IT (2017)

September 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are two clown schools: Funny clowns (Bozo, Ronald McDonald), and Terrifying clowns (the one in POLTERGEIST, Pennywise the Dancing Clown). Stephen King first introduced Pennywise in the 1986 novel, and the great Tim Curry brought him to life (and our nightmares) in the 1990 TV mini-series (2 episodes). So, that’s 27 years since the TV version. How fitting that director Andy Muschietti (MAMA) introduces a new generation 27 years later, since that’s how often the supernaturally evil clown visits Derry, Maine to frighten and feast on kids. It’s a terrific update.

Horror films are similar to comedy films in that it often comes down to one’s own personality quirks … what makes you laugh, and what scares you. This new version covers the first half of King’s novel, focusing on “The Losers Club” – the seven kids who band together to fight their fears. Director Muschietti sets the story in 1989 (rather than the 50’s) and the obvious comparisons are to THE GOONIES, STAND BY ME (another King story), and the recent hit “Stranger Things”.

The opening sequence gets us off to a great start. You’ve probably seen it in the trailer. Young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is joyfully splashing through the rain puddles following his paper boat as it disappears into the storm drain. It’s there that he meets, and we get our first look at, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan and brother of Alexander). Giving us an early peek at what we came to see creates time for the development of a long list of characters. Of course the mini-series and the novel didn’t have the time restrictions of a feature film, so it’s impressive how quickly we connect with the kids.

Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberther, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL) is the leader of The Losers despite his propensity to stutter, and his belief that little Georgie may still be alive. Motormouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard, “Stranger Things”) is the bespectacled wiseass, while Beverly (Sophia Lillis, an Amy Adams lookalike and star in the making) is the tough-on-the-outside female who deals with the rumors that accompany being a teenager. Hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), straight-laced son of the Rabbi Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), chubby brainiac new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and home-schooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs) round out this group of outsiders who are all frequently the target of bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), creepy parents, and of course, Pennywise.

A couple of the set pieces are outstanding. Beverly’s bathroom (especially the sink), the creek for the rock fight, and the rickety old house and its corresponding clown lair all contribute to the overall level of menace. Rising star composer Benjamin Wallfisch produces a score that guides us through the thrills and spills, as well as the quieter moments. As for Pennywise, even though the dancing clown had more screen time in the mini-series, Skarsgard is memorable, although the modern day special effects (those teeth!) often diminish the humanistic feel of Curry’s clown and escalate things to an other-worldly level.

Expect more of the Halloween Haunted House type of scary rather than the emotionally crippling stuff of horror films like THE EXORCIST or THE SHINING. The sudden bursts of sinister are surprisingly balanced with the humorous one-liners from the kids, and the actualization of the infamous “you’ll float too” is a stunning effect. The nostalgic feel complements the best part of the story … the power of friendship and connected groups. Watching these kids face their biggest fears certainly provides a bit of a chill to the upcoming fall season … and as a bonus, it’s a fun time for viewers.

watch the trailer:



THE SHINING (1980) revisited

January 29, 2013

shining Greetings again from the darkness. One of the keys to my love of cinema is what I term the “three D’s” – Dispute, Discussion and Debate.  Legendary director Stanley Kubrick directed only eleven feature films, each a perfect fit for the “three D’s”.  Now combine Kubrick with renowned author Stephen King, and the result is 33 years (and counting) of ongoing dispute, discussion and debate.  The Shining is considered one of the best horror films of all-time and limitless in its ability to entertain … even after the closing credits.

Kubrick and his co-writer, novelist Diane Johnson, took the already twisted source material and delivered a film focused more on the downward spiral towards madness than King’s supernatural story.  Sure Kubrick gives us ghosts (Lloyd the bartender, Grady the butler, the two girls and the women of Room 237), but the bulk of time is spent watching the three members of the Torrance family each breakdown in their own special manner.

shining7 The ambiguities of the story are intensified on the closing shot of the 1921 photograph featuring the likeness of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson). The various interpretations over the years have only added to the cult status and overall perplexity associated with this masterpiece.  The historic Texas Theatre in Dallas presented a 35 mm print this past weekend and it was a thrill to once again watch the movie on the big screen with a full house.

There are so many elements that elevate this one above most horror films. The claustrophobic feel that comes with an isolated hotel snowed off from society is complimented by a cast of actors who fully commit to what must have appeared ludicrous on the script pages.  Jack Nicholson was at the peak of the acting profession (just a few years after Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and really creeps us out with his aggressive descent into insanity.  Shelley Duvall survived an actor’s nightmare during filming as Kubrick was relentless in his efforts to make sure she shining5was constantly hysterical and on the verge of tears.  Yet, she never fails in convincing us that she is frantically grasping for sanity as she works to save herself and her son.  Despite having no previous acting experience, six year old Danny Lloyd won the role of Danny, who is blessed/cursed with “the shining” – a psychic ability to see the past and the future.

Over the years, conclusions have been reached that Kubrick was making a statement on topics ranging from the slaughter of Native Americans, the Holocaust, the supernatural, alcoholism, and the hollow institution known as family. Regardless of your interpretation, it’s impressive that a horror film can generate such divisive thoughts. Even more impressive is how the movie sucks you in with a methodical pace and  deliberate build-up to a wild ending … an ending missing a key hospital scene that was cut by Kubrick AFTER the film was initially released.

Known as The Overlook Hotel in the movie, it’s really a conglomeration of many different hotels. The exterior shots are of Timberlake Lodge in Oregon.  Much of the interior, including the Colorado room where Jack writes, is patterned after Ahwahanee Lodge in Yosemite, though the red bathroom is courtesy of the Arizona Biltmore (and Frank Lloyd Wright).  The giant set was built shining3in England and included the shrubbery maze that is front and center come climax time.  Stephen King was inspired to write the story after staying at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. In 1997, he personally oversaw a TV mini-series that stayed true to his original story … and was filmed at The Stanley.

Scatman Crothers is best known as a musician and composer, but immediately became well respected for his role as Dick Hallorann, the hotel’s chef.  The scene where he discusses the meaning of “the shining” with Danny became infamous for the 148 takes demanded by Kubrick. His penchant for multiple takes nearly broke the actors and the crew, but most since then have acknowledged the grueling approach provided the edge needed for the dramatic effects seen in the movie.

Some other interesting aspects of the movie include the numerous “classic lines” such as Nicholson’s ad-libbed “Here’s Johnny!” and “Little Pig, Little Pig”; the controversial line from Grady (Philip Stone) stating Torrance has “always been the caretaker”; Torrance’s exchange with Lloyd the bartender (Joe Turkel) when he calls alcohol the “white man’s burden”.  It’s also interesting shining2to note that the visual of the two girls was influenced by Diane Arbus’ famous photograph.  Ask yourself; prior to seeing this movie, would you have recognized REDRUM?  Since this was in the days before computers, a secretary spent months typing up (yes on a typewriter) the hundreds of pages that read “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy”.  In the Gold Room party scene, that’s 17 year old Vivian Kubrick (daughter of Stanley) smoking a cigarette while sitting on the sofa. And a special note to my fellow baseball lovers, Shelley Duvall whacks Nicholson with a Carl Yastrzemski model Louisville slugger.  Of course, Stephen King is a lifelong Red Sox fan, so this was a nice touch.

It’s understandable if you consider the movie more disturbing than horrifying. Kubrick would take that as a compliment.  As for the complexities and contradictions, nothing is more frightening than the unexplained and the unreasonable. Without an obvious roadmap to a tidy conclusion, Kubrick keeps us guessing and leaves us uncomfortable by what we have seen. Maybe most remarkable is the incredible way this movie impacts you EVERY TIME you watch.  This is quite an accomplishment for the horror genre, since most depend on visual tricks, cheap scares and over the top gore.  If you are waiting for more, Stephen King is scheduled to release “Dr. Sleep”, which is the story of an adult Danny (no word on whether Tony is with him) who now works with those who share “the shining”.  Just don’t expect Danny Lloyd to reprise his childhood role.  He hasn’t acted in over 30 years and is enjoying his career as a science teacher.

check out Danny’s big wheel scene: