IT (2017): Movie vs. Book

You know what time it is. Time for me to give an obligatory review of IT, because every other horror film reviewer is talking about it. I even re-read the novel in preparation for seeing the 2017 film adaptation. IT was the second novel I read by Stephen King; The Shining was the first. IT stuck with me for a long time, and I tend to re-read the book every few years.

When I later saw the miniseries Stephen King’s It on TV, I was sorely disappointed. Tim Curry made a good Pennywise, but so many terrifying scenes from the book didn’t make the cut. The scenes that did were often cheesy, not scary. But before I cast more aspersion on the TV miniseries, I realize that the adaptation was hampered by budgetary limitations and network censorship. I knew then that to do the novel justice, the next adaptation would need to be an R-rated film with a bigger budget and better special effects.

Finally, Andy Muschietti has given us an adaptation that approaches King’s vision and captures the heart of the novel. This isn’t to say that the new film doesn’t differ from the novel in several significant ways.

Bill Skarsgård is fantastic as the new Pennywise.

The narrative structure is different. First, the narrative structure of the film is purely linear. King’s novel begins with the death of Georgie, and then introduces the Losers as adults. The Losers’ present-day story is interspersed with flashbacks from their childhood as they recover suppressed/repressed memories of their horrific encounters with Pennywise. The film focuses exclusively on the Losers’ childhood events, teasing a future “Chapter Two” which will focus on the characters as adults.

The time period is different. King’s novel set the flashback scenes in the 1950s, and the adult scenes in the then-present 1980s. The new film moves the time period up three decades by having the characters as children in the late 1980s, which will allow the the adults’ story to take place in the mid-2010s. As much as I loved King’s vivid description of life in the 1950s, this change makes sense, is more relatable to most audience members, and doesn’t weaken the story in any way.

Beverly encounters an unusual clog in the bathroom drain.

Don’t expect to see your favorite scares. Everyone who has read the novel has certain scare scenes that affected them. Check out this list from Mashable for examples. I always enjoyed Ben’s first encounter with Pennywise on the canal, and have never thought of the tune “Camptown Races” the same way after reading Stanley’s encounter at the old standpipe. Patrick Hocksetter’s death involving an old refrigerator and flying leeches was fabulously weird. That said, don’t expect to see them. You will get to see a version of Beverly’s encounter with the bathroom drain, but many of these scenes don’t appear in the new film, or have been reimagined as something else entirely. Fortunately, the re-imagined scares are pretty darn good. My favorite is Ben’s encounter in the library.

The creepy house on Neibolt Street is prominently featured in the new film.

The graphic sexual content has been excised…again. The new version of IT isn’t afraid of gore, and actually had the balls to show Pennywise chewing Georgie’s arm off.  But when it comes to the novel’s graphic sexual content, the filmmakers played it safe. So if you are wondering if the new film includes THAT scene in which Beverly has sex with the rest of the Losers, the answer is no. Also missing is the homosexual encounter between the bullies Patrick Hocksetter and Henry Bowers. The “leper “who terrorizes Eddie does not offer a blowjob. However, it is implied that Beverly’s father sexually abuses her. Theses scenes were effective in the novel, because the reality of children being vulnerable to sexual predators was a nice contrast to the wholesome facade of the 1950s, but certainly a PR nightmare to adapt to film, given the fact the characters are underage. We’ll see if the raunchier aspects of the novel make the cut when the adults’ story in “Chapter Two” is released.

I was pleased to see a more serious attempt at depicting the “deadlights,” and the fact that looking into them will make you lose your mind. I hope that “Chapter Two” expands on this, and includes the inter-dimensional battle between the Losers and Pennywise.

September is Stephen King Month!

In honor of Stephen King’s birth month, My Horrific Life will be covering our favorite (and not-so-favorite) Stephen King books and film adaptations.

Like many of our readers, I’m excited for the new film adaptation of IT, because it’s possibly my favorite King novel (in a close tie with The Shining). I revisit the novel every couple years, and I’m hoping IT finally gets the film adaptation it deserves. My massage therapist John summed it up by saying, “maybe now people can stop talking about the TV miniseries, which was AWFUL. The people who like it liked it when they were eight years old. What eight-year-old has good taste in ANYTHING?” Although Tim Curry gave a great performance as Pennywise, I have to agree with John. The other things I noticed is that people who love the miniseries have never read the book. The novel was simply too gruesome and too…adult to be adapted as a 1990s television special. Those of you who have read the novel are probably also wondering if the 2017 film adaptation will include THAT scene. You know, the one in which Beverly did not give the boys a chaste kiss on the cheek, as she did in the TV miniseries?

While I can live without the pre-teen gang-bang scene, I really hope this version includes the inter-dimensional battle between It and the young people, properly explain what the “deadlights” are, and, of course, include the gorier and more lascivious scares that made the novel so effective.

On our podcast, we will be welcoming back Justin Beahm for a roundtable discussion about Stephen King’s works and adaptations. Though not related to King’s work, I am very pleased to announce that we will be interviewing Michael Kehoe, director of The Hatred, starring our recent podcast guests Andrew Divoff and David Naughton. The Hatred  is scheduled for a release on blu/DVD on September 12.

From the archive: Targets

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For this last day of November, it seems fitting to wrap up Boris Karloff Month by discussing Karloff’s last great film, Targets (1968), directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

Targets follows the story of two very different characters whose lives intersect by chance. The hero is Byron Orlok, portrayed by Karloff and clearly based on Karloff’s real-life persona. Orlok is an elderly horror star who is on the verge of retirement because he feels his brand of gothic horror is outdated, being replaced by the all-too-real horror of serial killers and mass murderers.

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The other is Bobby Thompson, a young Vietnam veteran who superficially appears to be a clean-cut, productive suburban citizen (portrayed by Tim O’Kelly). Modeled after real-life University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman, Thompson buys several guns and large quantities of ammunition, murders his wife and mother, and then kills several strangers in sniper attacks. Thompson’s final shooting spree takes place at a drive-in theater where Byron Orlok is scheduled to give a final public appearance before retiring from acting.

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The final confrontation between Orlok and Thompson is satisfying on a number of levels (beware of spoilers in this paragraph), beyond the simple enjoyment of seeing Karloff bitch-slap the young villain until he’s reduced to sniveling in fetal position. An optical illusion in which Thompson cannot differentiate between the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok and the real man advancing to disarm him may symbolize Thompson’s inability to differentiate his own twisted fantasies from reality. Orlok’s triumph may also signify that fictional horrors can serve as a protective factor against real-life horrors by exposing them for what they are. Having subdued Thompson, Orlok muses, “Is this what I was afraid of?”

While we can gain some insight into Charles Whitman’s motives through his journals, Thompson is a frustrating character because his motives are never explained. However, the contrast between Orlok and Thompson can also be examined in light of psychological theories of the time. In The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues about the So-Called Psychopathic Personality (1941) and its subsequent editions, Harvey M. Checkley argues that whereas many openly neurotic people are deeply good and loving at their core, psychopaths cause tremendous harm because they are able to effectively fit into societal norms. This argument perfectly parallels these characters. Orlok has made a career by nurturing the appearance of evil, albeit on a superficial level. In his personal life, he’s plagued by insecurity. Yet, at his core, he’s a kind and heroic person. In contrast, Thompson has only the appearance of goodness, trustworthiness, and normalcy masking terrifying schemes of destruction.

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The young villain and his sterile surroundings.

Erich Fromm’s theory of the necrophilous personality, first introduced in The Heart of Man: its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and further detailed later in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness , is also pertinent in explaining Thompson’s character. Fromm’s definition of necrophilia is not simply a sexual attraction to corpses, but an attraction to death and destruction for their own sake. Some of the features of character-rooted necrophilia include authoritarianism, the desire to tear apart living things, and fascination with all things mechanical (in this film evidenced by Thompson’s fetishization of guns). As with his inability to differentiate the two-dimensional screen image of Orlok with the man himself, it seems that Thompson doesn’t view his victims as real, or at least not as human. At one point he tells the gun store clerk that he’s going to “hunt some pigs.” Thompson’s use of firearms to dispatch his victims is cold, distant, clinical, and impersonal. This is visually represented by the icy hues and sterile surroundings in Thompson’s scenes. In contrast,  Orlok fits within Fromm’s description of the biophilous (life-loving) personality, reflected by the warm, earthy hues in his scenes. Orlok’s home is a bit more ornate, messy, and flawed…as he is. Extrapolate Orlok’s characteristics to the genre he represents, and again, there is an indication that the horror genre is on the side of life.

The King In Yellow and other meta origins

Image from tvtropes.org

Metafiction is nothing new. Some scholars argue that even ancient texts such as The Odyssey have meta elements. I noticed meta elements in other classic works such as Tom Jones and Tristam Shandy.

In what will be the first and probably last time I mention Jane Austen in this blog, it should be noted that her first novel, Northanger Abbey, was a metafiction satire of horror’s ancestor, the gothic novel. Within the first page, Austen tells us that the protagonist, Catherine, is a fictional character, and that she is determined to be the heroine of her own gothic fiction story. Catherine spends her free time reading books such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and all of her decisions are made through the lens of genre convention.

I’m always discovering new things, so there may be other precedents in horror fiction proper, but the first metafiction horror novel I discovered was The King in Yellow. Prompted by reference to the book in Lovecraft’s essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, I hunted down a pricey copy in the 1990’s, and it was quite a challenge. Now, The King in Yellow is readily available in both print and ebook editions, and has inspired tribute anthologies such as A Season in Carcosa. Perhaps you can thank the popularity of True Detective for bringing it into more mainstream popularity.

Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow was published in 1895 and borrowed concepts from Ambrose Bierce’s Can Such Things Be?: An Inhabitant of Carcosa & Other Stories. In turn, it influenced Lovecraft’s own mythos and films such as John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of MadnessThe King in Yellow is a collection of interconnected short stories about a book called The King in Yellow which is a best-seller that spreads “like an infectious disease” across Europe. People who read the book go insane, believe that they are characters within the book, and in some cases are driven to acts of extreme violence. Although the final stories in the collection lose their way, the first few are effective and disturbing, making this a worthwhile read for fans of horror and weird fiction.

Review: The Dark Tower

First, let me confirm that the new film The Dark Tower differs significantly with the sprawling series written by Stephen King. Major plot points are truncated, and key characters are left out entirely. Rolan’s ka-tet doesn’t exist. The story is told primarily from Jake’s perspective, not Roland’s. Purists may be driven crazy by these omissions and changes. As someone who has read the entire series, I think that aspects of the film adaptation may not be friendly to outsiders, perhaps not relatable.

That said, I don’t understand the negative reviews this film is getting.  Again, I’m glad that I don’t allow such reviews to influence my decision to see movies. The Dark Tower has a mere 18% positive meta-critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet has a 63% positive rating from audience members. This is a big discrepancy. But more importantly, Stephen King liked the adaptation. Keep in mind that King disliked the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of The Shining, which earned near-universal praise from critics. The Dark Tower is true to the spirit of King’s work while The Shining was not.

In the linked article above, King also discusses his approval of casting Idris Elba as Roland. predictably, some fans in the dark corners of the internet disapproved of casting a black actor as a character who is understood to be white. In the book illustrations, Roland is portrayed as white, and this is further reinforced in dialogue in which Detta Walker calls Roland a “honky” and other racist slurs (The Drawing of the Three). However, Roland’s race really isn’t an important factor. The fact is that Idris Elba did a phenomenal job in this film, and I hope he will be in the TV series as rumored.

Roland as portrayed in The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands

Matthew McConaughey is also terrific as the Man in Black. I remember when McConaughey used to be considered conventionally sexy, but gradually transitioned into creepy. I like it.  He’s perfectly cruel in this role.

Matthew McConaughey torments Roland as the Man in Black

Although I had hoped that there would be a film adaptation for each novel, similar to the Harry Potter film series, The Dark Tower included the most essential concepts from the series. If there is to be a TV series, I hope it includes Eddie Dean and Susannah (a.k.a. Detta/Odetta Walker), because the the relationship between Roland and his ka-tet really is the soul of the series.

So yes, I do recommend the movie to anyone with an open mind.

And since we are reviewing “meta” works this month, I have to recommend the Dark Tower novels as well. The film adaptation is not truly meta (although it does give a nod to Pennywise from IT), but the books became increasingly so. In The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands,  we learn that fictional works are windows into very real worlds. One such work is an unsettling children’s book called Charlie the Choo Choo by Beryl Evans, featuring nightmare-fuel illustrations and a story about a sentient train. The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah takes things further by having Roland as his friends meet Stephen King himself. In an especially self-deprecating touch, King gives Roland a copy of his novel Insomnia and Roland promptly throws it in the trash.

Until next time, long days and pleasant nights…

Review: The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones

 

Today, I am covering the Stephen Graham Jones novel, The Last Final Girl, which bears some resemblance to the new Riley Sager novel Final Girls, but is just plain weird.

What both novels have in common is that several “final girls” are thrown together and have to respond to a new series of murders, and perhaps one or more final girl is a murderer or collaborating with the killer.

Beyond that they are very different books. The Last Final Girl is just plain bonkers, and is written in an equally bonkers style. Stephen Graham Jones wrote the entire novel in screenplay format, and this is something that readers will either love or hate. I find it a bit distracting at times, but does help one imagine the story in a cinematic way and almost begs someone to adapt the novel into an actual film.

The story itself is even weirder. The final girls all have names that reference real slasher movies, such as Crystal Blake and Mandy Kane. Jones even invents new genre-savvy verbs, such as the killer “Hoddering” after an intended victim. The fact that the killer is named Billy Jean and wears a Michael Jackson mask is a nice, absurd touch. The plot itself takes place in that strange liminal space between a film and its sequel. What happens to a final girl and her community after the killer is vanquished but before he miraculously recovers and kills again. Hint: one of the final girls nurses him back to health by feeding him burritos.

Slasher film fans will appreciate film references and jokes, but everyone else risks being left in the dark.

 

Final Girls Week: The slasher film is dead; long live the slasher film!

We kick off Meta-Horror Month with Final Girls week, or technically films and novels which  deliberately reference Carol Clover’s concept of the Final Girl.

Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws is considered a landmark work in film criticism and is largely responsible for rehabilitating the reputation of the horror genre as more than an expression of misogyny. Naturally, horror writers and directors love her for it. S&Man (2006), a faux documentary on faux snuff films, features extensive interviews with Clover regarding the popularity of the subgenre. Another film, the horror-comedy Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), repeatedly refers to her theories. Slam poet Daphne Gottlieb converted Clover’s theory into poetry in her Final Girl collection. 

And yet, there has been a virtual explosion of films and novels in the last two years that use the phrase “final girl” or a close variant in the title. With Clover’s book being 25 years old, why did this take so long?

Perhaps more writers and filmmakers are familiar with Clover’s work now than when it was fresh and timely. Let’s face it, post 9-11 horror, and torture films in particular, blew most of the tropes discussed by Clover out of the water. 

Another reason for this resurgence is that the classic 1980’s-style slasher film is dead. The story has been mined from every angle, until is has absolutely nothing new to offer. Sure, people in my age bracket have a certain nostalgia for the slasher film. But these films just aren’t scary anymore. While many people saw Wes Craven’s Scream series as a revitalization of the genre, I saw it as a sign that the genre was in serious trouble. As smart as that series was, it chose to parody and mock the slasher film rather than add something new to it. We are now at a point in time in which Clover’s theories are more interesting than the films themselves. So why play with the remains of a dead genre in an act of cinematic necrophilia when one can make a film about the genre’s analysis instead?

Come back soon for a review of the new Riley Sager novel, Final GIrls. In the meantime, read my review of Clover’s book here.