Clowns, King and It

Full disclosure: I hate really clowns. They’re the worst. They’re a bunch of smiley-faced, brightly coloured, baggy trouser-wearing freaks that for some perverted reason love hanging around children’s parties. They’re weird, they’re creepy, they’re unsettling and I hate them.

How clowns ever became considered funny is beyond me. And how “clown” ever became a synonym for “comedian” is even further beyond me. I have never seen a clown get a special on HBO. I have never seen Netflix approach some Bozo wannabe wanting to produce his hour-long stint involving balloon animals and water-squirting posies. Why? Because: clowns… aren’t… funny. At best they’re annoying. At worse they’re terrifying. Sort of like the every Tory politician in government.

Even language normally associated with comedy doesn’t work when used in the context of clowns. In fact, it becomes downright horrific. Example: A comedian that “kills” on stage is a comedian whose jokes are landing. But a clown that “kills” on stage is the stuff of nightmares, prompting coulrophobes everywhere to go, “See? See? I told ya! I told ya!” A comedian that has their audience “screaming in the aisles” is a stand-up show surely worth your time. But a clown that does the same thing is the most terrifying circus imaginable. A comedian that causes the audience to “grab their stomachs in pain” sounds like a comic that’s refined their act to perfection. But a clown that induces the same effect sounds like the work of John Wayne Gacy.

Clowns are so astonishingly unfunny that they are more often associated with the exact opposite of what they’re trying to promote. They want to instil happiness and joy. (Bless them.) But more often they instil fear and unease. Their sole purpose is to make us laugh. Yet they just end up looking like unfunny assholes. Sort of similar to Ross’s role in “Friends”.

What’s strange is that few people find clowns legitimately funny, yet many find them legitimately are creepy. Even clowns are aware of this. Every time a clown is depicted negatively (i.e. accurately) in popular culture real-life clowns everywhere kick up a fuss with their big floppy shoes. The World Clown Association (yes, there’s a World Clown Association – though not to be confused the other World Clown Association, “The Republican Party”) always expresses severe dismay whenever a few bad-apple clowns risk giving the rest a bad name: “We’re not all axe-wielding psychopaths, you know?”

Uh-huh… sure.

So we can all agree then that clowns are horrid creatures capable of scaring the bejesus out of most people on the planet. Cool. But then why is it that the new adaption of Stephen King’s classic novel “IT” is not actually all that scary? And how come, dare I say, even the moments involving Pennywise the Dancing Clown (one of popular culture’s most truly disturbing clowns – and also someone who tragically never got the chance to properly prove himself as a hoofer), are not actually all that scary either?

Let me back up a bit. I like the new adaption of “IT”. I think it’s is a good film. It’s a very good adaption of a novel that’s incredibly difficult to adapt. But it’s not particularly scary. Nevertheless, I still think it’s a heck of an achievement and I commend it considerably. Let me put it this way: Picture you were a young, inexperienced, up-and-coming director. Now picture some hotshot producer walks into your office and chucks half a tree’s worth of fiction onto your desk (the original paperback of “IT” was 1,138 pages long) and says, “Hey kid, see that book? Make that into the biggest box office hit horror cinema has ever seen.”

If it were me, I think I’d pass. I’d stick to making “Insidious: Chapter 208” or whatever and hedge my bets.

But by Jove, Argentine director Andy Mushietti (of 2013’s “Mama” fame) has done exactly that. As I type, “IT” has shattered box office records across the world. It’s had the biggest box office opening in horror film history. Or, as another creepy, crazy-haired clown relentlessly harming vulnerable American children would say: “What a crowd! What a turn out!”

So rejoice, Pennywise. You may have reason to dance after all.

“IT” takes place in 1989: Bush Senior is president, the Berlin wall is coming down, it’s all kicking off in Tiananmen Square, and the woman who wrote the immortal lyrics “Look what you made me do. Look what you made me do. Look what you just made me do, look what you just made me do” is born. What a year!

In the town of Derry (Maine, not Northern Ireland – although Derry, Northern Ireland has its own fair share of clowns too, believe me) school is out for the summer. Cue Alice Cooper and texts books flung high in the air. As the school bell heralds the holidays, a bunch of nerdy, unpopular misfits step out of class hoping to spend their summer having fun and not getting beaten to a pulp by the local bullies – only one of these things is going to happen.

Among the crew are asthmatic mother’s boy Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), who appears to suffer from Munchausen syndrome; lanky Jewish kid Stanley (Wyatt Olef), whose religion makes him a minority in the town; wisecracking comedian Richie (“Stranger Things’s” Finn Wolfhard), whose name is almost always preceded by the phrase “Shut up!”; and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a smart, “New Kids on the Block” fan who enjoys a good library and late-80s pop (I can only, in good faith, approve of half of these things).

There’s also Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), one of the quieter, more thoughtful members of “The Loser Gang” – a term that sounds like something Donald Trump, with his renowned Wildean wit, would use to refer to the “Democrats”. Bill has a stutter he can’t control, and he’s still reeling from a recent family tragedy. His six-year-old brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), disappeared the previous year. Floated far, far away. The event is dramatised with chilling precision in the movie’s opening sequence. Georgie subsequently pops up here and there as kind of a spectre, taunting Bill by scurrying around in his yellow raincoat like some fresh version of the kid from “Dark Water”.

In the book, all the kiddy action takes place in the 1950s. But this is 2017, ladies and gentlemen. And therefore it is against the law to pass up on an opportunity to set a piece of popular culture in the 1980s. So here we are – 1989. Hit it Madonna!

Two more kids end up joining the band of outsiders. (For a bunch of unpopular kids, they are sort of strangely popular.) One is Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a kid who lives in a nearby farm, whose chores call to mind images of Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep”. He’s a black kid and home-schooled, making him very much an outsider in an almost exclusively white town.

The final addition to the group is Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the only girl in this cluster of misfits, and someone who’s living a very real nightmare back at home. At school, she’s labelled “fast”, despite no truth to matter. She’s simply an intelligent, considerate girl who likes to keep to herself.

Sophia Lillis gives perhaps the standout performance of the film. She’s instils in Beverly a wonderfully warm charisma, but also manages to completely sell the rawer, more unsettling scenes opposite her deeply ominous father.

Honestly though, all of the kids here deliver magnificent performances. They all seem destined to be stars. They’ve got… um… it. Beverly, however, has perhaps the best moment in the film. It’s a delightful little moment shared with Ben, the good-hearted “New Kids on the Block” fan, when they bump into each other for the first time. Ben clumsily spills his possessions all over the floor and she helps him gather them. She picks up his yearbook and opens it. But inside she finds no signatures (meaning no friends). She takes pity on him, pops a pen and signs it. But the film handles this moment in such a way that it never feels pitiful. It feels genial and charming. She taunts him about his taste in music and they flirtatiously throw “New Kids” song titles at each other. It’s very sweet and very genuine and both Lillis and Taylor play off one another brilliantly. In any other film this could have been a standard awkward-kid encounter. But here it’s handled with sincerity and warmth.

I have to admit, the interactions among the kids and the camaraderie displayed by each of them, are the best parts of the film. As a whole it’s an entertaining evocation of the way kids think and talk within their little cliques, and of the way they protect one another with fervid loyalty. But there’s evil lurking around this small New England town. (It’s Stephen King, so of course there is.) In fact, there are a few evils lurking around this town. (It’s Stephen King, so of course there are.)

The first is hot-headed psycho and River Phoenix lookalike Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang of gangly hoodlums. Like most on-screen bullies, he’s pretty extreme. The nice person inside of you wants to think he’s just a misguided delinquent; railing against the rotten hand he’s been dealt by society – an angry youth who just needs someone he can talk to, open up to.

But then you see him carving his name with a pen knife into the stomach of a poor defenceless kid and you think, “Nah, fuck this guy.”

The second evil is more abstract: it’s a strange malevolent force that hides among the town’s shadows – the “It” of the title – that emerges every 27 years to prey on local children. This “It” normally takes the form of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a circus clown with menacing eyes who lives in the town’s sewer system, and whose presence is often signalled by a free-floating red balloon. Yikes.

Pennywise, as a figure, is wonderfully conceived. Scarlet stripes trickle down his cheeks like tears of blood. The first time we see him it’s genuinely unnerving. He pops his head out from the darkness to coax poor Georgie into the sewer. The whites of his eyes are so unnaturally bright that their sheer uncanniness makes it all the more unsettling. However, by the eighth, ninth, ten – eleventh – time Pennywise makes an appearance, stepping out of the shadow into the analytical light, the novelty begins to wear off.

Add to this the film’s unfortunate approach by way of eliciting scares. Apart from one genuinely creepy background scare that involves Ben sitting in a library flicking through a book, the film’s methods of inducing horror are generally pretty tiresome. Muschietti relies too heavily on “got-cha” jump scares, loud horror-signalling music, and unpleasant computerised special effects to frighten his audience.

And this is the problem with “IT”. Actually, it’s a problem with a lot of modern horror. What makes it frustrating is that, in the case here, “IT” does such a great job of setting up environments that have the potential for great horror. But almost every time it goes too far: breaking the spell, destroying the unease, and settling for over-the-top CGI visuals instead of subtler, more effective imagery.

Pennywise smiling at Georgie, with his big bright eyes and cunicular yellow teeth, taunting him, teasing him to reach for his precious paper boat, is way scarier than Pennywise’s mouth turning into some kind of extra-terrestrial creature from an episode of “Rick and Morty”. Stanley discovering that an eerie Modigliani-like painting has fallen off the wall is way creepier than the actual subject of that painting coming to life and gnarling at the camera in extreme close-up. Bill discovering Georgie huddled in the corner of the basement, trembling and whispering in the dark, is way scarier than Georgie subsequently walking into the light with a CGI-rotting face and leaving nothing to the imagination.

All of these setups are very strong. But each time Muschietti just goes that bit too far. I don’t blame him. Practically every modern western horror film does the same thing. It’s to be expected. But I wish the film had a bit more restraint, taking the time to breathe a little first before trying to scare us. There are a tonne of times the movie tries to scare you – which is great (I mean it’s a horror film after all) – but due to their sheer abundance the scares feel rushed. This is part of the difficulty with adapting Stephen King’s chunky source (of which only the first few hundred pages or so are depicted on-screen). The film feels simultaneously too long and too short. It’s too long in the sense of its running time (it clocks in at two hours and 15 minutes) but it’s too short in terms of its setups. No time is taken to properly dig deep into any of its scary moments – consequently, we rarely get the chance to dig our nails into the seats.

Stephen King’s novels – especially his more voluminous ones – with their multi-layered detail and meandering, entertaining asides, are difficult to adapt – even King himself has found this out. But whatever you do, staying true to the author’s tone is vital. Like “The Shining” or “Carrie”, the best King adaptations create a specific universe unto themselves. But they also tap into King’s boldness, his talent for exploring the darker regions of human nature. King is a master at probing humanity’s fear, laying bare our weaknesses and flaws every bit as often as our greatest nightmares. He can be sympathetic and he can be sensitive. And it is for this reason why he is a great writer. He doesn’t just write about scary things. He challenges the reader to ask why they are scary in the first place.

In the movie version of “IT”, however, we don’t quite reach these heights. The film’s still a thoroughly entertaining movie ride, but it’s one that doesn’t get to delve all that deep. Instead it skims along the surface and leaves little to the imagination. And when it comes to horror – when it comes to making an audience feel genuinely disturbed by the events on-screen – imagination is essential. Horror up close is never as terrifying as horror unseen. Great horror allows our minds to fill in the gaps – gaps deftly laid by the artist – with our own darker, much more personal, fears: fears that are tailored and highly specific to how each of us perceives the world. With “IT”, however, the film attempts to show you horror – lots of horror. But it rarely attempts to make you feel horror.

If Muschietti gets signed on to do the sequel, hopefully he can inject more of this feeling into the project next time. Everything else, however, seems to be working nicely. So I guess, Mr. Muschietti, what I’m trying to say for the sequel is this: Once more… with feeling.

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