It feels at frightening children. He's just not as good as Tim Curry was. Curry was so delightfully wicked in the part. Skarsgard, meanwhile, plays it a little straighter. He also relies on the overdone creepy clown make-up a little too much. I still find some of the design choices a little confusing. The turn-of-the-century clothes make sense in story but look odd in execution. I also think the new Pennywise is too outwardly creepy, negating the disguise's point as one meant to attract kids.

The trailers made me fear that the new “IT” would lean too heavily on jump scares. Muschietti's film does feature many of the marks of modern studio horror. It has that slick but dusty look. There's quite a lot of CGI and not all it incorporated organically. Muschietti's direction is a bit too mannered at time, incorporating distracting dutch angles and other tricks. And, yes, they're are plenty of jump scares. However, “IT” is a surprisingly fun horror movie. The scares scenes are sudden and go for the throat. They're also balanced with a lot of humor and heart. The “kids on an adventure” feeling the book featured is nicely represented in this adaptation, blending well with the more overtly scary moments. After watching “IT,” I felt the same way I do when stepping out of a good carnival funhouse. Elated but excited, creeped out but comfortable.

I do have a few complaints about the film. Out of the seven Losers, Wyatt Oleff's Stanley and Chosen Jacobs' Mike get the short end of the stick. Jacobs' Mike gets it the worst, as his defining characteristic in the book is transferred to another character. My biggest issue concerns a decision made in the last act. Beverly, one of the film's strongest characters up to that point, is reduced to a damsel in distress. Overall, the climax is a bit underwhelming, the initial defeat of Pennywise happening a little too easily in the new film. Most of my other complaints boil down to nitpicks. I wish the Barrens, a huge part of the book, played a larger role in the film. The classic horror references in the book are gone, which makes sense given the shift in setting. But I still sort of miss them.

Still, the new “IT” turned out really well. It's a smooth adaptation with a fantastic cast. Moreover, I was surprised at how fun this particular horror picture turned out to be. During a time when the horror genre veers towards the grim, I certainly didn't expect a glossy studio picture – about a child-eating monster, no less – to be this fleet-footed and entertaining. “IT” concludes with a title screen declaring itself “Chapter One,” essentially promising chapter two. Considering the huge box office, that's sure to come. Hopefully, the filmmakers intentionally saved the book's more far-out material for the second movie, which I am now actually pretty hyped for. [7/10]

The Shuttered Room (1967)

“The Shuttered Room” is usually included on any list of H.P. Lovecraft adaptations. However, that's a bit of a cheat. The short story of the same name was actually written by August Derleth. Derleth was a pen pal and frequent collaborator of Lovecraft's. As his literary executor, Derleth can be thanked for keeping Lovecraft's work in print. Yet Derleth has also been criticized for making his own contributions to H.P.'s cosmology. He wrote “The Shuttered Room” based on notes by Lovecraft but most consider the story 100% Derleth. Despite that, Lovecraft's name is frequently attached to this film, hence its coverage here.

As a child, Susannah Kelton grew up on the island of Dunwich, in the New England countryside. Her family moved away when she was young. Now, after marrying a man much older than her, Susannah has been invited back to the island. A recently dead aunt has left the family mill in her position. Susannah and her husband, Mike, find they are unwelcomed here. The locals are hostile, attacking Mike and sexually harnessing Susannah. Meanwhile, it soon becomes apparent to Susannah that the family mill hides a dark secret. How does the shuttered room in the building's attic connect to her traumatic childhood memories?

The first thing I noticed about “The Shuttered Room” is how it sounds. Basil Kirchin provides the film with an eclectic jazz soundtrack. Many of the film's scenes are scored to frantic drumming and hot saxophones. This is an odd choice for a horror movie, often robbing scenes of potential tension and irritating the audience. It's not the only annoying thing about the movie. The sound design is equally shrill. The movie's soundscape is full of continuously blaring car horns, shrill shrieks, and obnoxious shouting. This ear-rending sound mixes with content that is often cheesy. In-between the exaggerated  redneck villains and Gig Young's tendency towards using karate chops, the audience is more likely to laugh than scream.

In fact, depraved backwoods shenanigans makes up too much of “The Shuttered Room.” If it wasn't released four years earlier, I would accuse it of ripping off “Straw Dogs.” Both films focus on city folk being menaced in the country side. In both, the wife is constantly sexually harassed by one man in particular. Oliver Reed hams it up as Ethan, the central villain. In one scene, he literally licks Susan's ear. Reed's performance drips with danger. Yet the movie is weirdly guarded with its subject matter. For every scene of Reed nearly raping Susannah, we get another scene of goofy rednecks throwing nets on people. (There's another connection of sorts between the films. “Straw Dogs” is set in the English countryside. “The Shuttered Room” is set in Lovecraft's Dunwich. However, the movie was shot in England, with many of the actors playing the country folk being English, putting on American accents.)

Lovecraft's writings are full of inbred hillbillies, communing with sinister forces from beyond. Yet “The Shuttered Room” ends up barely feeling like a Lovecraft story. Derleth's text included explicit connections to Lovecraft's mythology, such a half-human frog-monster locked in the attic. The cinematic “Shuttered Room” ditches all of this stuff. Instead, the titular room includes an insane, slightly deformed but otherwise very human prisoner. It's easy to predict the connection Susannah has to this person. That “The Shuttered Room” saves this reveal for the final act makes much of the movie feel like tedious waiting. When the door is finally opened, and the monster released, you're left wondering if that's it. The blunt conclusion that follows does nothing to resolve this dissatisfaction.

So that's why “The Shuttered Room” is rarely discussed when talking about beloved Lovecraft adaptations. Normally, I'd say the filmmakers wanted to make a different kind of story and attached a popular author to the movie in hopes of boosting its profile. Yet was Lovecraft really that big a name in 1967? I doubt it, which makes the reasons why “The Shuttered Room” turned out how it did deeply mysterious. Why bother adapting this story if you were going to remove all the cool parts? Reed's performance is disturbingly sleazy but, otherwise, there's little reason to check out this annoying and boring backwoods thriller. [5/10]

Masters of Horror: Family

During season one of “Masters of Horror,” John Landis might have seemed a little out of place, having directed only two or three horror movies. Yet his episode, “Deer Woman,” proved to be a season highlight. So I eagerly anticipated his next installment, “Family.” The episode follows Harold. He's a happy family man, with a wife and young daughter, living in the suburbs. But there's a problem: Harold's family is dead. He's actually a serial killer, who strips his victims' bodies down to the bones, propping up their skeletons and imagining personalities for them. Harold finds himself fascinated with his new neighbors, a young married couple. His perfect family is broken up as Harold becomes obsessed with Cecelia, the wife. But all is not as it seems.

As a peek into an especially whimsical serial killer's head, “Family” works pretty well. Harold kills not out of twisted sexual desires (though there's a little of that) or because voices tell him to. (Though there's a little of that too.) Instead, he kills to preserve a sense of internal normalcy. His fake family makes him happy. It gives him a wife that understands him, a daughter that looks up to him, and parents that advise him. It's a weirdly comfy world, even if its full of skeletons reading the Weekly World News. The audience is oddly on Harold's side, as he stalks his neighbors, plotting to kill them both. Watching his perfect inner life fall apart, developing strife with his skeleton wife, is oddly effecting. You feel bad for this guy, even if he's an unrepentant killer. George Wendt's performance is perfect for this, as his jolly appearance hides the character's sinister intentions.

Other elements of “Family” don't work as well. The graphic gore – bodies dissolving in acid, a face split by a hammer – feel mean-spirited, at odds with the quasi-comic tone. The twist ending is easy to predict. In fact, the scenes involving the neighbors drag the episode down a bit. It's not the performers' fault, as Meredith Monroe and Matt “The Middleman” Keeslar, are fine in the parts. Landis' directorial flourishes, which include a CGI zoom into a larynx, are distracting. Still, “Family” is a solid hour. It probably would've stretch the material a little thin but “Family” could've supported a feature length run time. Wendt's performance is fantastic and Harold's worldview, antisocial as it might be, is fascinating. [7/10]

Perversions of Science: Anatomy Lesson

“Perversions of Science's” second episode, “Anatomy Lesson,” is another story that is equal parts horror and sci-fi. The episode follows Billy, the son of the town coroner. His father frequently examines the bodies of a local serial killer's victims. (The victims are mostly criminals and scumbags.) Soon, Billy develops a fascination with dead bodies, deriving sexual satisfaction from cutting living flesh. He mostly preys on animals but is eager to move on to people. He seemingly gets his chance when a hot date is interrupted by a homeless man, someone Billy has encounter from time to time. However, the hunter quickly becomes the hunted.

As an examination of a young psychopath, slowly getting to know his desire for murder, “Anatomy Lesson” is mildly captivating. Jeremy London's performance is solid, as he shows no attempt to make this nasty character likable. The script clearly links his sex drive with his murder drive, without overexplaining things. The last minute shift into hard sci-fi, involving robot vigilantes and alien overlords, is sudden. A major character's true identity is revealed in a corny way. References to other historical serial killer are heavy handed. The special effects are underwhelming, involving a robot that is clearly a puppet and a giant CGI flying saucer. “Anatomy Lesson” ultimately feels like two stories, a gritty tale about a budding serial killer and a sci-fi story about aliens policing Earth, awkwardly fused together. Chrome's puns are a little better this time, as they actually relate to the story and aren't just thoughtlessly sexual. [6/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

"It" didn't scare me and I wanted it to. I probably watch too much Horror and with the creepy clown craze winding down (hopefully along with zombies), the impact just wasn't there. The kids in "The Losers Club" were entertaining and the camaraderie was sweet, especially given the parental problems many of them had. The opening scene with Pennywise in the storm drain was gold. Very creepy and suspenseful. A few other scenes like the slide show and the bloody bathroom were effective and probably scared the Hell out of some viewers.

There were a few too many "coming of age" and "standing up to the bullies" scenes for me. Cutting Ben's belly and the rock fight were silly. I'm sure these events occur in the book (which I've only read the first couple hundred pages of), but they're a little too on the nose. Yeah, bullies are jerks. Point taken.

Speaking of the book, what I have read of it indicates to me that this movie version is really toned down. There is no way that the novel would ever be faithfully reproduced by a modern movie. Culturally, our sensitivities have changed and even the first 100 pages are so politically incorrect that people would explode in the theater with all of the slurs and unacceptable name-calling I read. It certainly would make for a controversial movie, though.

"It" is a good movie but too many jump scares subtracted from its impact. It gains some points back with some likable characters but lacks sustained scares and its conclusion is just another over-edited fight scene. 7/10

MoH's "Family" sounds exactly like what I'm not looking for, gore for gore's sake. PoS's "Anatomy Lesson" sounds interesting with the change in story direction. Even if clumsily executed, I like the idea of aliens policing Earth.