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Friday, March 31, 2017

IT Trailer Breakdown

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This might be an uncouth statement, but I’ve never really understood the big deal about clowns.  I mean, we all collectively agreed that zombies and vampires are overdone, with the days of the werewolf being indisputably numbered, but for some reason clowns just keep on hanging in there as a reliable boogeyman.  

Maybe that’s because there aren’t actually that many clown horror films to see really.  There’s Killer Klowns from Outer Space, certainly, but that was more of a horror-comedy while more recent offerings like Clown or 31 seem to have flown completely under the radar. 

Honestly, I’ve never even been that on board with the idea of clowns being inherently scary.  I understand the mechanism by which they can be twisted to invoke dread but most of the time when people say they’re afraid of clowns they really just mean they’re afraid of creepy clowns and, spoilers, it’s the creepy they’re afraid of.  

All of this is part and parcel to why I’m not terribly on board with everyone’s new favorite Horror trailer for the remake of IT, the Stephen King novel whose original TV adaptation put killer clowns on the horror landscape back in 1990.  As I probably already gave away I’ve got some harsh words about both the original and this trailer for the remake but let’s watch said trailer before going forward. 

If I may continue the string of statements that fly in the face of conventional wisdom that's so far informed this article I can’t help but feel horror films have lost their way in recent years.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a plethora of good stuff out there it’s just that the pool of influences we allow the genre has only gotten shallower and shallower.  In the case of IT, pretty much everything about the scary structure of this film feels assembled from the “make a horror movie” kit they’re handing out to studios come fall.  It’s that blend of creeping pallid spooks, normal characters repeating an unnatural action, old-timey stills, and footage, and a great big haunted house to plop it all down on. 

It’s that Insidious/Conjuring/Sinister playbook studios have been working from to crank out polished scares at low costs since 2013.  Basically, it feels a lot like we’ve figured out a solid handful of scary nuts and bolts that we’ve just started draping the scary image of the week over.  It’s as if you could cobble together some of the “creepy” scenes from Conjuring 1-2, Annabelle, Insidious 1-3, Sinister 1-2, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Lights Out and you’d never know they were from different films. 

Still, judging a movie by the scares of its trailer is admittedly a bit unfair, after all, it’s trying to do in 2 minutes what the film will have 2 hours to do.  However, the subject of generic scares and boilerplate structure that informs the weak horror of the trailer bleeds over to be a problem with the concept more than just marketing. 

The biggest problem an adaptation of IT was always going to have is that the concept of a killer clown has become such an ingrained and familiar part of modern parlance that creepy clowns have even managed to invade reality, it’s a level of familiarity rivaled only by UFOs.  As such, how do you do something unique and interesting with the concept, especially when trying to hold it up against Tim Curry’s original performance?  IT (2017)’s answer seems to be not to bother with doing something original and just making the killer clown a great big monster.

I honestly think this approach misses the entire spirit of the King novel, which was that Pennywise was appearing as a clown specifically to be un-threatening.  That’s part of the whole “creepy clown” fad misses, the idea that clowns are scary at all because their extreme friendliness makes us suspicious of them.  

If you drop any element of normalcy and just make the clown a frothing monster from start to finish there’s a certain degree of impact that’s lost, like putting a Dracula Halloween mask on wolf and expecting it to be the same kind of frightening. 

What’s more, the whole thrust of King’s original novel was steeped in Pennywise being a thing that the adults of the town turned a willfully blind eye to.  However, it’s a bit hard to tell yourself the local clown isn’t that bad when he’s a nightmarish beast that murders children and adults with incredible volume.  

It all just feels like an off the shelf monster flick rather than something exploring the themes and ideas that gave IT any degree of weight to begin with, and even then it was a pretty lightweight at that. 

In fact, the idea that adults are tacitly aware of Pennywise’s activities seems completely absent from this trailer, as is his mind control abilities and shape shifting.  While I’m disappointed to lose the former, I wouldn’t mind if the latter was omitted entirely.  People tend to remember IT the book and the mini-series through a rose-colored haze as a lot of the dumber elements fade from memory, like how the girl character had to have sex with all the boys to form a psychic connection with them or how Pennywise turned into several of the Universal movie monsters to scare the children.  Given the emphasis on dark, small town secrets and the essential presence of child murder in the plot those ideas never really sat well with the rest of the story.  

On the subject of small town secrets, the trailer came out alongside a leaked version of the film’s original script from before director Cary Fukunaga jumped ship.  It’s an interesting read as the 4th version of this story but much like its 3 siblings it just feels like a stifled attempt to grapple with the smoke and mirrors of IT’s mythos.  

It’s a lot more focused in on the idea of mythology and lore revolving around Pennywise in the town but it all comes off strangely stale and unaffecting, which is again odd for a story steeped in child murder and racism.  Where I find my mind wandering the most when it comes to looking over all this IT stuff is the Joker, the pop culture killer clown most inspired by the rise of Pennywise.

The 1-2 punch of Killing Joke and Death in the Family that elevated Joker from colorful super villain to inhuman murderer both happened in ’88 and ’89, a few years after the IT novel and right before the mini-series, with Mark Hamill’s Joker premiering 5 years later and bearing some fundamental similarities.  Where things differ is that it feels the Joker has been constantly reinvented whereas Pennywise remains in this odd static state of half-remembered childhood nightmare.  

Just for direct comparison, the recent comic Batman: Endgame re-imagining the Joker as an immortal killer clown that had haunted Gotham since its origins and its creepy clown lore was infinitely more frightening and disturbing than anything from any of the known versions of IT. 

It all comes down to the ambiguity and mystery of the character, the idea that there’s more going on here than we might understand by just reading the original book or seeing the original mini-series.  Both of those previous adaptations are big shadows that this new IT hasn’t gotten out of in the most important aspect- offering the audience something mysterious and different about its monster.  

The whole thing feels most reminiscent of the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, where all weight of mystery was stripped from Freddy Krueger at the start under the assumption that if you didn’t know who he was you wouldn’t be watching.  Much like that film the question of “why did we bother to remake this” hovers around the production like a visible funk, the only difference is that IT has more of an answer- because Stranger Things got big.

Consider this sequence the positive part of the trailer breakdown, but every piece of inspiration this trailer takes from Stranger Things is pretty much pitch perfect.  I’ve always been mixed on kid characters in films but Stranger Things proved they could still be engaging and if everybody wants their own ‘80s kids adventure film but with real horror bad guys I’m not going to complain.  So, this new group of kids feeling a lot more lived in and well realized, similar to the Stranger Things crew as a kind of “Monster Squad but with good writing” is a welcome change. 

What’s more, there’s a glossy sheen of polish over everything that’s a pretty welcome change from the reboots of the 2000s.  This might just be a Stranger Things riff back onto its own progenitor, like a time travel knocking up their own grandmother but it’s an incredibly good looking one at the very least.  The wide-open pastoral visuals and golden lighting contrast perfectly to the dark and grungy horror of the sewers and that one shot of the burning door full of hands was particularly arresting. 

Part of me is tempted to chalk my apathy towards IT up to being done with the whole evil clown thing, but the aforementioned Clown and 31 are 2 of my favorite films of the 2010s.  What I think it really boils down to is being tired of projects where the polished set design and technical skill is meant to be the selling point rather than the icing on the cake.  This has come up a lot in the slew of TV period dramas and especially in the realm of FX offerings like Legion, Taboo, and American Horror Story. 

It’s this attitude that so long as what’s being presented looks nice and has competent actors things like imagination, uniqueness, theme, and story can all end up on the cutting room floor.  It pops up because it’s a lot easier to make universally impressive sets and costumes than it is to make a universal story of any kind so basically it’s a very pretty way of being low risk and cheap about the actual narrative.  I hope I'm wrong about the final product, obviously, but between the troubled production, lackluster trailer, and September release date I won’t be surprised if underneath the clown make-up is just a whole load of nothing in this case.   

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