Stephen King’s “It” debuted as a lengthy horror novel in the 1980s. The story of a violent, shape-shifting clown feeding on the younger residents of Derry, Maine pranced onto the small screen in 1990 with British character actor Tim Curry in the pivotal role of Pennywise, the story’s antagonist.
Since 2009, a remake of King’s tale has been patiently waiting in the realms of development hell. Three weeks ago, a trailer for the film, with Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard taking over for Curry as the infamous circus psycho, debuted online to an overwhelmingly positive response, generating nearly 200 million views within 24 hours and setting a record in the “trailer books.”
Watching it, one can see that the technical aspects of “It” have been upgraded since its days as a television special, and that project looks rather dated by comparison.
The mini-series uses stop-motion animation in varying shots, which even by early 90s terms, looks rather cheesy.
Between Pennywise emerging from a drain to the film’s climactic battle with a giant spider, the effects seem shabby by modern standards. While Tim Curry’s performance is a lot of fun, Skarsgard may have an advantage in the sense that the technicality of makeup effects and visuals have improved drastically over the years to make characters appear more intense.
At first glance, Skarsgard’s clown is dark and slimy. Curry’s, by comparison, is far more simplistic; almost comical at times, though it’s not necessarily his fault. The wide range of movements he employs as Pennywise result in a few noticeable issues, i.e. the obvious fold occasionally appearing across his forehead marking where a bald-cap ends and his scalp begins. Seriously… None of the filmmakers noticed that?
That’s not to say, however, that the original is a joke while this new version is dressed in 14-carat gold. All we’ve seen so far is a trailer; a short, two-and-a-half-minute teaser hinting at what’s to come. Many viewers (myself included) have high hopes for the movie, though based on the trailer alone, one can already see a few problems, a lot of them seemingly technical.
Perhaps the biggest issue I have is that the kids – the central characters/actors of the film – are practically inaudible. I had my volume turned up to Michael Bay levels and I was still leaning in to hear. Why is everyone so quiet? Were the sound mixers that off? It’s frustrating considering “It” focuses heavily on this specific group of children, and when one tries to listen, the dialogue does reveal a few significant factors that are quite crucial to the plot. If we can’t hear them, how are we supposed to care about what’s going on?
Maybe this was done on purpose; maybe the director asked that their voices be lowered thinking it would add suspense and tension to the film and inherently cause the audience to pay more attention to the heart-pounding bangs and noises in the background.
Some say this infuses the element of surprise, but I call it the element of “distraction,” as these sounds are the other extreme. While the dialogue is spoken practically through whispers, the sound effects are so loud I’m surprised half the listeners aren’t deaf.
Maybe the filmmakers are so worried we won’t know what’s scary, they figure putting in some loud bursts here, and there will make us bounce – jump scares as they’re known, which is precisely what most horror films seem to rely on nowadays. The deep, angry sounds of synthesizers also play continuously throughout the trailer, serving as another blatant, technological reminder that something scary is in our midst and we should be very, very afraid.
These tactics do work, but they’re not very original. It’s like the filmmakers decided, “We have the technological means to scare people, so let’s just use the heck out of them. We can’t rely on actors or other things to give audiences a fright. Let’s just flash something startling at people and give them what we think they want.” They also suggest a lack of trust, as if the filmmakers don’t believe audiences have the sense or the intelligence to react appropriately, and factors must always be present to show viewers when the time has come to be terrified. Like a sitcom laugh-track, only for horror…
The trailer’s final moments involve Skarsgard in full clown get-up rushing swiftly towards the screen. It’s effective and provides some unusual imagery, but it’s a very technical scare. One can tell right away Skarsgard is not moving at such a pace on his own, and the film has been sped up to give a more unearthly feel.
27 years ago, when the technical aspects of filmmaking were not as clean, actors like Tim Curry were forced to rely on their own physicality to give audiences the willies. Computers weren’t quite there to do this for them, and thus actors had to “wing it” as best they could…
Which brings me to my ending point – the clown’s face. As prominent as makeup is, it can also be limiting for an actor. In examining both Tim Curry and Bill Skarsgard, one notices the makeup for the latter is more intricate and advanced. Is it frightening? Yes, but sometimes makeup is so much of an effect and so much of a performance booster, it inherently causes an actor to hold back.
Maybe I’m wrong, and the filmmakers are specifically trying to limit the clown’s exposure. But, in the few shots we get of Pennywise, Skarsgard just seems to stand there with a creepy smile on his face, and I can’t help wondering if maybe he feels less of a need to act because the makeup is doing the work for him.
This isn’t the case with Tim Curry. Throughout the film, the actor’s expressions and facial features are rapid and consistent, adding heavily to the performance and bringing a certain flair to Pennywise we may not have witnessed had the makeup been heavier.
The look is powerful and iconic mostly due to Curry’s commitment to the character, which is evident from the very first shot. Judging from the trailer alone, Skarsgard is nowhere near as animated, and may be too reliant on the makeup, costume and overall look to deliver the creeps.
It would be foolish to critique a film on just a few clips, but the trailer feels a little too dependent on technical know-how, and copies aspects of virtually every horror trailer in recent years. 2017’s “It” certainly looks intriguing, though not necessarily inspired. Nevertheless, I do have high hopes. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this rendition of King’s story doesn’t simply “float” into oblivion.