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Friday, September 8, 2017

Movie Review: It Is Plenty Scary, But It Also Has Heart

Posted by on Fri, Sep 8, 2017 at 3:52 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROS.
  • photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
It
★★★★
Now playing

Theodicy is a theological term that refers to the problem of evil as an active force in the world.  More specifically, it's an attempt to resolve the dilemma in many Western religions of how evil can exist in a universe supposedly created and governed by an all-powerful and benevolent God. It's a puzzler, all right.

In the very excellent, very scary horror film It—based on Stephen King's famous novel—there's no ambiguity about the existence of evil. In the hard-luck town of Derry, Maine, the power of darkness manifests as a terrifying clown named Pennywise, a shapeshifting demonic force that wakes up every twenty-seven years to hunt and kill children.

The evil clown thing has been done to death, of course, but Pennywise is practically the originator, and surely one of the freakiest fictional entities ever dreamed up. In the new It, director Andy Muschietti sprints right past the tired scary-clown tropes and delivers a story so disturbing that you may find yourself thinking of arcane terms like theodicy.

Muschietti signals his intentions in the very first scene, in which Pennywise abducts his first young victim in a most gruesome fashion. This is a warning, essentially: It is a hard-R movie, and sensitive kids will want to stay away. (Sensitive adults, too.) As the tight and twisted story unwinds, It moves through some very dark passages.

Thanks to the best-selling book and the popular TV miniseries, starring Tim Curry as Pennywise, most people know the basic narrative shape of the story. A gang of misfit tweens unite to fight off the evil clown as the town of Derry gradually goes berserk. Muschietti updates the action from the fifties to the eighties, and fans of Spielberg classics like E.T. or The Goonies will find some familiar elements. Actually, the closest analog is a recent Netflix series: It is like Stranger Things cranked up several notches in intensity.

Like those stories, It also has a lot of heart. The kids are well cast and lovable, and the film has tremendous empathy for the eternal plight of the adolescent. Because kids lack the context that adulthood provides, every feeling and emotion is powerful and pure. When you're thirteen and in love, you're really in love. When you're happy, you're really happy. And when you're frightened, well, it's like Grandma used to say: The last thing you want is a supernatural incarnation of pure malevolence that morphs into your own personal nightmares.

Director Muschietti, who also made the excellent 2013 horror film Mama, delivers the genre requirements with skill and style. He has a fine touch with suspense and does a good job of placing the jump scares where you don't expect them. The special effects are mostly effective and the art direction is admirable. It has the best haunted house set I've seen in awhile, and Swedish actor Bill Skarsgård finds an original and sinister wavelength for Pennywise.

The really scary stuff, however, is subtextual. Pennywise doesn't just prowl the sewers and abduct kids. His very presence is warping and infecting the town of Derry. He amplifies anger and fear, and his corrupting influence leads to several scenes of astonishing cruelty. Each of the kids has an encounter with a parental figure, and each of those encounters simmers with horrifying intimations regarding what goes on behind closed doors in Derry.

It digs deeper than your typical scary movie. The evil presented is active, intelligent, creative, and vicious. But our heroes are formidable as well, armed with compassion, love, and self-sacrifice. When the forces of light and darkness finally tangle, It conjures a real mythic resonance.

So heads up on all that. If you're just looking for a scary movie this weekend, you may find more than you bargained for with It.

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