It was the year 1997 and the immensely popular Zee Horror Show had just wrapped up after running successfully for four years, paving a formidable path for the horror genre which was definitively Indian in its story-telling. This was a time when Ramsay brothers, the Fathers of Horror in Indian Cinema, were bold, experimentative and did not shy away from showing gore. Just when we had thought that we had seen it all with ZHS and its better counterparts such as Sony Entertainment Television’s (SET) Aahat, 1998 introduced us to yet another foray into psychological horror through the Ashutosh Gowariker starrer Woh. This series which had a short run of just 52 episodes as compared to ZHS’s 372 episodes, gave us horror through atmosphere, an unnerving background score which sounds creepy even by today’s standards, and some of the best accompanied performances. Even after two decades, I have some of the fondest memories of watching Woh on TV while we had dinner together. As far as I can remember, it was the only horror programme on TV that held equal fascination with adults as it did with kids my age.
Here’s the pilot for Woh. The intro itself would creep you out (You can watch the whole series here):
It was only many years later that I realized that Woh had been an adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller ‘It’ with the usual Indianized treatment to boost acceptance amongst the viewers due to its bizarre premise. Before then, if you had asked someone in India, what a ‘Joker’ signified, they’d most probably have started humming the tune – “Jeena yahan, marna yahan…Iske siwa, jaana kahan” from the classic Raj Kapoor film Mera Naam Joker. The genius of ‘It’ was quintessential Stephen King where he would take the most mundane things and turn them into elements of discomfiture. Adapted first into a film and TV series in 1990, It was directed by Tommy Lee Wallace who stayed faithful to the 1986 best-selling novel wherein seven friends re-unite in the town of Derry where they had grown up, sensing the resurgence of an evil force which had wreaked havoc there 27 years back. Both the novel and the 1990 film, worked with parallel screenplays wherein the narrative weaves back and forth between the grown-up version of the individuals in their separate walks of life and their childhood selves when they would ride around Derry in their bicycles or play in the Barrens. Although Tim Curry’s version of Pennywise the Clown gave us one of the most iconic monsters in Hollywood, the film itself felt campy at times rendered almost distracting owing to its non-linear screenplay.
The 2017 It-eration from Director Andy Muschietti, brings back the clown exactly 27 years after we had last seen him. As a huge fan of King’s work, it is exciting when directors pay homage to the story itself, where the Clown is said to rise every 27 years preying on children until its next cycle. Muschietti’s It is not a reboot per se. The story-telling is starkly different from the book and the 1990 film, in the fact that we are not introduced to the adult versions of the seven characters. Here, the narrative is all about their childhood when they are just a bunch of kids who are trying to spend their summer break doing stupid things, unaware of the evil that lurked in the shadows. This was a welcome change as this was what had been endearing about the 1990 film. A bunch of rag-tag kids dealing with a monster that threatened their town was, somehow, more appealing than a group of adults going after him. Unlike the original wherein their childhood is based in the 60s, Muschietti tweaks the timeline by setting Derry in the late 80s which allowed him to shape the atmosphere with that beloved 80s vibe that we had seen in Netflix’s Stranger Things (2016) and also in the yesteryear classics Stand by me (1986) and The Goonies (1985).
But It doesn’t let you settle down with this warm summer picture in your head as the opening scene shows Georgie’s disappearance in graphic detail as we have our very first encounter with Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise. If Tim Curry’s makeup had given you nightmares, the new Pennywise would get right under your very skin! Muschietti understands that the story that King had told was not just about a scary clown who haunts a town. The premise was much deeper wherein the town of Derry would also have to have a personality owing to its dark past. It was not the Clown who was inhabiting the space but it was the space which had created the Clown. This very subtle but important idea becomes a cornerstone for cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung as he alternates images of a summer with bright colors, with several grey elements which would have a menacing quality bang in the middle of the pleasantness, like an undesirable outcrop or a disease that was eating the town alive.
This other-worldly feeling we experience through the eyes of the seven kids – Bill “Billy” Denbrough (played by Jaeden Lieberher), who is still coping with the disappearance of his little brother Georgie a year later and has been frantically searching for him in the Barrens, hoping against all hope that maybe he may have been sucked into the sewer and may have come out alive in the wastelands of the barrens; Ben Hanscom (played by Jeremy Ray Taylor), a chubby but smart kid who lives his life slinking away from Henry Bowers and his goons who would bully him all the time; Beverly “Bev” Marsh (played by Sophia Lillis), whose father works as a Derry Sewer Technician and is an abusive man who would often exercise control over his teenage daughter sexually; Richie Tozier (played by Finn Wolfhard; also played Ryan Wheeler in Stranger Things) who is a foul-mouthed happy-go-lucky kid with a pair of giant glasses on his nose; Stan Uris (played by Wyatt Oleff), who is the son of an Orthodox Jewish priest and has grown up with stringent values; Mike Hanlon (played by Chosen Jacobs), is an orphan living with his grandfather on a cattle ranch who has seen his family burn in a fire years ago; and finally Eddy Kaspbrack (played by Jack Dylan Grazer) whose mother is a chronic hypochondriac, which has rubbed off on him making him extremely touchy about hygiene.
Like every other Stephen King story, It is not just about a haunting. It is more about the characters and their dynamics in this strange situation. King’s plots are more like petridishes where people would be cornered into conditions that would change their motivations and behaviors. Muschietti understands this essence very well as seen through the interactions among the characters – Ben’s infatuation for the blue-eyed Bev, Billy’s desperate attempt to convince his father to help him look for Georgie when he knew deep in his heart that his brother was long gone, Bev’s unsettling interactions with her pedophile father and Eddie’s disgust hiding behind a fear for his overweight hypochondriac mother. Each of the kids is bogged down with a baggage of his/her own and the Clown uses this to his advantage, by manifesting itself as things they would fear the most. For Billy, he would manifest himself as his dead little brother while Eddie would see him as a half-decomposed leper. At the end of their visions, they would all see something common – a clown holding a red balloon. Even with their differences, the children soon realize that they are tied together by this unseemly thread and that it had to be them who would have to stand up to the monster.
Check out the actor behind Pennywise the Demon Clown:
Even before the film, Skarsgård’s Pennywise had become the talk of the town. The red lines originating from the ends of his mouth, slitting through the shining devil eyes gave him a particularly menacing look, much more sinister than Tim Curry’s iconic character portrayal. The new Pennywise wore a suit which was not colorful at all, unlike Curry’s suit. This one was baggy and grey with frills as if the Clown had been around since the dark ages. What if he was ? Not much is known about his origin except for the “Big Fire” in Derry that had tarnished the town’s name into infamy. The film does tease about his origin through a glimpse of a circus stage having the name Pennywise written on top, within the Clown’s lair but for all we know, he could be much older than that. Almost three decades after the original film, CGI is far better now to make him look more convincing and terrifying than ever, which Muschietti has used to his benefit, especially through the finale scene where we watch the Clown explode into his full prowess, raining fury over the kids.
It is a worthy addition to the Stephen King universe, although it doesn’t yet come close to what King propounded in his book. As a director, you would have to share the same mania and eccentricities that King has, to honestly adapt his stories. The layers of complexity should blur the line between horror and reality. Morality becomes a vague term as you stumble for footing trying to understand the hidden meaning behind the horror on the surface. Maybe someone like David Lynch would provide the treatment worthy of a King horror novella. Frank Darabont and Mikael Håfström came close with The Mist and 1408 but for all intents and purposes, the adaptations have been bastardized versions of the originals, cut down and edited to make them appear more sane and comprehensible. Interestingly, Cary Fukunaga had been approached for directing It earlier but due to other commitments he had to walk out of the project. It would have been intriguing to watch the True Detective director provide his treatment of the story.
Having said that, Andy Muschietti is quickly becoming one of my favorite horror directors after James Wan and Fede Alvarez. His earlier film Mama (2013) is something that I have already watched thrice and can go back for another visit – an instant classic in my list. If you haven’t watched it yet, you should definitely check it out. Going by the reports, Muschietti has also been approached for directing two more Stephen King flicks The Jaunt and The Skeleton crew both of which are sci-fi horrors and we can’t be more excited. Oh, and It is coming back with a sequel !
gobblscore : 7.5/10
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