IT: Chapter 2 (2019)

So there I am, trying to put together my end of the year list, and I’m trying to find the Swampflix review of IT: Chapter 2 so that I can link back to it, and to my surprise, it’s nowhere to be found. Somehow, this one managed to fly completely under everyone’s radar, even though I went and saw it opening weekend, and was a bit more fond of it than the majority of filmgoers, it seems. And then I figured, well, sometimes you just have to do it yourself.

IT: Chapter 2 continues the story of the Losers Club: Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher in 1989, James McAvoy in the present*) is now a semi-successful horror writer who’s bad at writing endings; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard in 1989, Bill Hader in the present) is a well-known stand-up comedian; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis in 1989, Jessica Chastain in the present) is a fashion designer saddled to an abusive husband; Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor in 1989, Jay Ryan in the present) is a chiseled, handsome architect who runs his own firm; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer in 1989, James Ransone in the present) is a risk assessment specialist for an insurance firm and is married to a woman just like his mother; Stanley Uris (Wyatt Olef in 1989, Andy Bean in the present) is an accountant who loves puzzles; and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs in 1989, Isaiah Mustafa in the present) is the librarian of Derry. It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club first did battle with the ancient evil being known alternatively as Pennywise the clown or the titular IT (a returning Bill Skarsgård), and IT has returned from its cycle of hibernation to spread terror anew. Mike, as the only person to have remained in Derry and thus the only one who still remembers the particulars of what happened in the summer of 1989, recognizes the rising tide of general inhumanity and indecency in Derry that portends Pennywise’s return and calls on his old friends to do battle with IT once more.

Man, people really, really hated this one, didn’t they? I guess I can see why, but I’m also not really sure what anyone was expecting. IT is a novel that could be adapted a dozen times, and there’s always going to be one shining (no pun intended) truth about it: the Losers Club is always going to be more interesting when the constituents are children, and the “adult” half of the narrative is always going to pale in comparison. There’s just no way around it; it’s baked into the narrative’s very structure. That’s even kind of the point: the extradimensional entity we call Pennywise feeds on fear, and it prefers the fear of kids because children’s fears (killer clowns, abusive parents, monsters) are specific and easy to manipulate, while adult fears (not being able to provide for a family, dying alone, being trapped in a loveless relationship) are abstract and amorphous. Director Andy Muschietti made the right call here by opting to forego the pants-soiling horror of the first film and channel more comedy into this one, although how effective you found that to be does seem to vary from person to person. There’s verisimilitude in that, though: as a child, you’re powerless against the monsters you perceive in the world, and your best hope is to hide under your bed until the “monsters” go away; as an adult, one of the only real ways to defend against one’s anxieties and fears is to minimize and trivialize them, to turn them into jokes. Unlike everyone else, I thought that the Juice Newton needle drop was a delight! Whether or not the humor of that lands for you as a viewer is subjective, of course, but to make the defanging of horror through comedy part of the film’s actual text is fairly clever.

There are legitimate issues here. My first thought after exiting the theater was “Wow, that was a really good Nightmare on Elm Street movie.” Given that Freddy Krueger first appeared on screens in 1984 and Stephen King first started work on IT in 1981 and finished it four years later, it’s unlikely that the film was an influence on the book, but the potential for NOES to affect IT 2 is left up to the interpretation. Both boogeyman primarily prey on adolescents and children, and both can be defeated by their respective victims by refusing to give in to their fear (although a longer series of films means that successive filmmakers have had to create new methods of disposing of Freddy). This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that the climax and ending of this film is pretty similar to the ending of the first one, especially given that the adaptations of IT (wisely) choose to exise any references to Maturin the extradimensional turtle and reinterprets the Ritual Of Chüd as the tradition of a (fictional) First Nations group called the Shokopiwah. So, at the end of 2017’s IT, the kids overcome their fears and defeat Pennywise. And then at the end of IT: Chapter 2, they, uh, do the same thing again. But, like, more this time.

But here’s something that a lot of people may not like to hear: that’s okay. This movie has a distinct Dream Warriors feel to it, and given that both Dream Warriors and Dream Child feature the return of Amanda Krueger to assist in the defeat of her evil son (spoilers, I guess), there’s precedent for this kind of thing. I understand that when people go back to a franchise, what they want is more of the samethat’s the reason that over half of the Marvel movies feature villains that are just dark reflections of the hero, no matter how varied the individual films might be. Your audience is going to experience a series of diminishing returns if you’re not able to put forth something new over a long period of time, but when we’re looking at two films that exist purely as a diptych, it’s not a crime for them to metaphorically “rhyme” with one another. I’ve seen a lot of complaints that this film turns too episodic in its middle point, when each surviving member of the Losers Club goes off on their own individual talismans for their fight against IT, but I like that each thing that the characters seek out is a kind of anti-MacGuffin, in that they are ultimately irrelevant to the plot but are significant to the characters. The individual moments that we return to the kids we got to know in the first film and see them through the eyes of the adult selves do a lot more character work than the film is given credit for. These are people who have worked so hard to put their childhood traumas in the rearview, to distance themselves from their miserable and deadly youth both physically and mentally, that they let those traumas control them still. Beverly marries a man who is abusive, like her father; Eddie marries a woman who seems identically overbearing and over-attentive to his mother (down to the fact that they’re played by the same actress); Mike has literally never moved on. One could even interpret Bill’s inability to satisfactorily conclude a novel as a metaphor for the lack of closure he has surrounding the death of his younger brother Georgie. Even if the ritual that requires these talismans is ultimately useless, the act of finding them and remembering what happened to the Losers Club in 1989 is integral to their ability to fight back as adults and finally destroy IT. I found the plot sufficiently engaging that I was never bored; others may have felt the film’s length, but I was along for the ride from start to finish. There wasn’t a single other movie this year where I saw myself as much as in the scene with young Richie asks another boy, on whom he clearly has a crush, to play another arcade game with him, only for the other boy’s interest turn immediately to false disgust and name-calling when bully Henry Bowers shows up.

There are some complaints with which I can agree, however. The monster living in Bev’s old house isn’t very convincing when it moves from shadowed elderly woman to CGI beast; in fact, much of the CGI here is slightly substandard, although Spider-Pennywise looks pretty great in the finale. The way that the film dealt with Stanley’s fateful decision leaves a bit to be desired as well, given that the film not only forgives him for the choice that he makes but ultimately exalts it, which is capital-b Bad. Finally, although I’m never opposed to a Peter Bogdanovich cameo, I’m not sure what the point of including a scene at the beginning with Bill’s wife Audra was if (unlike the novel) she was never going to appear again. But other than those few quibbles, this is a pretty solid sequel, with some truly standout scenes. In particular, both the scenes in which we see Pennywise murder children are spectacularly well done, and don’t shy away from how horrible a thing it is when a child dies (it’s worth noting that Doctor Sleep also did this). The gay hate crime that starts the film is also a perfect reintroduction to the idea that when IT rises, it does so at least in part through the complicity of others and the bystander effect; compare it to the moment in the first film in which an elderly neighbor looks down to the street where poor Georgie was just standing, sees a huge amount of blood, and then goes about her business without questioning it. The same thing happens here to the couple who are bashed, and reminds us that in the years since 1989, hatred for and violence against LGBTQIA individuals may have decreased and support for queer causes and individuals may have ostensibly increased, that kind of freedom isn’t experienced by a large portion of queer people living in huge swaths of America outside of the coasts and other urban areas.

So yeah. Don’t believe the hype backlash.

*The “present” of the film is apparently late summer/early autumn 2016, just to be clear. I assume this is because there’s only room for one monstrous clown to be in power at a time.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Terrifier (2018)

When reviewing modern, cheap-o horror films, it’s easy to wax nostalgic about the practical effects of yesteryear and how much has been lost since the genre has slipped into excessive reliance on CGI. Every now & then a film like The Predator or The Void will remind me that practical gore effects wizardry is not all that’s required to pull off an entertaining horror movie, that those foundational techniques must be deployed in service of a worthwhile creative project. This year’s clown-themed microbudget gore fest Terrifier was my latest nostalgia check in this regard, and perhaps the most significant one of my lifetime. The film’s director, Damien Leone, is an exceptionally talented practical effects nerd who knows how to make the gore makeup trickery of horror past sing beautifully on the screen. Unfortunately, his gross-out gore effects wizardry is wasted on a creatively, morally defunct project unworthy of his artistry. Early in Terrifier I was delighted by the reminder of just how far practical effects craftsmanship can carry even the cheapest, flimsiest of genre fare. However, another reminder crept up in its interminable 80min runtime: the oft-repeated epiphany that the virtue of gore & sinew has its own limitations, that my nostalgia for this artistry should be kept in check.

Terrifier doesn’t have much of a plot to speak of, nor does it even really have a premise. The film is mostly built around a character—a murderous antagonist, Art the Clown. Unlike other recent, superior killer clown movies like Clown or IT, the film’s setting & themes do very little legwork to justify why its killer is dressed as a clown; he just does so because clowns are creepy. That justification is initially more than enough, as Art the Clown’s basic design, fashion, and demeanor are so absurdly horrific that the film more than earns the indulgence. His old-timey black & white mime drag makes him feel like an ancient, supernatural Evil. His mugging, toothy smile reveals blood-gushing gum rot. He carries around a black plastic garbage bag of torture instruments like a dumpster-dwelling magician – tools he uses to pull of such clownish pranks as sawing women in half, converting severed heads into bloody jack-o-lanterns, and writing his own name in shit. Art the Clown is a wonderfully terrifying creation that is almost so deeply horrifying that he inspires laughter instead of screams, just in admiration for the audacity. The visual artistry of that character is so on point that the microbudget, amateurly rendered world he invades functions only to accentuate the achievement; he obviously belongs in a better movie, something that only becomes more apparent as he selects & dismembers his victims.

Where Terrifer loses me is in its gleefully cruel indulgence in misogyny, which often manifests as an open mockery of women. It’s a gradual ramping-up of gendered condescension that starts subtly enough with digs against the vanity of social media selfies, the vapidity of “sexy” Halloween costumes, and the archetypal characterization of college-age women as drunken, reckless flirts. Along with the exponential trajectory of the gore, these misogynist touches only worsen as the film goes along, until Art the Clown is mutilating women’s genitals at length in torture porn excess and, arguably worse, wearing their body parts as costumes to mince around in mockery of his victims’ femme demeanor. These are despicable acts perpetrated by a serial killer clown, so they might be justifiable in a depiction-does-not-equal-endorsement argument, but the movie lays no foundational support to offer context or meaning to the cruelty. Since there is no thematic texture to Terrifier beyond “Killer clown tortures hot naked women on Halloween night,” the torture & mockery of women becomes the entire substance of the text. Horror has already seen more than enough condescension, objectification, and destruction of women for this continuation to serve any purpose beyond meaningless cruelty, and it’s a shame that’s the effect all the film’s phenomenal practical-gore craftsmanship was sunk into.

Terrifier is an excellent gore & makeup effects showcase, but ultimately too dumb & too empty to get away with being this cruel. I’d totally be down for this microbudget backyard gore fest aesthetic if it were either fun or purposeful, but at some point the torture-porn wallowing & open mockery of women crossed a line for me and it just became miserable to sit through. This is a great business card for Damien Leone as a makeup effects artist, but as a film it’s a total disappointment. It’s only useful for its illustration of the limitation of practical effects craftsmanship, which can only get you so far without a sense of purpose to guide it.

-Brandon Ledet

Quick Change (1990)

For years, I’ve been curious about the New York City-set heist comedy Quick Change because of a single, isolated image: Bill Murray robbing a bank while dressed like a birthday clown. Since at least as far back as Rushmore, Murray has been perpetually playing a sad clown type in nearly all of his onscreen roles, so it seemed too perfect that there was a film out there where he made the archetype literal. Unfortunately, Murray The Clown does not last too long into Quick Change‘s runtime. It makes for a wonderfully bizarre image, but the bank-robbing clown sequence is only a short introduction to the film’s larger plot. As a heist film, Quick Change does not put much stock into the intricate difficulties of robbing a bank in New York City; it’s more concerned with the complications of making away with the loot in a city that resembles an urbanized Hell. As the tagline puts it, “The bank robbery was easy. But getting out of New York was a nightmare.”

The cliché statement “New York City itself is a character in the film” usually means that a movie uses the rich, multicultural setting of the city to breathe life into the background atmosphere, usually by including a large cast of small roles from all walks of NYC life. In Quick Change, New York City is a character in that it’s a malicious villain, going out of its way to destroy the lives of the film’s bank-robbing anti-hero. In a media climate stuffed with so many gushing love letters to the magic of New York, Quick Change is fascinating as a harshly critical screed trying to tear the city down, which is an impressively bold perspective for unassuming mid-budget comedy. The birthday clown bank heist is certainly the best-looking & most impressively choreographed sequence of the film, especially in the gradual reveal that Murray had two insiders helping him pull off the robbery while hiding in plain sight as hostages (Geena Davis & Randy Quaid). The dynamic among this trio doesn’t hold as much emotional weight as the film requires it to, but they are amusingly dwarfed by the complex shittiness of a larger city that has trapped them with a never ending series of obstacles between them & the airport. Murray explains to his cohorts, in reference to the police on their tails, “Our only hope is that they’re mired in the same shit we have to wade in every day.” This filthy, crime-ridden, pre-Giuliani New York is crawling with reprobates always on the verge of sex & violence. Passersby whistle at & ogle Geena Davis and express disappointment when strangers nearly die but pull through. Mobsters, construction workers, and fascist bus drivers make simple tasks complex ordeals. Mexican immigrants joust on bicycles with sharpened garden tools. There’s a hideous, hateful side of the city waiting to reveal itself at every turn, which the movie posits as a facet of daily life in the Big Rotten Apple.

Quick Change falls at an interesting midpoint in Bill Murray’s career, halfway between the comedy megastar days of Ghostbusters & Stripes and the serious artist collaborations with auteurs like Wes Anderson & Sofia Coppola. Once Jonathan Demme dropped out as the film’s director, Murray himself stepped in as co-director (along with his partner in the elephant-themed road comedy Larger than Life, Howard Franklin) and you can see why it was important for him to hold onto the project in that way. Quick Change was not a commercial hit (despite positive reviews), but it does a good job of allowing Murray to play to his strengths as a downtrodden, put-upon cynic while still adhering to the general aesthetic of a commercially-friendly late 80s comedy (which unfortunately includes gay panic & racial stereotype humor in its DNA). A more interesting film might have held onto his birthday clown costuming for longer into the runtime, even as he struggled to escape the chaotic nastiness of New York City at large, but as a transitional piece between too radically different points in Murray’s career the movie is admirably goofy & bizarre. It even has a kind of cultural longevity in the way it includes then-young actors like Tony Shalhoub, Phil Hartman, and Kurtwood Smith among the general population of the ruffians of New York, a city the movie clearly hates.

-Brandon Ledet

IT (2017)

One of the more exciting trends in the last few years has been the significant uptick in artsy fartsy horror productions. Our last two Movie of the Year selections for this site, for instance, were It Follows & The Witch, with plenty of titles like It Comes at Night, Raw, The Babadook, and The Neon Demon filling out the ranks below them in what’s starting to feel like a legitimate low budget horror renaissance. With this embarrassment of riches on hand, it’s easy to lose track of the few stray successes that have cropped up in mainstream horror production, since it’s easier now than it has been in a very long time to favor the underdog pictures over their major studio competition. The most recent adaptation of Stephen King’s 10,000 page novel IT is an excellent wake-up call to the value of mainstream horror filmmaking done right. IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. Even more so than well-received franchises like The Conjuring, Sinister, and Insidious, IT fulfills the major studio promise that big budget horror filmmaking can still be intense, memorable, and above all else fun. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of “elevated” horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions.

Seven middle school dorks suffer the worst summer of their lives when their problems balloon larger than the usual abuses laid on them by bullies & villainous adults to include a hundreds-of-years-old curse that haunts their small, suburban town. IT converts the childhood nostalgia pangs usually reserved for the 1950s to a more currently appropriate 1980s setting. Inconsequential references to New Kids on the Block, “Where’s the beef?” commercials, and Tim Burton’s Batman slightly update the material’s Scary Stand By Me aesthetic, but its sense of small town Americana feels timeless, mostly untouched by then-contemporary pop culture. The Losers Club avoids contact with their school’s feral teen bullies and their homes’ emotionally & physically abusive adults by hiding out at The Quarry or in the library. Their inner circle is a protective shield against the evils of bigotry, sexual trauma, physical violence, etc. that haunt the larger world, but struggles to stand up to the more metaphysical evil that drives those real world terrors, the titular “It.” A centuries-old demonic force responsible for generational catastrophes that befall the same town’s children every few decades, “It” shows itself in this 1980s context in the form of missing, abducted children. Adults remain in a daze as their children disappear, content to paper over each “missing” poster with the next one down the line, showing no enthusiasm for determining the source of the epidemic. As the ancient evil creeps closer to abducting their own members, The Losers Club are compelled to defeat “It” on their own without the help of clueless adults in a climactic Good vs. Evil showdown. They even find a physical manifestation of “It” they can focus their energy on destroying: a sewer-dwelling birthday clown named Pennywise.

Pennywise The Dancing Clown (a heavily CGI’d Bill Skarsgård) crystallizes The Loser Club’s childhood fears into more tangible iconography than the larger-looming traumas that haunt their private & public lives: clowns (duh), basements, darkness, isolation, and so on. His individual scares work with the routine precision of a rotary dial. Children slowly approach personalized manifestations of their respective fears with a cautious, quiet curiosity until a jump scare releases the tension and the rotary wheel is dialed back for another tense build. IT is a collection of haunted house attractions (sometimes literally) in this way, relying more on the thrill of individual scares & set pieces than overall atmospheric dread. The demonic clown that personifies these horrors with a familiar, if grotesque face is an excellent anchor for its more general, community-wide evils that would usually take several hours of mini-series sprawl or (in King’s case) hundreds of pages of exposition to fully cover in a satisfying way. Smartly, IT doesn’t afford much screentime to mythology outside some light library research & examination of old town maps. Instead, it builds the collective friendships & flirtations of The Losers Club as a single group unit and then cyclically breaks down their ranks into weakened, individual members through the routine of its jump scares. There’s an impressive efficiency in this approach that allows room for isolated scares to properly breathe without sacrificing the pace of the group narrative, with Pennywise’s Evil Clown antics & red balloon calling card serving as an essential lynchpin to the whole enterprise. As fascinating as the more intangible horrors of IT can be, it really helps that the story is also streamlined as a Children vs. Killer Clown narrative to keep things relatively grounded.

While director Andrés Muschietti does succeed in boiling a strange, sprawling narrative into a manageable mainstream horror package, he also allows himself to indulge in IT‘s more surreal, intangible menace in the background details. Pennywise’s drifting irises, the paradoxical positioning of background extras, and a peripheral television broadcast that encourages children to play in the sewers with their friends all subvert the more routine, by the books horror thrills of the jump scares in the foreground. One scene involving a malfunctioning slide projector in particular fully delivers on Pennywise’s potential as a metaphysical being, allowing “It” to take an outsized physical form through a distorted beam of light in what has to be one of the most striking images from any feature film this year, mainstream or otherwise. The movie also impresses in its R-rated willingness to deliver on its children-in-peril threats, tearing out young tykes’ limbs and sinking knives & fangs deep into their flesh. This onscreen violence nicely counterbalances coming of age hallmarks like a flirtatious skinny dipping sequence & a team-building housecleaning montage lifted directly from IT‘s 80s reference points to create something both warmly familiar & genuinely dangerous-feeling. While certainly a straightforward, mainstream horror affair built more on elaborate scare mechanisms than artsy fartsy atmosphere, IT doesn’t just function as a middle school-set slasher featuring a creepy clown with endless rows of sharpened teeth & red balloons. The movie’s more adventurous, unnerving touches may lurk in the background, but they’re essential to the overall effect. Its Scary Stand By Me veneer is deceptively simple, but highly effective, leaving plenty of room for more ethereal horror to creep in at the edges. If nothing else, IT is a succinct, revitalizing argument that Big Budget Horror might be dormant, but is neither toothless nor obsolete.

-Brandon Ledet

Dream Lover (1994)

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Thrillers and James Spader are two of my favorite things, but they do not come together harmoniously in Dream Lover. The film’s director, Nicholas Kazan, seemed to be more interested in making this a chic, sexy movie instead of a genuine psychological thriller and that was a bad move on his part. Many thrillers, especially those in the early 90s, have sexual elements that enhance their appeal, but something went terribly wrong with this one. Dream Lover isn’t a well-balanced film, but it was sort of enjoyable because it was so crappy (hence the Camp Stamp).

Ray Reardon (James Spader) is a successful businessman that becomes instantly attracted to Lena Mathers (Mädchen Amick), a beautiful woman he meets at an art gallery. They partake in a passionate love affair and after sleeping together a few times decide to tie the knot. Of course, after marrying Lena and not knowing much about her past, Ray finds himself in a marriage filled with mystery and deception. He has recurring clown nightmares that reflect his crumbling love life and I absolutely hated them. They didn’t blend in with the rest of the film and are insanely annoying. It quickly becomes obvious that Lena is psychotic and after Ray’s money, but her plan to get her hands on his money doesn’t surface until the end of the movie. Thankfully, Kazan allows the audience to have a little bit of fun attempting to figure out Lena’s diabolical plan.

Uncovering the mystery of Lena’s scheme was a bit fun, but the film was ultimately a very unsatisfying, predictable thriller. There weren’t many surprises or unexpected twists, which are some basic components to a decent thriller. Spader was the best thing about the film because his acting was flawless (as always), but it wasn’t enough to save the film from falling into the depths of bad movie Hell.

Dream Lover is currently streaming on Netflix.

-Britnee Lombas