Drenched in a haze of pouring rain, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) chases his wax painted boat down as it races through the torrent of rain water surging through a street gutter and into a drain. Peering into the chasm Georgie’s disappointment is quickly replaced with fear, as the yellow gleaming eyes of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) illuminate the darkness. Their interaction typifies director Andy Muschietti’s approach to strike fear in the viewer. The Alfred Hitchcock guide to suspense was to show you a thread – like a ticking time bomb under a table - and then shifting back into the story as you anxiously count down the seconds until BOOM. In “IT,” Pennywise the clown is the bomb that we’re sure is about to explode and his interaction with Georgie is just the first in a series of agonising encounters where we experience Pennywise’s explosive power. Muschietti does not pull any punches, these kids are in the deepest trouble.
The emergence of Pennywise appears inextricably linked to the disappearance of several local children from the town of Derry, and a group of outsider kids band together - battling monstrous visions to uncover the truth. The latest adaptation of Stephen King’s “IT” (the epic novel was earlier adapted as a telemovie featuring Tim Curry as Pennywise) is shocking, while successfully forging a memorable bond between the key characters. It creates an atmosphere of fear and isolation as the adults in the town of Derry are struck with a collective blindness to Pennywise’s horrific deeds.
In any adaptation things are lost (or gained) in the translation to the screenplay. In the case of “IT” two notable differences are the time period in which the film is set (shifting from the 1950s to the 1980s) and isolating the children’s story (the novel charts the story of our ‘Losers’ from their halcyon days to adulthood). As a new wave of American filmmakers have reached prominence our cinema screens and prestige television streams have made a shift to the 1980s as a new mythological space, much like the 50s and the Old West had been before. This change does not seem to be motivated by a nostalgic yearning, instead writers Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman reach back to enjoy a time where children as entities weren’t being ‘molly coddled.’ In the horror movies of the period – like the “Nightmare on Elm Street”, “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween” series to name just a few - filmmakers weren’t afraid to show children in peril. For these now established creatives one would wager that, like this critic, they have fond memories watching movies that weren't age appropriate and having the living shit scared out of them; it was character building.
One can only be invested in the children in peril if you care deeply about the characters on screen. The performances by Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer and Wyatt Oleff are tremendous. The strength of the characters — their bond – is the defining element of the film. Muschietti clearly isn’t simply a stunning visual filmmaker. Just as he did in the “Mama," he draws commanding performances out of the young actors. Each character has burdens to bear which are rendered in their home lives, their interactions with their parents and their family’s routine. The performers navigate that childish ball-busting, their look evokes that lovely awkward age between being dressed and dressing oneself; and their care - conveyed in the way that they gather around Bill (Lieberher) obsessively seeking the truth surrounding the disappearance of his brother Georgie (Scott).
The ensemble shares visions of their tormentor. Initially they each dismiss these vivid terrors as flights of fancy. From the safety of his cinema seat, this adult wanted to holler at the kids to run away from that danger. Stephen King’s work innately gets the incredible power of youthful imagination, that blurred line between vision, perception and imagination. This underpins the more sinister threads of the story between supernatural and psychological threats, and abusive threats and mental anguish - the balance between the literal terrors of childhood and adolescence and the supernatural horror that they must confront. The transition to adolescence makes them begin to question their visions. The power of Pennywise appears to me in his ability to bewitch the surrounding adults into inaction. The collective ignorance of the adult population generates the real terror.
Cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung (who lensed South Korean master Chan-wook Park’s “Oldboy” and “Stoker”) does a masterful job realising the dusty red brown brick and fresh asphalt of Derry; and then drawing you into the slimy bowels of the labyrinthine sewers and dilapidated houses drawing these kids in only to collapse and ensnare them. Editor Jason Ballantine (who edited “Wolf Creek” and was part of the editing team on “Mad Max: Fury Road”) has his hands full with scares a plenty. Unfortunately the volume of scares diminishes as the running time continues. Early in the film you’re consumed with fear, every moment is sheer terror; but over time, the shock of each jump scare dissipates as they become more frequent.
But it’s not the jump scares that make “IT” the sort of horror film that lingers. It’s the more nuanced elements that resonate well after the credits have rolled. Far more effective than any cheap scare, the most disturbing scene in the film may be watching an adult place a “Missing Child” poster atop a stack of posters. It’s a simple, effective way of demonstrating the scope of the horrors experienced in the town, without resorting to hackneyed cliché. Often, filmmakers striving to replicate the feeling of seminal 70s/80s horror films like “The Poltergeist” or “The Exorcist” — or, in this case, adapting something that has already been adapted for television - often make the mistake of doing so with protective gloves and contemporary conservative restraint. Thankfully everyone involved here adapt Stephen King’s “IT” fearlessly and faithfully, placing these kids in genuine peril; and it’s an excruciatingly good ride.
“IT” opens with the cold dusty den of Bill’s bedroom. The rain is pouring and while the town of Derry seeks refuge, there’s an ominous atmosphere right from the outset that there’s something lurking in the edges of this warm and cosy world. Julie Ducournau’s “Raw” begins on a quaint deserted country road, framing the sporadic passing traffic from a position on the side of the road where you’d imagine a speed camera to be lurking. A car comes into frame, and just as it reaches the centre, something suddenly darts into the centre of the road. The car swerves and crashes hard into a tree, killing the occupants. This was clearly no accident.
Animal lover and vegetarian Justine (Garance Miller) is heading to veterinary college; which completes her family’s tradition; Her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a senior and their parents (Laurent Lucs and Joana Preise) who attended are now professionals. After a hazing ritual forces Justine to eat meat, she experiences an insatiable desire for flesh. In the midst of Justine’s newfound impulse, she is experiencing a social and sexual awakening and the cold detachment from her older sister is loaded with judgment.
“Raw” does an exceptional job of dealing with the contemporary college experience. The isolation, the parties, the rites of passage – it’s the kind of setting that’s not only ripe for gallows humour, but it’s also a space that stokes an impulse for weird experimentation. The students feel more like they're being probed and examined in this veterinary college than the animals. Casting the diminutive Miller is a smart move here – every moment with Justine feels as though the bland and off-colour walls are towering, dwarfing every part of her. She’s being squashed and starts to crumble in settings heightened for peer pressure. When she gets quite inebriated and lets loose in the most extreme way, there’s a dizzying array of phone cameras capturing the behaviour. In these moments, Justine is postured like a rodent, she’s their test subject – reacting in the most extreme way to this experiment.
It’s a mesmerising film that leaves you filled with discomfort. Justine’s journey of self discovery walks a twisted path. Central to the self-discovery in both “IT” and “Raw” is the isolation. Derry’s ‘Losers’ aren’t part of the mainstream, they’re outsiders banding together to confront the literal and metaphorical terrors plaguing their existence, while Justine and Alexia, too, are outsiders. But, rather than supernatural terror, the siblings are confronting a far less ethereal, horror – a fear that is much closer to home yet no less terrifying.
“IT” (2017) Review Score: ★★★★
Raw” (2016) Review Score ★★★★½
BLAKE HOWARD IS A FILM CRITIC & THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF/CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS THE HOST OF THE ONE HEAT MINUTE PODCAST. BLAKE IS ALSO A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.