A new feature from from ctvnews.ca! The Crouse Review is a quick, hot take on the weekend’s biggest movies! This week Richard looks at the coulrophobia of the Stephen King adaptation of “Itr” and some of the biggest and best movies at TIFF.
Clowns are creepy. Their grotesque shiny red lips, baggy suits and weirdly coloured tufts of hair really disturb some people. While most of us see Ronald McDonald as a nice corporate symbol, the eight per cent of the population that suffers from clown-ophobia — more properly called coulrophobia — views him as evil incarnate.
The mere mention of the Insane Clown Posse — a mix of gangsta rap and grease paint — is enough to inspire nightmares in the clown challenged.
Silent screen horror legend Lon Chaney Sr. tried to explain the fear.
“A clown is funny in the circus ring,” he said. “But what would be the reaction to opening a door at midnight and finding the same clown standing there?”
Among the movie standouts in the sub-sub-subgenre of “clown horror” are The Clown at Midnight, wherein a number of attractive youngsters get hacked to death by a psycho in a Bozo costume, and the escaped convicts of Clownhouse, who murder circus clowns, steal their identities and their costumes for a wild killing spree.
Then there’s the self-explanatory Killer Klowns From Outer Space. “They’re not clowns, they’re some sort of animal from another world that look just like our clowns. Maybe their ancients came to our planet centuries ago and our idea of clowns comes from them!”
This weekend a new version of the terrifying Pennywise the Dancing Clown comes to screens. In 1990 Tim Curry brought the glistening-lipped, child-eating creature to life in the TV miniseries It. His performance was so disturbingly realistic that on the DVD commentary his co-stars note they avoided him during the filming.
This weekend Pennywise returns in the big screen adaptation of It. Played by Bill Skarsgård, he is a makeup-clad manifestation of all your fears. He’s is the stuff of nightmares, a shape-shifter who adapts to the insecurities and anxieties of his victims. He taunts the kids — for instance he appears to Eddie the hypochondriac as, “a leper and walking infection” — repelling and luring them with the things that terrify them most. It’s creepy enough to make you rethink your next trip to the circus.
Bozo the Clown he ain’t.
Unlike Curry’s co-stars, the kids of the new It weren’t intimidated by Pennywise— off-screen, at least.
“They tried to keep us apart but when we met him we already knew this guy is just an actor,” said Vancouver-born Finn Wolfhard. “We’re not really freaked out by him. We are in the movie but he’s a really good dude in real life. We love him.”
In fact, most of the cast said clowns were not high on their list of terrifying things.
“I never really got the point of clowns,” said Sophia Lillis. “No offense, clowns. Maybe when I was really young I was afraid of them because they have all this makeup and baggy clothes and give candy to children. It’s a little off-putting.”
Wolfhard agrees. “It is a little off-putting. Maybe it’s because they’re always happy.”
Chosen Jacobs thinks It will trigger a new wave of coulrophobia.
“Our generation lacked a horror film that brought the fear back to clowns. I think now that It is coming out this generation and the next generation will regain that fear. At least we can say we changed the world! That’s our contribution.”
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Of course that’s the line made famous by Franklin D. Roosevelt but it is also the sentiment at the dark heart of “It.”
It’s 1988 in Derry, Maine. To a soundtrack of creepy kid’s choral music, brothers and best friends Bill and Georgie Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher and Jackson Robert Scott) have carefully folded a paper boat and shellacked it with wax so it will float. When little Georgie takes the boat into the street during a rainstorm it gets away from him, ending up in a storm sewer and in the gnarled hands of Pennywise The Dancing Clown a.k.a. It (Bill Skarsgård). Bozo the Clown he ain’t.
Suffice to say, Georgie doesn’t make it back home.
Bill, missing his brother, goes to elaborate lengths to figure out what happened. He builds a replica of the sewer system in hopes of discovering where Georgie may have ended up. He even recruits his “Loser’s Club” pals—New Kids on the Block fan Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the fast talking Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and their newest member Beverly (Sophia Lillis)—to give up there summer holiday to search underground sewer pipes for clues. “It’s the summer! We’re supposed to have fun,” Stan complains. “This isn’t fun. It’s scary and disgusting.”
As other kids go missing it is revealed that weird things have always happened in Derry. People die or disappear there at six times the national average and not just the adults. The numbers are worse for kids and as Bill’s schoolmates start to go missing he feels an urgent need to find out what’s going on, not just for Georgie but for everyone.
“It” is essentially “Stranger Things” with killer clowns. (Or should that be the other way around?) It harkens back to the era of kid lead action horror films like “Goonies” and “Monster Squad,” where preteens swear like sailors as they lose their innocence on screen. It’s a tried and true formula, one ripe with danger, humour, wrapped up with a nostalgic red ribbon. “It” gets it right, balancing an appealing cast of kids with a hint of old-school vulgarity to give the movie a scary edge.
It’s a story about overcoming fears, the power of loyalty and how, even in the most dire of circumstances, love can conquer all—even nasty clowns with glistening lips and rows of sharp teeth. Wedged in between those sentiments are at least one evil clogged drain scene that will make you wish Roto-Rooter got there first, some jump scares and a psychopathic town bully.
Most of all there is the clown, a manifestation of all your fears. Pennywise is the stuff of nightmares, a shape-shifter who adapts to the insecurities and anxieties of his victims. He taunts the kids—for instance he appears to Eddie, the hypochondriac as, “a leper and walking infection”—repelling and luring them with the things that terrify them most. It’s creepy enough to make you rethink your next trip to the circus.
“It” is a tad too long but makes up for its indulgent length with handsome production design and solid performances from the kids, especially Lieberher and Lillis.
In the films Take Shelter and Mud director Jeff Nichols explored themes of social anxiety caused by fear of the unknown. When I suggest that his new movie, Midnight Special, a sci fi road film about a father and a son with special powers, continues that examination he agrees, but only to a point.
“I certainly think you could make that statement and it would be fair,” he says, “but it doesn’t exactly line up with what I was thinking.
“I was thinking about what it is to be a parent. I think being a parent is to have faith in the unknown. You don’t know what your children are going to grow up to be. You don’t know what’s going to happen to them. You don’t know if they are going to make it all the way. You have to have faith in who they can be, who they are developing into. Who they are currently. I think that is what parenthood is and I think that is why there is so much fear and anxiety that comes from being a parent.”
Nichols says he originally came up with the idea for a “sci fi government chase film,” but adds, “That could be really silly so I think it is up to me as a filmmaker to apply these kind of personal feelings I have and my relationships to the locations and to the world at large to try and ground this film and give it some kind of actual purpose.”
To complete the picture Nichols cast Michael Shannon as the father. A frequent collaborator, Shannon has starred in all Nichols’s films, including the upcoming Loving.
“I think he makes me a better writer, especially in a film like Midnight Special where I’m trying to reduce the need for backstory to be delivered through monologues. When you have a person like Mike he fills all the spaces between the lines with all that subtext. He carries it on his face, in his continence. He is the complete story and he doesn’t even have to say a word.”
Midnight Special is the extraordinary kind of sci fi movie that teases out the information bit by bit. We learn enough to stay involved and are treated to several spectacular and exciting scenes along the way, but when it comes time to put a period on the story, Nichols instead uses an ellipsis in a metaphysical ending that will mean different things to different people. It owes a nod to his old hero Stephen Spielberg but feels distinctly like a Jeff Nichols film.
“If you look at ET and the bicycle flying and all these other moments that are classic moments in Spielberg films, they are wonderful. I don’t do that. For better and for worse I don’t do that. Maybe it’s because I live in the modern age and am a bit more of a pessimist. I don’t consider myself a cynic. I like films that ultimately are hopeful but there is a different kind of conclusions in my films than his films. I think my films point toward hope but don’t fully embrace it. I think that is the difference. It could also be the difference between a blockbuster and whatever this is going to be, but that is who I am as a person.”
“Y’all have no idea what you’re dealing with, do you?” asks cult leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) of his FBI interrogators in “Midnight Special.” They don’t, and for much of the running time of the film, you won’t either. Director Jeff Nichols has made a wilfully obtuse, but fascinating, sci fi drama that will keep you guessing, even after the credits have rolled.
The movie begins as an apparent missing child story. We’ve seen the scene before. A dowdy motel room, armed kidnappers, a child hidden under a sheet. What’s unexpected is how agreeable the eight-year-old Alton Meyers (Jaeden Lieberher) is. He hugs Roy (Michael Shannon) and sits quietly in the backseat as Lucas (Joel Edgerton) drives.
Seems Roy is the boy’s biological father and the men have kidnapped the boy from The Ranch, a cult compound run by Brother Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). The goal is to allow the boy to fulfill his destiny, but what exactly is that?
Is he a prophet? A saviour? Or a weapon, as the FBI and NSA officer Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) believe?
The boy has powers. Visible spectrums of light come from his eyes. In other words, the kid has gifts and rays shoot from his eyeballs. While on The Ranch would also speak in tongues. To the cult his is ravings have become scripture, to the FBI they appear to contain highly guarded secrets of national security. The date Friday March 6 looms heavy in the text, and with the date fast approaching the FBI want to know what might happen on the day.
“What do you think will happen on March 6?” they ask one cult member.
“If Alton is with us we will be saved,” she replies.
As the FBI amp up their chase for the boy, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Roy’s ex and Alton’s mother, joins in to help her son complete his journey. “The date and place is everything,” says Roy. “It’s all we have.”
“Midnight Special” is a special kind of sci fi film. The story is more about fear of the unknown and belief than flying saucers or little green men. Mulder and Scully would love it. Director Nichols has belief, belief that his audience will stay with a movie that doesn’t make it easy for them, that doesn’t stick to Robert McKee’s golden rules of script writing. Instead it teases out the information but only to a point. We learn enough to stay involved and are treated to several spectacular and exciting scenes along the way, but when it comes time to put a period on the story, Nichols instead uses a an ellipsis in a metaphysical ending that will mean different things to different people.
This is a, “Buy the ticket, take the ride,” movie. Is it satisfying? Yes, if you don’t expect answers to all the questions the film raises. It’s more “2001: A Space Odyssey” than “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” although this movie does share Klaatu’s cool eye lasers. Both are good, interesting pictures, but one is unconventional and brave enough to ask more than it answers.