IT’s Just Too Much

I am of two minds about IT: Chapter Two. There are aspects of the film I really enjoyed, but also a lot more elements I found problematical.

The opening scene involving the gay-bashing of Adrian Mellon (and Pennywise’s eventual noshing on him) marks a harrowing return to Derry’s unfriendly confines. The violence on display is vicious and unsettling, and bears an immediacy lacking from the corresponding scene in Stephen King’s novel (which is presented via a series of ex post facto statements to the police by the perpetrating punks). Director Andy Muschietti makes a wise choice starting with this hate crime, which inaugurates Pennywise’s next cycle of predation. In this scene, we get a glimpse of the evil influence that has permeated Derry; the problem is that Muschietti fails to sustain this idea. The town’s haunted state is largely absent from the rest of the film, as the streets and edifices of Derry are reduced to mere backdrops and the townspeople to virtual spear-carriers in the ongoing battles between Pennywise and the Losers Club.

The monsters mashing their way through the film (as Pennywise dons his various terrorizing disguises) are undeniably top-notch. Particularly memorable (by which I mean: scarringly nightmarish) here are the witchy Mrs. Kersh (the most unnerving nude in a King adaptation since the woman in Room 217 in The Shining) and the animate, bat-spewing statue of Paul Bunyan. The film boasts a menagerie of impressive antagonists; this is one area where the follow-up manages to surpass IT: Chapter One (which I reviewed here).

I don’t think it’s a terrible spoiler to write that Stephen King has a cameo in the film. Readers of this post who have yet to venture out to their local cineplex will be happy to learn that this is arguably King’s best cameo work to date. Muschietti, though, typically pushes matters too far by including a second cameo by a Hollywood luminary (seemingly playing himself), whose appearance here is completely out of left field and serves to jar the viewer out of the onscreen world.

Time is not on the side of It: Chapter Two; a generation has passed and the members of the Losers Club have all grown up. It’s simply not as easy to root for–and fear for–the adult versions of these characters. Personality traits that proved endearing in the young can seem tiresome in the post-pubescent. I found James Ransone’s adult Eddie especially grating, and thus had a hard time investing in his character arc. James McAvoy as adult Bill is miscast and unconvincing–he lacks stature (he’s dwarfed by most of the other Losers) and the commanding presence that led the others to look up to him as the group’s leader in King’s novel. Jessica Chastain gives a solid performance as the adult Beverly, but her character is bogged down by the burgeoning romance with the hunky yet utterly uninteresting Ben (Jay Ryan). Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) is a muddled mess; rather than forming the conscience of the group, he comes across more as a borderline madman verging on a heel turn. Just as Finn Wolfhard stole the first film as young Ritchie, Bill Hader stands out as the adult counterpart. A professional stand-up comedian, Hader’s Ritchie’s delivers laugh-out-loud-funny lines throughout (almost too many of them, threatening to compromise the tonality of the film). The much-ado about Ritchie’s personal secret, though, was somewhat off-putting. This aspect of his character was nowhere present in the source text, the alteration made here seemingly just to be different.

The film hardly floats through its bloated 170-minute runtime. A significant part of the drag no doubt stems from the insistence on re-establishing the juvenile ensemble from the preceding chapter. As the adult Losers are sent off on a silly treasure quest, viewers are subjected to a series of flashbacks to the troublesome summer twenty-something years earlier. But these scenes of further dreadful encounter with Pennywise strike a vague note of anachronism. I found myself asking: why didn’t any of this come up before (at least as a point of discussion between the young Losers)? Muschietti might have benefited from adopting a more self-contained approach here, minimizing the recurrences to the characters’ childhood.

Bill Skarsgard reprises his role as the coulrophobia-inducer extraordinaire Pennywise, and once again entertains with a combination of bloody malice and maniacal wit. Thankfully, though, Pennywise doesn’t only reach down into the same old bag of tricks. There are new nuances to the character, such as when the clown lures Its prey by feigning loneliness and painting himself the victim of ostracism. It’s in these quieter moments that It terrifies the most, not when the Dancing Clown launches into hyperkinetic attack mode. Perhaps my favorite part of the movie is when Pennywise sulkingly insists that It is an “eater of worlds” even as It is bested by the Losers.

That being said, the film’s climax frustrated me on a couple of fronts. First, the Ritual of Chud from King’s novel is grossly mishandled, turned hackneyed (a mystical routine learned from some token Native Americans conveniently living right outside the Derry town line). Also, while certainly not lacking for action, the climax is just too protracted. Amidst the epic battle, the Losers are split up individually, with each member having to deal with personal demons and negotiate a dark funhouse scene. Pennywise is juggling a lot of balls here, and I couldn’t help but wonder how the clown managed to pull off all these frightful mind-games simultaneously.

A running (and not particularly funny) gag throughout the film is that the horror novelist Bill sucks at scripting endings to his books. I’m almost tempted to think that the screenwriters were anticipating the audience’s own negative response to the film, whose denouement isn’t very moving. The voiceover reading of a missing Loser’s missive felt terribly contrived, and the quintessence of schmaltz. It had me pining for a scene of Bill and catatonic wife Audra on a bike ride through the beleaguered streets of Derry.

For all its prodigious length, It: Chapter Two paradoxically falls short. The film lacks scope: there are plenty of tentacles whipping around, but the sense of It as a Lovecraftian horror from beyond space is sadly absent. I don’t doubt that the film will benefit from a second viewing in the comforts of home–when I’m not physically assaulted by AMC Theatres’ thunderous sound system, and when I can rewind and rewatch key scenes with attention to the details that might have slipped by amidst all the chaotic goings-on. Still, I don’t think I will ever consider the sequel the equal of its precursor. It: Chapter Two bursts its own balloon with over-inflation; its impressive parts end up being too much of a good thing, yet nonetheless outnumbered by the film’s creative missteps.

 

O. Boy, Oh Boy!

I am doing a happy dance, on the heels of some incredibly exciting news. Norman Partridge’s 2006 novel Dark Harvest–an instant classic of Halloween fiction–is finally being adapted as a feature film.

Set in 1963 in an archetypal Midwestern town, Dark Harvest features a legendary bogey called the October Boy–an animate scarecrow with a jack-o’-lantern head. He attempts to run a gauntlet of teenage boys armed like angry villagers, as part of an annual Halloween ritual that is integral to the fate of the community. I would describe the novel (my favorite book by one my all-time favorite writers) as Ray Bradbury meets Shirley Jackson, yet nonetheless a tale of stunning originality presented in Partridge’s unique prose style.

The film is slated to be directed by David Slade, whose work on 30 Days of Night appears to make him an appropriate choice for this project. Dark Harvest‘s compact narrative, fueled by hard-charging action, also makes it the perfect vehicle for a cinematic adaptation. If visualized correctly (and not scythed down by bad CGI), the October Boy has the chance to grow into a horror icon.

Production details are limited at this point, and the film probably won’t be released until next Halloween season, but whenever Dark Harvest does crop up in theaters, rich rewards stand to be reaped by viewers.

 

 

Lore Report: “The Shortest Straw” (Episode 122)

 

“When faced with death, that will to live kicks in and gives people the courage to do what is necessary to survive. Whether it’s the strength to sever your own limb to escape a dangerous situation, or the stubborn refusal to give up hope of rescue, people are capable of extraordinary things. And when their very life is on the line, desperate people will do anything to survive.”

 

For its 122nd episode, Aaron Mahnke’s podcast Lore voyages to the land of ultimate taboo: cannibalism. Once again our intrepid narrator displays a knack for sketching historical context and supplying fascinating details. When tracing the origins of cannibalism, Mahnke notes that making provender of one’s fellows is not distinct to humanity: over 1500 species have been known to dine on their own kind. In terms of strictly interpersonal gourmandizing, such gruesome act (judging from the tooth-marked bones unearthed) dates back an incredible 600,000 years.

Mahnke narrows matters down to focus on the “custom of the sea” (sailor euphemism for the resort to cannibalism). The title of the episode refers to the practice of literally drawing straws to determine who among the group of desperately hungry seamen would be fed, and who would be converted into cuisine (drawing the second-shortest straw wasn’t very rewarding, either: to that person fell the dirty job of butchering the designated victim). A good chunk of the narration here is devoted to an 1884 maritime tragedy involving the English yacht “The Mignonette,” and the story does bog down a bit as Mahnke discusses the legal dilemma that stemmed from this cause célèbre (is cannibalism a justifiable survival effort or simply murder?). But the tale takes a turn toward the intriguing when Mahnke proceeds to identify a callback to the case by a recent Oscar-winning movie, and to point out a curious coincidence with Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

The episode clocks in at a considerable 38 minutes, yet I wish it had run even longer, and addressed other offbeat feats of survival besides those involving starving sailors in dire straits. For anyone, though, who is a fan of the subject of shipwreck and grim perseverance in American fiction–from Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” to Stephen King’s “Survivor Type” and Dan Simmons’s The Terror–“The Shortest Straw” will surely be a winning selection.

 

A.G. Exemplary? Considering the American Gothicism of Stephen Crane’s “The Monster”

The latest (overdue) installment of a recurring feature exploring just how “American Gothic” are works of literature collected in anthologies bearing that titular label. Continuing to work through the contents of editor Charles L. Crow’s American Gothic: An Anthology 1787-1916:

 

“The Monster” by Stephen Crane

Crane’s 1899 novelette is a clear American Gothic riff on the classic novel Frankenstein. Like the patchwork creation in Mary Shelley’s narrative, Crane’s African-American character Henry Johnson, a genial horse groomer, is sadly misunderstood; his physical abnormality is mistaken for essential grotesquerie. Henry is gravely wounded (his face seared right off) while rescuing his employer’s son from a horrific house fire (which Crane describes in nothing-less-than-Gothic terms: flames gouting from the windows are likened to “bloody specters at the apertures of a haunted house”). Grateful for Henry’s sacrifice, the father, Dr. Trescott, sets to the Frankensteinian task of “restoring him to life.” Such effort, though, is not endorsed by the people of Whilomville, who consider that the physically- and mentally-ravaged Henry is better off left for dead.

At one point, Henry escapes from his supervised convalescence, unwittingly terrifies a group of children gathered at a party, and is chased by a stone-throwing mob of angry villagers. The treatment of the wounded hero Henry is despicable enough, yet does not represent the extent of the town’s ugliness. Crane exposes the pettiness of the gossiping townspeople, whose prejudices extend beyond the racial (Henry was already marked as different because of his skin color, but now he is further demonized for modeling a travesty of the healthy human form). Trescott’s so-called friends and neighbors hector him to banish Henry to a remote farm, and when the good doctor refuses, both he and his wife end up ostracized: the doctor’s long-time patients abandon him for other physicians, and at the conclusion of the tale, Mrs. Trescott’s tea party is boycotted by the women who now refuse to socialize with her. The true monster of the novelette’s title proves to be not Henry Johnson, but the community of the only-superficially-idyllic Whilomville itself.

In its references to Shelley (transferring elements of a canonical text of British Gothic fiction to New World soil) and its censure of the incivility underpinning a quintessential small town, Crane’s “The Monster” surely warrants the label “American Gothic,” and forms one of the most representative pieces in Crow’s anthology.