Showing posts with label stephen king. Show all posts
Showing posts with label stephen king. Show all posts

Sep 16, 2020

CASTLE ROCK: SEASON TWO (2019)


[Contains spoilers for both seasons of Castle Rock.]

If anyone deserves the shared-universe approach to a large accumulated body of work, it’s Stephen King. The author of over ninety novels and who-knows-how-many short stories and novellas has spent the last forty years creating a rich and intricate history with his many characters doing ghastly things in the fictitious town of Castle Rock. His most well-known Castle Rock-set stories include the mammoth Needful Things, his early effort The Dead Zone, and his novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, which inspired you know what.

The first season of Hulu’s Castle Rock successfully fulfilled its mission statement as being a brand new story set in the world of Stephen King’s creations, borrowing characters (or relations of characters) and giving them new conflicts to contend with. Certainly not hurting is the casting of at least one prominent actor from a previously heralded King adaption, with Carrie’s Sissy Spacek fulfilling that role, and which resulted in one of the best episodes of any television show ever (that would be “The Queen”). Overall, the first season of Castle Rock was a well-made, unusual, ambiguous, and creepy new yarn that somehow managed to capture those Stephen King vibes without the author serving as an active part of the show, as it contained the usual Kingisms we’ve come to expect from our favorite master of the morbid: the strained father/son relationship, the conspiratorial town, the secret that soon becomes public and threatens to destroy everything in its path, and, of course, the horror. It was also filled with a bevy of easter eggs – not just as they pertained to the story it was telling, but as fun quick glimpses in the background, designed for the most ardent and eagle-eyed King fan. (If the shady man-and-boy duo of Odin (Charles Jones) and Willie (Rory Culkin) weren’t meant to channel Dick Halloran and Danny Torrance from The Shining, I’ll surrender my geek card right now.)


Whereas the first season of Castle Rock relied on the mystical and the mysterious, season two backs away from that approach, vying to tell a more easily digestible story, even if its elements border on the absurd and the silly. Season two embraces the more supernatural aspects of King’s work, setting the bulk of the action in Jerusalem’s Lot. Salem’s Lot, one of King's earliest works (and my personal favorite of the author), as you might well remember, was about a small New England town being slowly overtaken by a vampire disease, started by the arrival of the unseen Kurt Barlow and his human familiar, Richard Straker (played by James Mason in Tobe Hooper's 1979 miniseries adaptation).

Season two jettisons the novel's vampire threat, replacing it with a similar kind of monstrosity that acts in much the same way: an awakened evil takes refuge in the long-abandoned Marsten house and begins to “turn” members of the town one by one, an effort led by the recently possessed Ace Merrill (Paul Sparks, House of Cards), a character who previously appeared in the Castle Rock short story “The Body,” which was adapted into Stand By Me and featured Kiefer Sutherland as the switchblade-twirling character. Meanwhile, unknowingly driving head-on into the conflict is Annie Ingalls (Lizzy Caplan, Cloverfield), real name Annie Wilkes, a nurse on the run alongside her teen daughter, Joy (Elsie Fisher, The Addams Family). A freak accident strands them in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, where they end up in the dangerous cross-hairs of Ace Merrill, nephew of “Pop” Merrill (Tim Robbins, returning to the land of King following The Shawshank Redemption), seemingly the town’s Irish godfather. A confrontation between Annie and Ace leaves the latter dead, and Annie, who is on the run and can’t simply call the police, instead dumps his body beneath a local construction site, unwittingly awakening a dangerous and dormant evil that begins to transform the town.


The second season of Castle Rock experiences moments of greatness, almost entirely relegated to Annie Wilkes’ subplot, especially when it goes back in time to her childhood to shine a light on her neuroses. Normally, we like our “horror” villains free of such backstories, as we prefer the mystery to speak for itself and our imaginations to fill in the gaps of what happened to make a person so monstrous. However, the writers have provided a very rich, poignant, and emotional trip into the past, dedicating more than an episode’s worth of running time to exploring Annie’s origins, presenting her as a troubled student with a learning disability, leaving her a pariah at school and forcing her to be home-schooled by her father. The dynamic between her parents, Carl (John Hoogenakker, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan) and Chrysida (Robin Weigert, Deadwood), begins with tension and soon gives way to an unhealthy power struggle, putting further strain on an already emotionally unwell Annie. All of these bits are where season two resonate the strongest and exercise the firmest grasp of the story, and it doesn’t hurt that every actress who brings Annie to life is exemplary (Ruby Cruz as the teenager; Madison Johnson as the grade-schooler), with the top honor going to Lizzy Caplan. Normally, unless we’re dealing with the portrayal of a real person, I’m not a fan of mimicry in performance, as it can be distracting and come dangerously close to spoof, but Caplan’s take not just on Annie Wilkes, but Annie Wilkes as previously and infamously played by Kathy Bates (which netted her an Academy Award), is eerily good. She's nailed the mannerisms, the aw-shucks voice and frumpy wardrobe, and most importantly, the ability to go completely blank behind her eyes during her most extreme moments, losing herself in pure unhinged mania.

What’s interesting about this iteration of Annie Wilkes is, unlike Misery, where she imprisons a crippled man and inflicts all kinds of tortures upon him, Castle Rock turns her into the hero – but one that lacks the straightforward, one-dimensional characterization where she’s always a good person who does the right thing. Annie, actually, seldom does the right thing, falling back on lying, fraud, theft, and even murder to keep from being found out, but everything she does is in servitude toward protecting her daughter from the dangerous person or people she’s convinced are in pursuit of them. (And seeing her wield a sledgehammer again, this time to kill a bad guy, overcomes how obvious an idea it is and still manages to be strangely satisfying.)


The problem with season two is that it’s overstuffed with too many subplots, and eventually, Annie and her daughter soon become bit players in the season’s main conflict – that of the supernatural threat invading the town. Also vying for space is “Pop” Merril’s own conflicts having to do with his two adopted Somalian children, now adults: Nadia (Yusra Warsama, The Last Days on Mars) and Abdi (Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips), a doctor and a construction developer, respectively. Normally, one can overcome a chaotic season with confident and complex writing, ensuring that all subplots eventually connect and never feel forced or extraneous, but season two isn’t up to the task. There are way too many instances of coincidence, convenient timing, extreme abuses of the expression “suspension of disbelief,” and just-go-with-it moments required to drive the story forward, and while a few of these could be forgivable, there are unfortunately many more than a few. To its credit, Castle Rock has a few surprises in store that ferment the conflict and provide additional pathos for some of its characters, one of which directly ties it back to season one (which remains a point of contention, as every season was supposed to be its own unique story); however, to its discredit, every major twist is easily predictable, and though, on the surface they help to enhance the story, it does leave the ultimate impression that season two has very few tricks up its sleeve.

Much like the novel Misery and its film adaption of the same name, season two could’ve easily presented a story that skirted supernatural elements while still being horrific – one fully focused on the story of Annie Wilkes, her daughter, their complicated past, and the possible future that lay ahead for them. To be fair, Castle Rock’s goal from the beginning was to take a “what if?” fan-fiction approach to Stephen King’s universe and put certain elements on a chess board to see how things could play out, and that’s where the series has been the most successful. It is odd, however, to see a character from one of King’s more grounded novels appearing in a new story that’s outright supernatural, as it somewhat cheapens the emotional and mental journey of the Annie character and serves as more of a distraction to the path she has to eventually take, which is the one that, in the end, feels more profound.


In spite of season two’s stumble, I am eager to see what the as-of-yet unannounced season three will bring to the table (and which prominent actor from a previous King adaptation will appear – fingers crossed for Kathy Bates or Christopher Walken). There are a wealth of characters and concepts in King’s body of work to borrow (and in spite of the series’ name, being that Misery took place in Colorado, everything he’s written is up for grabs), so in a way, as long as this series keeps getting the greenlight, Castle Rock has barely scratched the surface of the stories it can tell.

Aug 25, 2020

THE SHINING (1980)


One of my favorite alternative Christmas movies is Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, The Shining, based on the novel by Stephen King, who infamously despises Kubrick’s adaptation. From a  purist point of view, I can see why, as the character of Jack Torrance doesn’t undergo the dramatic change in the film as he does in King’s story. Instead, Nicholson plays him as a prequel to a maniac – someone who already seems off kilter the first moment we see him; someone that the audience can just feel is going to lose his mind once the Torrance family is wintered into the Overlook Hotel over several months. 

Having addressed that, The Shining is masterful as a horror experience. 

It’s impeccably shot, with a staggering amount of detail, right down to the Penrose stairs design of the now-infamous carpeting that stretches across nearly the entirety of the Overlook Hotel. It’s this kind of detail that relegates The Shining as being one of those titles where you notice something new every time you watch it. My most recent viewing of the title had me, finally, noticing that the horror the evil of the Overlook unleashes upon the Torrances has been specifically curated to terrorize each family member’s specific fears. Jack is a struggling alcoholic, so the hotel appears to him in the form of ghostly bartender, slipping him liquor that doesn’t exist, but off which Jack becomes intoxicated, anyway. And meanwhile there’s Wendy, “a confirmed ghost story and horror movie addict” – if you’ve ever stopped to wonder why The Shining, which for most of its running time had been so good at scaring the audience with meticulous and abstract set-pieces, would suddenly rely on hokey skeleton props covered in hokier spider webs, it’s because that’s the kind of thing that scares her. And then there’s little Danny, whose special power allows him to see The Shining for what it really is, and what lurks around every corner.


In many ways, The Shining plays like an anti-horror movie, constantly circumventing expectations at the expense of both King's novel and the audience's preconceived notions as to what usually happens in films like this. One of the biggest changes of the book comes from Dick Halloran’s long, weathered descent into frigid snowy conditions to get back to the Overlook once Danny telepathically calls him for help, and after everything he goes through to arrive back, he’s instantly killed by Jack in the hotel lobby. It’s easy to look at this and say, “well, that was pointless,” but it’s, in fact, a genius move – a way to say, “in a normal horror movie, he would be their hero,” but in The Shining, anything can happen and no one is safe.  

If a filmmaker can make a movie that leaves behind one indelible image that will live on in the minds of future audiences, that’s a huge accomplishment. The Shining leaves behind dozens; pick your poison: the hand-holding Grady twin girls, the bloody elevator, the bathtub specter of room 237, the hedge maze, Nicholson’s crazed face pressed against a chopped hotel door, and this list honestly goes on and on. This is what makes The Shining a towering giant of the genre, and one that will absolutely live forever.

Aug 2, 2020

I'M HOME


"Any big hotels have got scandals. Just like every big hotel has got a ghost. Why? Hell, people come and go. Sometimes one of 'em will pop off in his room, heart attack or stroke or something like that. Hotels are superstitious places. No thirteenth floor or room thirteen, no mirrors on the back of the door you come in through, stuff like that."

Jul 14, 2020

LET’S RAISE SOME HELL: ‘PET SEMATARY TWO’ IS A MASTERPIECE


[Spoilers follow for the entire Pet Sematary series.]

Oh, sequels. On paper, you’re so weird. You’re a continuation that was never meant to be. You’re glorified fan fiction sanctioned into existence by a producer or studio eager to continue a profitable story that was only ever meant to be just that story (unless, of course, your characters wear capes, because then we need thirty-seven of those, I guess). By now, it’s become common knowledge that most sequels are inferior retellings of their originators. Subsequent writers and directors who hop onto an existing franchise try to make their sequel as different as they can, but ultimately, they are still going to exist within the structure that’s already been established. No matter what else the sequel might try, we know that Terminators are going to travel back in time to protect or destroy, Michael Myers is going to kill, and Jigsaw is going to impossibly exist and rattle off dime-store philosophies while ripping money from your pockets and laughing maniacally.

Director Mary Lambert knows this better than anyone. With her 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, she nailed the holy trifecta of horror filmmaking: scaring the shit out of audiences, striking gold at the box office, and scoring a positive critical notice or two. Even today, it’s still considered newsworthy when a woman is put in charge of a major tentpole release, and though Pet Sematary wasn’t considered tentpole, it was still highly anticipated. It was, after all, the next in a long line of extremely successful King adaptations, this time inspired by what was deemed the scariest book he’d ever written. Could a—gasp—female director make a film every bit as dark, graphic, and taboo as the book written by a lovable man with a few loose screws? That answer was a resounding yes, and no one knew that more than Paramount Pictures, so when it came time for them to greenlight the sequel, they made sure Lambert was along for the ride.


I’ve had a strange relationship with Pet Sematary Two ever since seeing it at a young age. As weird and kid-inappropriate as it may sound, the first Pet Sematary was a childhood institution. USA Network used to run it back to back with another King title, Silver Bullet, and I would watch them every single time they aired. I was unrealistically scared of Pet Sematary, and never more than when Rachel’s bony sister, Zelda, was on screen. I eventually saw Pet Sematary Two a few years after it hit VHS, and even as a child, I could tell it was stupid. Beyond stupid. It had sacrificed anything legitimately creepy about the first film in favor of slasher-flick antics and sensational violence…but I can’t pretend I wasn’t scared of it at times, because I was. 

After recently shrugging my way through the pallid, lifeless Pet Sematary remake, I felt compelled to revisit this 1991 sequel I’d long ago dismissed in hopes of finding some new merit and satisfying the itch that the remake failed to scratch.

I’m so glad I did.

Pet Sematary Two is one of the strangest, darkest, and uncomfortably funniest horror flicks ever produced by a major studio—one directed by a woman, headlined by a 13-year-old kid with more star power than the guy playing his father, and which had absolutely no problem killing multiple children… and mothers… and kittens. (Though I didn’t find any of it remotely scary watching it with adult eyes, the parts that used to frighten me as a child still filled me with slight apprehension.) Originally, Lambert had intended on directly continuing the Creed story with a teenage version of Ellie (played by Blaze Berdahl in the first film), but in a stunning act of boundless misguidance, Paramount was leery about making a teenage girl the lead character in a horror film...even though the studio had just completed a successful eight-film run of the Friday the 13th series, in which the lead in nearly every single entry was…a teenage girl. In response, Lambert and screenwriter Richard Outten (Van Damme’s Lionheart) created an entirely new crop of characters, though obviously the action remained in the town of Ludlow—the site of the pet cemetery and the Micmac burial ground beyond it.

Meet the Matthews family: there’s Chase (Anthony Edwards, Miracle Mile), patriarch and veterinarian; his wife, Renee (Darlanne Fluegel, Once Upon A Time In America, which makes a cameo), actress of cheap looking gothic monster movies; and their son, Jeff (Terminator 2: Judgment Day), looking as exhausted and barely into anything as the actor normally is (or isn’t). A freak on-set accident sees Renee being fried to death by some “oops!” electricity, so Chase takes his son back to Ludlow to bury her in their hometown’s cemetery, and hopefully start anew. It’s there that Chase encounters a cold Gus Gilbert (an all-in Clancy Brown), Ludlow’s sheriff and a former flame of his deceased wife, where he's quick to remind the bereaved widower—at her funeral, no less—that he and Renee used to bang something fierce. Jeff eventually befriends Gus’s stepson, Drew (Jason McGuire), and after his dog, Zowie, meets the wrong end of Gus’s rifle, the boys bury him in Ludlow’s whispered about burial ground. 

Things…escalate quickly. 


Tobe Hooper struck his own gold with 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so when Cannon Films came knocking at his door to direct the sequel, Hooper agreed, but decided he was going to make as different a film as possible while remaining true to the basic components that the prior film had established. If the first Chain Saw were an exercise in pure terror, the second would be an exercise in black comedy quirkiness featuring ironically used Oingo Boingo and a duel-chainsaw wielding Dennis Hopper. Lambert seems to have taken the same approach, because while Pet Sematary Two is a direct sequel in terms of concept and character dynamic, it’s not at all a spiritual follow-up with respect to tone, sincerity, or any attempt at mature horror (of which there is zero). Pet Sematary was trying to be a good film, whereas Pet Sematary Two is trying to be a fun film, and boy, is it ever. Nah, scratch that: Pet Sematary Two isn’t just fun—it’s fucking looney tunes, a gonzo masterpiece of weird characters, ace gore effects, befuddling dialogue, and the purest, vicariously palpable sense of, “Can you believe Paramount is giving us money to make this?” 

The screen story never strays too far from established structure, involving a family looking for a fresh start, a person burying a cherished pet in the cursed burial ground, and the ante being upped as dead human beings begin to replace dead animals as burial ground fodder. Pet Sematary Two even slightly tweaks the patriarch, turning him from a medical doctor to a veterinarian, maintaining the prior’s institutional and sanitized philosophy of death as normal and necessary (read: better) while doing it in a more on-the-nose way. (One of Chase’s first scenes has him gently putting a dog to sleep, telling its crying owners, “It’s better this way.”) (Read: dead.) If Pet Sematary wants to break taboos by killing a four-year-old on screen, albeit in a total freak Orinco truck accident, then Pet Sematary Two is going to murder two children, but age them up a little so the act of doing so feels less soul-crushing and more deranged. Basically, when Gage bites the big one in the first film, Lambert wants her audience emotionally pulverized to more easily buy into his father’s descent into madness, but in the sequel, when Drew and the local scarf-wearing bully, Clyde (Big’s Jared Rushton), both meet their untimely ends at the hands of a resurrected Gus, the audience isn’t that upset. Sure, it’s unfortunate to see Drew and his mother (Lisa Waltz, The X-Files) lose their lives, but as sad as that makes us, we’re even more glad about Clyde’s face being chewed off by his rear moped tire because he was such a dick. This, seemingly, is part of Lambert’s design: she wants her audience to embrace the gory death of that 13-year-old bully, and her design is correct, because we do. Clyde sucked! 


Wes Craven once mused about the difference between directors who scare their audiences legitimately, and those who make the audience believe that said director is “dangerous,” and willing to show them anything to elicit that desired scare. How far is this director willing to go? That’s the beauty of Mary Lambert and her approach to Pet Sematary Two: its goal is to break rules and encourage pure insanity; it goes freely with the flow and adopts every half-cocked idea someone on-set can muster. If there were any suggestions proffered during production that Lambert decided would be going too far, dear lord, I would love to hear them, considering the things we did get:

Monster/humanoid wolf-head nightmare sex? Check.

Zombie rape? Check.

Flesh-melting, pun-hurling, undead mothers? Check.

A leading role for Clancy Brown? Hard check.

Speaking of, no one has ever had more fun playing a psychotic undead murderer than Clancy Brown. He is Freddy Krueger, swapping out the Christmas sweater for a pair of sheriff beiges, but certainly keeping his knack for dark-humored kill-lines and his vile sense of humor. (“Why did you dig up my dead wife?” “Because I wanted to fuckherrr.”) Brown seldom gets the chance to enjoy a lead role, so while that could be part of the exuberance behind his performance, it’s really because—as many actors will tell you—it’s so much more fun to play the villain, to be let off the proverbial leash and to go as big as you want. (Brown would go on to star as the villain in another King-inspired project soon after this one—The Shawshank Redemption—and I like to believe that director Frank Darabont saw his nutso performance in Pet Sematary Two and said, “Oh, definitely that guy.”) As the resurrected Gus Gilbert, Brown chews on every piece of scenery not nailed down, and it’s his legitimate testament as an actor that he doesn’t always go big to imbue his undead Gus with the strangest of personalities. One of his best scenes is a total skewering of the generic dinner table set piece, during which his undead muscles barely function and he ends up dropping a bowl of veggies off the table. When his annoyed wife mutters and stoops to clean up his mess (and who, I might add, he’d necro-raped in a previous scene), he very subtly glares at her with narrowed eyes as if asking, “What are you so sour about?” Still, when Brown goes big, aw hell—what a blast to watch. The Cheshire grin he flashes while chasing down his family to kill them, sliding on his sheriff’s hat before he delivers their deathblow, is the stuff of cinemagic. 


Pet Sematary Two is filled with this kind of craziness—a collection of scenes so inspiring that they force you to stop and reconcile that, yep, you’re really seeing all this in a film made by Hollywood. Take the scene where Chase kills the undead Zowie and then finds Gus inside the modest Gilbert home, asking him, “What are you doing, Gus?” The resurrected sheriff looks down at the shot-dead Zowie, and then says, with detectable wryness, “Well, I was building a doggy door.” Sure, it’s a stupid line, throwaway in nature, but what makes this such a magical moment is that this hulking, demonic, undead corpse actually was building a doggy door for his hulking, demonic, undead dog. Forget all the warm-blooded people that demon Gus definitely wants to kill—that all momentarily stops to build a tiny door for his demon dog

You guys, this is a movie where a young boy is being murderously pursued by his undead stepfather, and with the zombie-maniac hot on his heels, the boy races into his house, shuts and locks the door, and then CALMLY HANGS HIS HOUSE KEYS ON THE KEYHOOK BEFORE LOCATING A GUN TO SHOOT THE GHOUL MAN TRYING TO KILL HIM.

WHO WROTE THIS?

And that ending, holy shit. What morbid mastery. What unabashed fuck-it filmmaking. The fiery finale that concludes in the attic of the Matthews’ house, which features not one but two resurrected bodies trying to kill father and son and turn them into the walking dead, is a carnival sideshow of horror chaos. Undead Bully Clyde doesn’t just show up, but he shows up with a voice five pitches deeper, very little face, and grasping an ax, which he swings with the brute force of an able-bodied stuntman (you know, the one obviously playing him). The real showstopper of this scene, however, is the return of Jeff’s mother, which actually starts on a sad and creepy note: she beckons her son to join her in the afterlife, a moment that threatens to touch hands with honest-to-gosh pathos…but that’s before things descend into utter madness, which happens pretty quickly. The fire spreading around the attic soon begins licking at the ends of her burial dress as all the work her mortician had done begins to melt off her face, and she begins repeatedly screaming “DEAD IS BETTER!” in absolute, chill-inducing, operatic, Argento levels of unhingement until she turns into a fucking STANDING, BURNING, SHRIEKING SKELETON. 

Frankly, it’s the ending we needed and deserved.


No matter how much King’s output has declined in quality over the years, he’s never written anything as farcical as Pet Sematary Two, but that doesn’t mean the sequel doesn’t manage a handful of Kingisms. (King actually requested that Paramount remove his name from any marketing having to do with the sequel, so he was obviously not a fan.) First, there are the two shaky relationships between fathers and sons, which he’s explored in more than one of his novels (The Shining comes to mind), and then there’s the unrealistically evil bully who could give IT’s Henry Bowers a run for his milk money any day of the week. The first film was about a parent losing a child; meanwhile, the sequel is about a child losing a parent and navigating the grieving process, which King later explored in his excellent short story, Riding the Bullet. There’s also a nod to The Shining when Gus busts a hole in Drew’s bedroom door with a hammer, but instead of sticking his face through the hole and bellowing  “Heeere’s Johnny!,” he verbally ponders if Drew understands the Miranda rights he’s been rattling off, or if he’s “too fucking stupid.”

Ever since its release, critics and fans have derided Pet Sematary Two, and it’s a sure-fire inclusion on many “worst sequel” lists. (Amusingly, Variety “praised” the sequel, calling it “about 50% better than its predecessor, which is to say it's not very good at all.") Pet Sematary Two isn’t a patch on the original, and it’s so tonally different that the two don’t appear to be part of the same family beyond their titles, but I’ll be damned if Lambert and co. aren’t going for it, and that’s what makes it so special. Whatever Pet Sematary Two may be, it’s all part of Mary Lambert’s gloriously gonzo plan, and that’s all that matters. One thing is certain: 2019’s useless Pet Sematary redux proved it’s better to be a goofy, red-headed stepchild but still have your own identity than to be completely without one.  

Dec 6, 2019

IT: CHAPTER TWO (2019)

 

(Contains spoilers.)

IT: Chapter One, which I guess is what we’re now calling the first half of this saga, was a mostly successful horror flick, if not an overly loyal adaptation of Stephen King’s legendary tome. Though the troubled production, began by True Detective director Cary Fukunaga and concluded by Mama director Andres Muschietti, culminated in a better genre picture than most people were expecting, certain audience members (including me) were a little disappointed that King’s novel wasn’t adhered to a little more faithfully. Still, the essence of the novel remained, and that was the most satisfying part. 

IT: Chapter Two always seemed like the more dubious gamble of the saga, for several reasons, but mostly because the portions of the IT story that deal with the characters as kids are far more interesting, empathetic, and nostalgic than the portions that catch up with their adult counterparts, and this applies to the novel or the original miniseries. Not to mention that the adult portions of the story lend themselves more to the mystical and the strange, including the very odd “ritual of Chüd,” which IT: Chapter Two utilizes and which feels too foreign and unusual when following the fairly straightforward normality of IT: Chapter One. While doing a better job of faithfully adapting the second half of King’s novel, IT: Chapter Two still feels overstuffed at times, and ironically offers a critical flipside reaction when compared to its predecessor. This time, IT: Chapter Two is more faithful to the source material, but suffers at times from offering an inconsistent horror experience, leaving this second half of the saga merely satisfactory. 


Even with the film running at a staggering three hours(!), IT: Chapter Two still feels like it’s in a hurry. It wouldn’t be right to say the introduction to the adult versions of the Losers Club feels perfunctory, but it's awfully streamlined, and Muschietti doesn’t provide enough time for audiences to catch their breath in between meeting each adult counterpart. Beverly (Jessica Chastain), especially, gets the short straw, with the film hurtling through a major part of her character’s background – that she’s matriculated from an abusive relationship with her father to an abusive relationship with her husband. Her character’s reintroduction not only downplays her husband’s mind games that exist in canon, but the film tries to be “slick” by falsely introducing him as a kind man to try and fool the members of the audience who already know he’s an asshole. Meanwhile, Bill (James McAvoy) is writing screenplays for the Hollywood system based on his novels, which star his wife, Audra, but after receiving "the call" from Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), he immediately blows town, leaving Audra behind… never to be seen again. (If you’re familiar with the novel or the previous miniseries, you’ll note this is a major change.) Eddie Spaghetti (an excellent James Ransone, Sinister) is no longer driving cars for the rich and famous, but instead cites his job as a “risk assessor,” which rightfully sounds like the kind of job that a young, neurotic Eddie would grow up to obtain. (I have to give major props to Muschietti for re-using the actor who played Eddie’s mother in Chapter One to briefly play his wife in Chapter Two – it’s somehow both subtle and super on-the-nose, but it works.) The rest of the cast are introduced in the same rapid way, with none of them suffering the kinds of dramatic “Remember that time we were almost killed by a monster clown?” floodgates of memories you’d expect (unless you count a constantly vomiting Bill Hader), and before you know it, the Losers Club are back at the Jade of the Orient Chinese restaurant screaming at demonic fortune cookies. But not Stan, though! Poor Stan (Andy Bean, Swamp Thing); he barely registers as a blip in this new take. By film’s end, when he’s essentially speaking to his friends from beyond the grave, it feels far too late for his character to have the kind of significance the film is asking for, and audiences almost have to remind themselves who he was again. (Poor Stan!)


The criticisms I had for IT: Chapter One remain, mostly in that the changes made from the source material seem unnecessary and useless, feeling especially wrong when arguably significant events from the novel are chucked out in favor of brand new creations that the story, frankly, didn’t need. Whether it's Bill trying to save the life of a young boy who lives in his old childhood house, or the out-of-nowhere revelation that Richie has spent his life running from the fact that he’s gay, there’s nothing wrong with these new subplots, but they just don’t add anything new or constructive to the mix, and this in a movie where there’s already a lot going on. And, again, the humor – for the love of Bob Gray – the humor. Muschietti is fully capable of establishing a creepy and dreadful tone, but he seems intimidated by letting that tone sustain, too often subscribing to the philosophy of setting the audience up with scares and then deflating the tension with a joke. IT: Chapter One had its fair share of this, but IT: Chapter Two’s three-hour running time really accentuates this technique to the degree that it becomes frustrating. Sure, some of the gags are funny, but some are face-palming tone killers, and I’m still trying to figure out which I hated more: Eddie being vomited on by the cellar leper set to ‘80s pop, or the too-long scene where Richie and Eddie are terrified by a Pomeranian. If this were any other property, I’d be more forgiving, but this is a story about a demonic, intergalactic clown who EATS children – who tore off the arm of an eight-year-old kid in the first scene of the first movie – so maybe things shouldn’t be so hilarious. Maybe it’s okay for horror films to retain constant horror instead of the constant up and down emotional ride Muschietti likes to curate. Admittedly, though, some gags do work. The constant references to writer Bill botching the endings to his novels are amusing on both a surface level as well as a meta one, and King, who has been criticized for years with that same claim, was a good sport for letting Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (the Annabelle series) throw that in. (King cameos as an antique shop owner and shares a scene with McAvoy's Bill, where he tells him that same thing.) Ironically, however, after flinging this joke toward Bill several times, the flick’s own ending feels anticlimactic and silly, being that our cast of heroes literally bully Pennywise to death.

Unless Warner and New Line decide to go ahead with IT: Chapter Zero and explore the town of Derry’s morbid, dangerous history from King’s novel (or if Muschietti assembles his “director’s cut” and resurrects much of the unused footage he shot for both chapters), then this is all she wrote for this long-mooted IT saga. Like the miniseries itself, or the novel before it, or hell, even the kind of idealistic childhood as suggested if not experienced by the young versions of the Losers Club, this new take on IT starts strongly and ends satisfactorily, resulting in an above-average horror epic that manages to be scary, touching, imaginative, and conclusive, even if it’s not definitive. 



[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Oct 16, 2019

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018)


I’ve been following director Mike Flanagan’s career ever since his debut, Absentia, was quietly released to video following a successful film festival run. I’d been so eager to see it that I’d messaged him on Facebook to inquire where I could find it and he’d politely responded. Now look at him: in less than eight years, he’s matriculated from a kind fellow answering Facebook inquiries to landing the gig of making a sorta-sequel to one of the greatest horror films of all time, The Shining. (He is also still politely answering questions, this time on Twitter.) As we gear up for the release of his next film, Doctor Sleep, which sees the return of Danny Torrance (this time played by Ewan MacGregor), Paramount has done the unthinkable: released a physical media version of a Netflix production--the wildly successful miniseries, The Haunting of Hill House

Following the release of Absentia, Flanagan has remained loyal to the horror genre, writing and directing the haunted mirror flick Oculus, the criminally underseen sequel, Ouija: Origin Of Evil, the similarly criminally underseen horror fairy tale, Before I Wake, and Netflix originals Hush and the Stephen King adaptation Gerald’s Game. Flanagan has yet to make a horror film that’s not been at the very least engaging, with nearly all of them being frightening in some manner, and in different ways. (Ouija: Origin Of Evil is legitimately spooky, and if you’ve been ignoring it because the first Ouija is so terrible, I don't blame you, but please rectify that immediately.)

Though Flanagan is still early on in his career, I’m tempted to call The Haunting of Hill House his masterpiece. While it heavily revises the source 1959 novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson, which was previously adapted for 1963's moody classic The Haunting and 1998's abysmal update of the same name, all the characters from the novel appear in the new take, though rewritten to be members of the same family (one of them named after the novelist herself). Instead of a group of volunteers gathering in the infamous Hill house to take part in a study on the paranormal, those volunteers are now siblings growing up under the guidance of their romantic, dreamy parents (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino), who have somehow turned the concept of flipping houses into an admirable, artistic act. Hill house is just their latest endeavor, and a huge financial risk, but if all goes well with the restoration, it will be the last house they ever flip, and they can finally build their own “forever home” to live out the rest of their days. Soon, the ghosts of the house begin to victimize them all, especially setting their sights on the emotionally unwell Olivia (Gugino), pushing her to a mental breaking point and permanently altering the family dynamic.


Spread out over ten, approximately one-hour episodes (several of those appearing as extended director’s cuts exclusively on the new Blu-ray release), The Haunting of Hill House is a magnificent piece of filmmaking—one intent on positioning horror and human emotion side by side, in the same way the Crain family lives side by side with the varied ghosts of Hill house. The series is honest about many human issues, some of them taboo topics trapped in the constant debate of everyday news cycles—chief among them, depression and mental illness. Because of this, The Haunting of Hill House is a brutal gut punch in many ways, and one of the Crain siblings, Steven (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones), lays out in one of the opening scenes what a ghost actually is: “A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But, in my experience, most times they're just what we want to see. Most times, a ghost is a wish.” That right there is the foundation on which The Haunting of Hill House has been erected. Along with the typical, spooky-faced specters, all of those things—grief, anger, guilt—bleed through every episode, haunting our characters in different, meaningful ways. (Each of the characters also represent the different stages of the grieving process, and their specific episodes appear in that same order.) Though Flanagan has drastically changed Jackson’s story structure, he remains firmly true to the intent of her novel. The haunted house exists in the background, but the story itself is about Nell (Victoria Pedretti), her unhappiness, her inability to fit in, and that being surrounded by people who don’t understand her, and who dismiss her struggles and feelings of isolation, leads to her ruin. This is the crux of the show, so it’s no surprise that the siblings’ relationships to each other serve as the emotional center; the back-and-forth timeline technique juxtaposes their child and adult counterparts, and the prologue scenes will break your heart once you begin to suspect how badly things will go for the Crain family.

In many ways, The Haunting of Hill House is a Rorschach test. If you’re in it solely for the horror, you won’t be disappointed; there are numerous moments that will give you serious, earned chills, and you’ll have fun trying to spot all the background ghosts hidden throughout the show (there are a lot). Meanwhile, if you’re more interested in the drama, you’ll get that too, and if you truly invest in the characters and manage to relate to any one of them, you’ll find yourself in tears. And if you want both, I can’t think of a single piece of genre filmmaking in recent memory that’s gone anywhere as close to offering and achieving those combined sensibilities. You will bring out of The Haunting of Hill House exactly what you put into it—like the mysterious Red Room itself. 


It’s a bold claim, but for my money, The Haunting of Hill House is the best thing Netflix has ever done (I’ll certainly say that “Two Storms” is one of the greatest episodes of any television show—ever), and it’s touched many of its viewers in different ways. (DG’s own Samantha Schorsch wrote a beautiful and deeply personal piece about it, which you need to check out ASAP.) For as long as I’ve delved into films and television as a means for exploring artistic expression, I’ve been hearing people say, “Such and such changed my life,” and for years I wrote that off as a clichéd, bullshit expression that didn’t mean anything—a haughtier but equally vague way of saying something was “amazing.” Following my now multiple viewings of The Haunting of Hill House, I finally understand what those people were saying. Its many themes about life, its ruminations on death, and the way it presents real struggles of people both ordinary and extraordinary have resonated with me in a profound way, and I can honestly say The Haunting of Hill House has changed my life.

Flanagan is currently hard at work on a spiritual follow-up, The Haunting of Bly Manor, based on the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Another tale of children growing up in a haunted house, it premieres October of 2020. Between that and Halloween Kills, this next year is going to be the most agonizing wait of my life.

The Haunting of Hill House is now available on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment. Even though we’re all slaves to Netflix and have access to it whenever we wish, I would implore you to buy this release. Encourage Netflix to consider further physical releases of their properties—something I wish would become commonplace, as far too many Netflix originals are languishing behind the streaming service’s paywall—but more importantly, buy this release to encourage smart, honest, and emotional horror. We could use more of it.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Sep 8, 2019

IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (2015)


It sounds depressing to say this, considering we have to go back over 25 years to 1995, but In the Mouth of Madness is, and probably will be, John Carpenter’s genuinely last great film as a director. Following that would come a string of underwhelming and critically derided titles like Village of the Damned, Escape from L.A., Vampires (underrated!), Ghosts of Mars, and then, after a seven-year break, The Ward. Unless you’re a devout Carpenterphile, it’s likely that more people know about the bad reputation of Escape from L.A. than who know that In the Mouth of Madness exists at all. 

And that’s a crime.

Unexpectedly written by Michael DeLuca, who is known more as a producer and New Line Cinema’s former President of Production than as a screenwriter, In the Mouth of Madness is a Lovecraftian love letter to the genre – one filtered through the use of a purposely Stephen King-ish horror writer, here called Sutter Cane (and played by Das Boot’s Jürgen Prochnow). It’s a Lovecraft monster movie, a mind-bending psychological thriller, a satire on the power of pop culture, but most interesting, it’s also a clever take on film noir. International treasure Sam Neill (the U.S. definitely has joint custody with New Zealand) is John Trent, a private investigator hired to find a missing author, who is forced to work alongside Linda Styles (Julie Carmen), your proto-femme fatale – someone who cannot be entirely trusted. Together they’re tasked with solving the mystery of Sutter Cane’s alleged disappearance, but more importantly, trying to navigate the highly distressing question: what is reality?


This combination of genres boosts In the Mouth of Madness and offers it a non-derivative identity, but the most gleeful aspect is Carpenter’s sheer desire to scare his audience. In spite of the few moments of purposeful comedy (Sam Neill lazily singing “America the Beautiful” and intermittently staring out the passenger-side window during the duo’s very long car ride to Hobb’s End absolutely kills me), you can sense the intent for terror in every frame. Prior to 1995, the last time Carpenter was this dedicated to scaring his audience was maybe 1987’s Prince of Darkness, but definitely 1982’s The Thing. Though the mid-90s and beyond is the era during which the director would begin to embrace graphic violence (Vampires is ridiculous, and his Masters of Horror entries are very icky), In the Mouth of Madness relies mostly on eerie and somewhat abstract images – the former courtesy of KNB FX’s Lovecraftian creations and Carpenter’s simplistic editing tricks, and the latter courtesy of the production’s various Toronto shooting locales, which appear so majestic yet isolated that they feel plucked from a dream. Something as simply rendered as a disembodied hand knocking on a window or touching someone’s shoulder from behind, only to immediately disappear, is almost embarrassingly rudimentary considering its effectiveness. That’s not to say there isn’t bloody mayhem — it wouldn’t be a Carpenter film without at least a bit of the red stuff — but it’s noticeably dialed down in favor of a different kind of horror experience.

In the Mouth of Madness is the most undervalued film of Carpenter’s career. Like many of his other titles, appreciation for the film has grown over the years, having a strong presence on video and benefiting from its association with the very genre-friendly studio of New Line Cinema.


Jul 6, 2019

BLU-RAY REVIEW: PET SEMATARY (2019)


[Contains spoilers for the novel and both adaptations of Pet Sematary.]

A remake of Pet Sematary has been bouncing around Hollywood since 2006, ever since George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh attempted to produce it through their then-new company Section Eight Productions, which had also done Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia. Clooney was even set to star as Louis Creed, patriarch and serial burialist of the Creed family. That, obviously, didn’t happen. But, after a decade of development hell, Pet Sematary has arrived, and…this is what we got.

Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch, the directorial pair behind the creepy and successful indie Starry Eyes, had their work cut out for them. Doing a remake is thankless. From the very beginning, you have two choices: stay faithful to the source material (King handled the screenplay for Mary Lambert’s 1989 take, so it’s nearly identical to the book), which will have people asking you, “Why bother?” (see: The Omen remake), or find ways to stay true to the spirit of the story while taking new chances. The danger with this latter approach is making changes that devout fans will see as arbitrary, but something about which the filmmakers can say, “See? It’s different.” Pet Sematary does this a lot—makes small, seemingly unnecessary changes. Yet, if you sat down with the redux for any five-minute segment without actually knowing what you were watching, by the end of those five minutes, you would know. It’s a familiar story with familiar characters, and certainly a familiar concept; Pet Sematary never strays so far as to become unrecognizable, but if you’re already intimate with the story, you can’t help but think, again, “Why bother?”


To its credit, Pet Sematary wants to include as much as it can from the novel that the filmmakers consider “essential,” but with everything vying for space, significant portions of these elements are spread too thin. Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed) is barely utilized, reduced to such a footnote that you have to wonder why the filmmakers felt compelled to include him; and despite a far more graphic head wound, complete with pulsating brain, the specter doesn’t come close to matching the former’s onscreen presence. Additionally, we’re robbed of Louis and Jud meeting for the first time, given the dynamic the two men will share and the things they will experience together; instead, we find that the men are already politely acquainted halfway through a throwaway dinner sequence. Weirdly, there’s a complete lack of acknowledgment regarding the connection between the existence of the pet cemetery and the very dangerous road that cuts through the Creed and Crandall estates, being that canon explicitly states the former exists because of the latter. Meanwhile, the Timmy Baterman story, one of the creepiest sequences from the original, is downgraded to a newspaper headline. The character of Zelda, the most terrifying part from the original and the novel, is reduced to a pile of rubber bones and limbs dropped repeatedly down an elevator shaft. (Seriously.) The mishandling of this character in particular is Pet Sematary’s worst offense.

From the first frame, even before a single “scary” thing has happened, Mary Lambert’s 1989 original adaptation oozes dread. You can feel that things will go very badly for the Creeds, and already your chest begins to tighten. For example, she knows everyone has read the book, and she knows everyone will be waiting with bated breath to see little Gage lose his life in the road. That’s why she, wisely, cunningly, even sadistically, introduces the Orinco truck several scenes before the final encounter, because she wants to milk that suspense for every ounce, interrupting a happy-go-lucky picnic more than once to cut back to the truck speeding down the road toward them. Now, when the Creeds 2.0 pull up to their new rural home, you already know bad things are going to happen—not because of any induced dread, but because you’ve experienced this story twice already, so no shit. Yet, there’s a complete lack of suspense or ominousness. The admittedly beautiful opening overhead drone shot of a burning house, which we all know to be Jud’s, is another immediate reminder that, yep, bad things are afoot, but it still doesn’t quite help stoke those brooding fires. Nor does the surprisingly lifeless score by Christopher Young, who ordinarily dominates the horror genre.  


Pet Sematary makes the same mistake as another high profile remake, Rob Zombie’s terrible Halloween: whenever the filmmakers deviate from the story audiences know and love, you can feel their spark, their interest, their excitement in exploring this new direction. But when leaning back on the mainstay elements from those same stories, you can feel their obligation to just barrel through and begin tackling all their material—to infuse the property with their identity, to put a stamp on a title that they’ve temporarily borrowed before sliding it back onto the shelf. Pet Sematary doesn’t fully come alive until, ironically, Ellie does—from the dead, that is. Obviously, this is the biggest change in this new iteration, as the filmmakers felt using Ellie as the resurrected child would provide additional pathos. With Ellie being older and in a position to understand what was happening to her, she could better echo those sentiments to her god-playing father, which was meant to boost the film’s philosophical look at death. 

But what, ultimately, did we learn from this? 

What we already knew from the novel and the original adaptation.

Sometimes, dead is better. 

As for the ending, it’s dreadful; very strangely borrowing from Pet Sematary Two, it’s made even more frustrating by the fact that the alternate ending included on the home video release is far better—gloomier, more ominous, more satirical, and more tonally appropriate. The one that went to theaters was the stuff of Hollywood hokum, rendering whatever mature goodwill the film had achieved as kaput. Screenwriter Jeff Buhler says this is because they wanted the audience to leave with a smile, which seems like a bonehead decision, being that smiles don’t belong anywhere near Pet Sematary, a manuscript King found so vile that he shoved it into a drawer upon completing it, deciding it would never see the light of the day because he’d finally gone too far. 


In spite of all the whining, Pet Sematary isn’t a bad flick, and there are several things lending to its favor. Ellie’s post-resurrection appearance is subtly but deeply unnerving; a drooping eye hints at major damage going on beneath the surface (that bathtub sequence…Jesus), and young Jeté Laurence is incredibly creepy in the role before the film falls victim to the pitfalls of the “evil kid” genre. After a while, she’s reduced to a pint-sized zombie kid using “scary” glaring eyes and coming a little too close to rattling off ironic Chucky-like threats. Amy Seimetz as Rachel is easily the film’s most interesting character, and Seimetz’s performance is a large reason why: she ably sells Rachel’s extremely mangled view of death, due to her childhood experience with her sickened sister, Zelda. Lithgow, too, does fine with the role of Jud Crandall, made iconic by Fred Gwynne, though he sheds Gwynne’s folksiness in favor of curmudgeonness. He also doesn’t even attempt a New England accent. (Not a single a’yuh! What gives!) Lastly, there’s Jason Clarke—an actor capable of much more than the scripts he signs onto. It feels weird to say, but his take on Louis never reaches the same emotionally tormented heights of the original’s fairly unknown Dale Midkiff (whose “NOOOOOOOO!” is still one of the best anguished screams in cinema). 

The filmmakers poke fun at their audience by presenting sequences they think they know, only to see they’re heading off in different directions. (Jud’s death is a perfect example.) Additionally, and I don’t know this for sure, but I’d swear they lifted audio from the original flick, borrowing one use each of Zelda’s screechy “RAAAAACHEL!” and a growl from an undead Church. There also several loving nods to King’s other works, one of which includes an off-screen Jud telling a guest at Ellie’s birthday party about a rabid Saint Bernard. Widmyer and Kölsch’s design of the deadfall and the Indian burial ground behind it is ripped right from the film cells of old fashioned monster movies like Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, depicted as dreamlike and different, since this part of Ludlow’s woods are meant to be evil and mysterious. As a concept, this is tremendous, though it suffers in execution from some surprisingly shoddy green-screen. 


Paramount’s Blu-ray contains over 80 minutes of special features, including the before mentioned alternate ending, along with “Beyond the Deadfall,” which runs an hour in length across four different “chapters.” This supplement is rich with information and content, and goes beyond your standard EPK to delve heavily into the film’s genesis and production. (Stephen King does not appear.) Sadly, however, this is yet another studio release that lacks a commentary with the directors, and in its place are strange and very brief narrative pieces where several of the flick’s major characters have their own unique nightmares about the burial ground. Finally, we do get the story of Timmy Baterman, but in a weird one-man show where Lithgow, in character, sits down and presents the story as a campfire tale to us, the audience. 

Far worse adaptations have come from Stephen King, and if you asked the man himself, even he would probably rank this new version of Pet Sematary above bonafide classic The Shining, an adaptation he never misses the chance to impugn. Even so, it’s ironic that Pet Sematary’s main conflict comes from “those damned Orinco trucks” speeding dangerously back and forth, being that this new version of the story is standing directly in the middle of the road.

Pet Sematary is now available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures.


[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Apr 26, 2019

IT (2017)


The genesis of this new version of Stephen King’s IT was a bumpy ride. I greeted its initial announcement with a resounding “oh” -- especially when hack novelty writer Seth Grahame-Smith came on board as producer. I’ve read the original King novel twice now, and in my mind, no standard-length film or even reasonable number of films could do it justice. And granted, despite a flawless Pennywise portrayal by Tim Curry, the original miniseries is far from perfect, chucking out a lot of rich and creepy Derry history, along with the novel’s depravity, to conform to ABC television standards. But, as imperfect and cheesy and cheap looking as it sometimes is, I can’t help but love it. Nostalgia often overrides good taste, after all, and the miniseries was a huge part of my childhood. 

When True Detective director Cary Fukunaga came aboard to adapt and direct, my “oh” became “oh fuck yes.” And for months I eagerly awaited any developments -- casting, shooting locales, and any early signs of a rating. One day, there was an update: New Line Cinema, who was originally financing the film before parent company Warner Bros. took over, balked at Fukunaga’s proposed budget, so he walked. My hopes were dashed, and I stopped caring again. Eventually, when Mama director Andrés Muschietti was brought on board as a replacement, I felt nothing. It seemed, to me, that this was nothing more than a studio making that typical studio move of hiring someone with reasonable talent but with a short tenure in Hollywood -- i.e., someone to tow the company line, back down from his demands, and hopefully still conjure up something halfway well made. 

IT -- a novel whose concept was very daring, and which could easily be turned into something cheesy and terrible if not done the right way -- seemed doomed.

 

Despite my misgivings and its shortcomings, this new ITeration (ha!), if not a totally faithful retelling of the original story, is totally faithful to its core essence, themes, and intent for relentless terror. And speaking of, is IT scary? Well, as usual in this genre, fear is subjective. What I can say is IT is obsessed with scaring you -- is willing to show you some ghastly and taboo-shattering images in order to do so.

The terror in IT is exaggerated -- almost fairy tale-like -- right down to the design of Pennywise himself. From a horror standpoint, he’s a frightening figure, and of course that’s great. But when taking into account Stephen King’s original intent for this character, as subsequently presented in the original miniseries, it can seem like a bit much. King’s Pennywise was just a clown -- not a purposely scary looking clown -- because his image was supposed to make him immediately trustworthy to children.The Pennywise of 1990 wasn’t scary except for when Tim Curry’s still amazing performance (and some monster teeth) wanted to make him so. This exaggerated terror doesn't stop and start with Pennywise, but all the specters the kids see, including the infamous house on Neibolt street -- everything has been designed to seem extra scary, like you're walking through a haunt during the Halloween season. Sometimes this works in the film’s favor, and sometimes it can seem artificial. It’s clear that another Warner Bros./New Line Cinema horror franchise -- The Conjuring -- was a large influence on IT’s design, and it’s a good measuring tool for what kind of fear mileage you should expect. (Frequent Conjuring-universe screenwriter Gary Dauberman was on script clean-up duty as well.) The Sy-Fy Channel's beloved cult series hit, Channel Zero, also seems to have informed a small bit of the script, mostly in the form of under-the-surface segments glimpsed on televisions in the form of a kids' show, during which the too-happy host eerily tells its kid viewers that "the sewer is a fun place to play with all of your friends."

 

The new Losers’ Club is great, with the standouts being Beverly's Sophia Lillis (Sharp Objects) and  Eddie's Fred-Savage-looking Jack Dylan Grazer (Tales of Halloween). Bev’s very first appearance is gif worthy, and Eddie is more than just the Opie-ish dweeb as essayed in the miniseries. He’s the same hypochondriac he ever was, but with the same smart-aleck mouth of his friends, which helps the character feel less like an archetype. The bond that formed between the young actors during the shoot is evident, which offers the film an additional emotional weight. Bill Skarsgård has the unenviable task of stepping into the clown shoes of a character previously made infamous by Tim Curry, which results in a performance that’s unusual -- one that hews closer to another famous cinematic clown, The Dark Knight's Joker -- but also fitting, and thankfully the makeup and costume aids in hiding the actor’s youth and boyish appearance. 

Granted, not everything works. In an understandable move, the filmmakers decided to concoct some new scares for the film that are different from both the novel and the miniseries in an effort to surprise the portion of the audience who are familiar with both. Some of the kids' unique scares remained -- Beverly's father, Eddie's leper -- but some were entirely invented, along with one that seemed like a throwaway comment, but which inadvertently introduced perhaps unconsidered thematic implications. During one pivotal scene when all the kids meet and admit to seeing some heinous stuff, only for it to be revealed that a mysterious clown was behind it all, each kid shares his or her hidden fear. Richie nervously looks around at all the costumed street performers practicing for Derry's July 4th parade, pushes up his glasses, and admits his fear...is clowns. With this simple admission, IT suggests that there is almost a mythological relationship between himself and Pennywise -- that Richie is, in essence, the leader. Seldom do conflicts remain surface level in films of this sort: the kids aren't just fighting a clown, they're rebelling against the fears and perils of childhood and are rejecting adulthood in general. Richie's admission suggests he's going to be the one to single-handedly battle the clown head-on, subjugating his fear in the same way the other kids are subjugating their own. Why this particular bit was given to Richie, instead of Bill, who is for all intents and purposes the leader of the Losers Club, seems very wrong. (Or perhaps I'm just being overly analytical about a horror flick with a kid-eating, sewer-dwelling clown.)

Speaking of Richie, Wolfhard as the smart-mouthed amateur impressionist likely walks away with the showiest part, as his character is there to constantly make off-color jokes and keep things light, which he does, and the actor is great, although there are a couple instances where he robs the scene of its intended emotion. (A problem with the script -- not the actor.) For the most part, the film handles the use of humor well, but it seems to struggle with how to hold and maintain scenes of high drama or fear without letting the audience off the hook by giving them a moment of levity.

 

The musical score by Benjamin Wallfisch isn’t particularly memorable, except when it takes a page out of the movie's book and tries to extra-scare the audience by utilizing a creepy child chorus to sing creepy child songs, one of which includes the lyric "chop off your dead." Additionally, some of the soundtrack selections are jarring and tonally at odds with what’s going on in the scene. (The Cure’s “Six Different Ways” plays over the scene where the kids clean up Bev’s bloody bathroom -- a moment that played as somber and ominous in the novel and miniseries -- which completely lets the air out of the drama and neutralizes its nasty implications. The New Kids on the Block poster gag, also, is far too jarring -- an example of the movie itself trying to be funny instead of its kid characters.)

And as for the changes made from the book, I could go on and on, but no one ever wants to see the book purist complain. In fact, some of the changes actually pair really well with the mainstays from the novel. That Bev's sink drain vomits blood all over her bathroom only after she's begun menstruating offers Pennywise a truly sadistic sense of humor, and updating the kids' era from the '50s to the '80s easily benefits from modern pop culture's new love for everything from the magical decade of hairspray and cocaine. Overall, what’s important is that IT remains faithful to King’s original story: good vs. evil; the power of friendship, faith, loss, etc. If you’ve read King’s massive tome or seen the miniseries and still remember much of its content, you’ll have fun spotting the subtle nods throughout. Bully Patrick Hockstetter licking his lips as the kids pass by him in school hints at the sexual depravity his character exerts in the book (and which could never appear in a mainstream film); the handful of references to or appearances of a turtle refer to the more mystical elements from the novel that are meant to represent the power of light that guides the kids through their fight against Derry’s evil; and the appearance of a clown doll that closely mirrors the Pennywise design from the miniseries was a very nice, loving touch.

As far as King adaptations go, there hasn’t been one this great since 2007’s The Mist, which is a relief to say, being that IT seemed like a huge gamble from the beginning. IT: Chapter Two is filming now, so there’s still a way to go before we get to see the adult Losers Club return to Derry for one more go-around with Pennywise the Dancing Clown.


Sep 11, 2014

CABIN FEVER


"It's a slang term for the claustrophobic reaction that can occur when people are shut in together over long periods of time. The feeling of claustrophobia is externalized as dislike for the people you happen to be shut in with. In extreme cases it can result in hallucinations and violence—murder […]."

Mar 12, 2014

THE MAN IN THE BLACK SUIT

Even before he reached me, I recognized the aroma baking up from the skin under the suit—the smell of burned matches. The smell of sulfur. The man in the black suit was the Devil. He had walked out of the deep woods between Motton and Kashwakamak, and now he was standing here beside me. From the corner of one eye I could see a hand as pale as the hand of a store window dummy. The fingers were hideously long.

He hunkered beside me on his hams, his knees popping just as the knees of any normal man might, but when he moved his hands so they dangled between his knees, I saw that each of those long fingers ended in what was not a fingernail but a long yellow claw.

"You didn’t answer my question, fisherboy," he said in his mellow voice. It was, now that I think of it, like the voice of one of those radio announcers on the big-band shows years later, the ones that would sell Geritol and Serutan and Ovaltine and Dr. Grabow pipes. "Are we well-met?"

"Please don’t hurt me," I whispered, in a voice so low I could barely hear it. I was more afraid than I could ever write down, more afraid than I want to remember... but I do. I do. It never even crossed my mind to hope I was having a dream, although I might have, I suppose, if I had been older. But I wasn’t older; I was nine, and I knew the truth when it squatted down on its hunkers beside me. I knew a hawk from a handsaw, as my father would have said. The man who had come out of the woods on that Saturday afternoon in midsummer was the Devil, and inside the empty holes of his eyes, his brains were burning.

May 28, 2013

GOOD DOG

“It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always tried to be a good dog. He had tried to do all the things his MAN and his WOMAN, and most of all his BOY, had asked or expected of him. He would have died for them, if that had been required. He had never wanted to kill anybody. He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor.” 

Jan 27, 2013

DELETED ENDING

Screenplay for the deleted original ending of The Shining. When the film was first released, a hospital epilogue was located between the shot of Jack frozen in the snow and the long dolly shot through the lobby that ends on the July 4, 1921 framed photo.

Kubrick decided to remove the scene very shortly after the U.S. opening, dispatching assistants to excise the scene from the dozens of prints showing in Los Angeles and New York City. All known copies of the scene were reportedly destroyed, although it is rumored that one surviving copy may exist.


Stolen with love from The Overlook Hotel.