It is Not Bad

Film Review |By Christian Tesfaye - Exclusive to Fortune

'It' is not just a pronoun anymore. It is a movie too. And it has been a novel before that. Adapted from a book by Stephen King, the film introduces Pennywise, a killer clown. But be warned, he does not kill by being funny. Christian Tesfaye is fairly amused, awarding 6 out of 10 stars.   

Clowns are supposed to be entertaining. They are meant to be fun and approachable, but they are not.

If adults find them weird, and in some cases childish, then children mostly just do not like them. A survey by the University of Sheffield in 2008, in fact, found that many children actually feared and disliked clowns.

Stephen King, the maestro of horror, at least for some people, must have guessed this when he penned one of his most admired books, It. Published in 1986, It is a story of seven boys who discover that a clown – a demon clown more like – who lives in the sewers is behind the disappearances of children in their town.

And now, the novel has been converted into a movie. In part, because most people hate to read, and a Good Samaritan thought it was such a regrettable affair that many still have not been made privy to the story. And, in part, because horror movies, which are mostly cheap to make – around an average of 13 million dollars if the site Where’s The Jump? is to be believed – are popular with mainstream audiences. Adapting a book, with a built-in fan base, is also an easier alternative to coming up with fresh stories and engaging characters.

Like most horror movies, It starts with someone getting killed. We meet William (Jaeden Lieberher), and his smaller, less assertive brother Georgie. Big brother makes a paper toy (a sailboat) for the little brother, and in no time, Georgie is playing out in the rain with it. But the sail boat falls into a storm drain. Little Georgie needs to retrieve it as his big brother will scold him for losing the paper toy. But, no worries, a clown comes to the rescue.

What happens next is somewhat terrifying, unexpected, which is to mean good artistic-wise. After the clown, which calls itself Pennywise the Dancing Clown, persuades Georgie into coming closer to him, he bites off his hand and drags him into the sewer.

Months pass, but William never resigns to the death of his little brother, whom he tries to find. He is not alone in this endeavour. He has the ‘Losers Club’. It is made up of every stereotype King, the author, could find. There is William; then there is an obese bookworm, a tomboyish girl, a bespectacled comic relief, a sickly shortie, a pragmatic Jew and, of course, an African-American. Together, they try to rid their town of the evil clown.

Although the movie stars seven children, on the good side, as the above synopsis suggests, it is not for children. It is an all-out scare fest, the type that does commercial horror movies justice.

I have seen many horror films, a number of them when I was just those children’s age. I have found some scary, but I have always looked for those that are terrifying. Most horror movies scare us simply by sneaking up on us, hiding loud bangs in scenes where we least expect one to be.

But that is not real horror. The great ones are creepy, unfettered and realistic (by way of being symbolic). It, the movie, is not exactly like that – it does not subscribe to such a methodical approach. In the face of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or 2014’s It follows, It is closer to Sesame Street.

However, that is just me. It is not that I have a heart made of stone; it is only that I have been tried and tested by petrifying movies.

In It, children die. Although the film is somewhat tame for my taste, there is something still nerve-racking about it. The scene in the first act where Pennywise kills Georgie is the highpoint, or low point, of the film. An unforgettable moment, the camera does not flinch and treats the audience to a sizable dose of child abuse. It says something about the time we live in that people pay good money to watch something of this sort.

It, the movie, is most successful in utilising its child actors. The film would have been a great deal less scary if the parts were played by older actors or younger ones who cannot act. King’s book demanded characters that are older than their years, who curse and are brave, but are at the same time innocent when it comes to the subtleties of life. The film is strong here, which is saying something because filmmakers often find it hard to derive effective performances out of children.

Yet, Pennywise steals the show. Yes, he murders children and has fish-like teeth which makes him utterly unbecoming when he opens his mouth, but he is fun to watch. Thanks to a surprisingly precise performance by Bill Skarsgård, son of the gifted Swedish actor Stellan, Pennywise does not come off as embarrassing, like Jared Leto’s Joker did, but just the right type of sociopathic clown I have always wanted to see. This is a clown inspired performance on the level of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. The kind of acting that would have made John Wayne Gacy Jr., a real-life killer clown, proud.

Published on Sep 16,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 907]



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