Monday 11 September 2017

IT (2017)

Directed by Andy Muschietti, Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard. Horror, US, 2017, 135mins, Cert 15.

New Kids On The (chopping) Block.

Back in 1990, Tommy Lee Wallace (HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH), directed and co-wrote a 3 hour TV mini series adaptation of Stephen King’s gargantuan 1986 novel ‘It’. Over the course of its 900+ pages (in hardback form), ‘It’ chronicles the tale of a malevolent shape shifting alien entity lurking in the sewer drains of Derry, King’s fictional go-to small-town. Rising from its subterranean hellhole every 27 years, it terrorises the town’s children, feeding on their fears and dragging them down to the cavernous underground tunnels where they’ll float – just like one of the balloons it offers as bait whilst posing as a monstrous clown called ‘Pennywise’.

27 years after Wallace’s mini-series, mirroring the titular character itself, ‘It’ resurfaces again, this time in the guise of a big-budget cinematic remake split into two separate chapters. Unlike Wallace before him, current helmer Andy Muschietti (MAMA) and his screenwriters appear to have been afforded the comparative luxury of more than 4 hours in which to condense the sprawling narrative of King’s literary doorstop - given that ‘Chapter One’ arrives in a massive (for horror) 2 ¼ hour package. Dropping the original structure which cut back and forth between events originally set in 1957 and the 80’s – 2017’s IT ‘Chapter One’ is focused solely on the events of 1957 (now retro-updated to the late 1980’s), where we get to spend the entire running time with the pre-teen versions of ‘The Losers’ Club’ - a misfit bunch of school kids who band together to fight the clown. (Chapter Two will tackle events 27 years later when they will be forced to return to Derry to confront Pennywise’s evil as grown-ups).

IT (2017) ‘Chapter One’ plays like a cross between STAND BY ME (itself based on King’s novella ‘The Body’) and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS with Bill Skarsgård’s scarily re-imagined Pennywise as the Krueger-like ringmaster. Just like little Georgie Denbrough’s wax-coated paper boat, the terrific young cast are the wax that keeps the film afloat whenever it teeters and threatens to sink beneath its three-ring circus storm surges of CGI-enhanced Pennywise manifestations. Not that the filmmakers are clowning around, the level of onscreen violence and gore quota is surprisingly high, as evidenced right from the get-go with the graphic playing of the iconic storm drain encounter. (There’s also a brief but literally jolting slaughterhouse sequence which I wouldn’t expect in a ‘15’ rated major studio release). A geyser of blood erupts from a bathroom sink reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s deathbed splurge from the original ELM STREET, whilst the symbolism it represents, given the character it explodes over, references King’s own ‘Carrie’.

Bill Skarsgård’s version of Pennywise is darker and less playful than Tim Curry’s much-loved impish 1990 incarnation. Inevitably some will argue Curry’s iconic (clown) boots are too big for Skarsgård to fill (hey, ask Jackie Earle Haley how that feels like after the ELM STREET remake), but he stamps his own imprint on the character, particularly in eye-rolling close-ups, and sufferers of coulrophobia would still be well advised to give his  interpretation a wide birth.

Resetting the first chapter in the late 80’s enables the makers to tap into the current hysteria for STRANGER THINGS, even down to casting Finn Wolfhard from the show as wise-cracking Richie Tozier, alongside 80’s iconography such as the GREMLINS bedroom poster and the local movie house’s coming attraction; NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5: THE DREAM CHILD (in keeping with the film’s whole ELM STREET vibe). The late 80’s switch also allows for a great ‘New Kids On The Block’ running gag between the fat new kid on the block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and the object of his affection, Beverly (the excellent Sophia Lillis). Ben’s unrequited love for Bev is endearing and sweet, and young Taylor’s playing of the character yields a dignified pathos a million miles away from the broad slapstick of say ‘Chunk’ in THE GOONIES. 

Turning one’s attention away from the children’s performances, it must be conceded that IT is far from perfect. Muschietti over-cooks the numerous jump scares, which rarely land their punches (at least on this jaded reviewer), whilst the score over-bakes just about every beat. The finale confrontation is muddled and slightly underwhelming (although it does afford the arresting image of the ‘floating’ to which Pennywise keeps cracking on about). And despite agreeing they are safer together, the kids frequently wander off down the sewer tunnels / haunted house on their own (groan).

But these quibbles aside; this is still a far better initial stab at King’s magnum opus than one would dared have hoped for given recent King inspired misfires like THE DARK TOWER and THE CELL. The stellar performances of the fantastic young cast that compose ‘The Losers’ Club’ ensure we care about them even before that horrid old clown pokes his grease painted red nose into their world. And as a result, I for one - for once - wasn’t siding with the monster.

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

Sunday 10 September 2017


Directed by Andrew Getty, Starring: Frederick Koehler, Sean Patrick Flanery, Dina Meyer, Michael Berryman. Horror, US, 2017, 98mins, Cert 15.

It’s impossible to review THE EVIL WITHIN without considering the extraordinarily protracted 15-year journey it took to get the ‘finished’ product released. Writer/director Andrew Rork Getty, billionaire grandson of J. Paul Getty, started principal photography on his first and only feature film back in 2002. Having sank an estimated $4-6 million of his own fortune into the project, (the actual production ran on for 5 years) the film still remained unfinished with colouring and editing left to complete when Getty died on 31st March 2015 aged 47 from a haemorrhaging ulcer after a history of recreational meth usage. Enter stage left editor and producer Michael Luceri who made it his mission to see Getty’s obsession completed.

The plot reads like your standard average straight to DVD supermarket shelf-filler. An antique mirror contains a demonic entity which commands a man to commit grisly murders. 

Dennis Peterson (Frederick Koehler) lives with his older brother John (Flanery). Dennis was a child prodigy until an altercation with his jealous brother resulted in him suffering severe brain trauma and ongoing learning difficulties. Despite protestations from his unsympathetic girlfriend Lydia (Meyer) that Dennis should be placed in an institution, older brother John’s guilt outweighs his desire to appease Lydia. Unfortunately, John’s misguided gift to Dennis of an antique mirror results in Dennis’ reflection, (overseen by a demonic entity listed as ‘Cadaver’ in the credits and played by the iconic Michael Berryman), convincing Dennis that the only way to prove he is smarter than everyone perceives him to be is to kill the next door’s ginger cat. Once Dennis begins to fill his ice-box with most of the neighbourhood’s furry critters, Dennis’ killing spree cranks up at an alarming rate of notches and soon human corpses both young and mature begin to pile up at the behest of Cadaver and Dennis’ ‘smarter’ reflection...

Given its production history, the final product is surprisingly coherent (albeit within the context of potentially meth-induced fever dreams). The film opens with a barrage of surreal stop-motion-like images before a very young Dennis recounts a childhood nightmare whereby his mother takes him on a ghost train ride in the middle of an arid desert landscape before removing her sunglasses to reveal tiny mouths in her eye sockets. Getty pulls off some impressively bravura effects and illusion sequences which are hard to forget. His use of mirrors proves particularly unsettling, and the sight of the creepily demonic Berryman unzipping Dennis’ back like a fleshy jump suit is now burned into my retinas forever.

Back in the mundane ‘real’ world, the scripts blandness and general implausibility occasionally threaten to put the brakes on the outlandishly inspired weirdness of Getty’s visions, but thankfully you don’t have to wait long before the next act of random violence, head spinning in-camera surrealism, or jarring time-machine cameo (Matthew ‘Tiny’ McGrory from THE DEVIL’S REJECTS!).

Sean Patrick Flanery and Dina Meyer give it their best respective shots with the uninspiring dialogue, but given the sheer lunacy bookending their scenes together, these inevitably appear hollow and flat. And to be fair, Frederick Koehler’s portrayal of the duality of Dennis and Dennis’ ‘smarter’ reflection is, how much misguided, an undeniable tour-de-force which inevitably overshadows his fellow cast members. 

So there you have it, a bewildering mixed bag of Grand Guignol nightmares, which has the potential to become somewhat of a cult classic in years to come, and which, sadly, provides fragmentary glimpses of a real artistic talent lost.

*** (out of 5*)

Paul Worts

This review was originally published by FrightFest.