Running time 2hr 15min
WHILE The Dark Tower, subject of a feeble film adaptation last month, is indisputably Stephen King’s heaviest work, It is the master’s most endlessly captivating single novel, packed with unforgettable sequences and moments of raw, taxing darkness.
While it finds us back in territory all too familiar to his readers (small-town New England, in a summer that never QUITE ended), the book juggles ambition and intimacy – if that’s the right word – in equal, enthralling measure, with a ghoulish antagonist who, courtesy of a 1990 miniseries, has earned his (its?) place among the ranks of horror fiction’s great
all-time demons. The phenomenon’s legacy is felt today, from Stranger Things to Stitches to every-evil-clown-flick-ever.
But It’s genius lies in a factor quite apart from its literal monsters – much as Stand By Me was far more than simply a story about four kids taking a hike, It’s most striking terrors (if not necessarily its best-remembered) were to be found in scenes of domestic decay and childhood poverty, as the central city of Derry, Maine, slowly ate itself alive. Pennywise the Clown, the titular menace, is only there to pick off unsuspecting innocents, where a coterie of fiendish bullies and vile parents have already had their way with them; he’s a dreadful beast, yes, but he’s also a mere articulation (if not an agent) of something every bit as real and horrifying going on behind closed doors.
There’s obviously a market for new King adaptations, and 2017’s It benefits gloriously from advances in SFX since this tale was last told. Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise is, therefore, a far more artificial presence (very different from Tim Curry’s version of the character, an act which fell back on madcap physicality and traditional villainy in the absence of tech and funds); that’s not to say he’s not pleasingly ghastly, with the gruesome fate of little Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) an opening scare every bit as cruel and jarring as its 1990 iteration (despite the latter’s immortalisation on YouTube and in countless Internet memes).
Nikolaj Arcel’s Dark Tower grappled poorly with the epic breadth of its source material, and director Andy Muschietti has here avoided that classic pitfall by forsaking the notoriously fluid narrative of King’s novel in favour of an abridged (albeit comprehensive) approach. Gone is the section of the story featuring the heroes’ adult return to Derry; a closing title-card teases of an imminent ‘Chapter Two’, which shall no doubt tie up that loose end. For the meanwhile, we have the six ‘losers’ (played beautifully by the kids, whose juvenile ribbing and banter makes for an immersive, charming watch) and their battle with the malevolent Pennywise, a saga that will see them take on their worst fears and emerge broken
adults from the other end.
Gone, also, are some significant story elements, but the film is, overall, a surprisingly faithful screen effort – at any rate, it’s hard to see how a modern audience would’ve taken an appearance from a magical turtle, and Muschietti has thankfully sidestepped the question. It was by far Stephen King’s most politically incorrect hour, and several controversial episodes have been left out entirely, for whatever reason; it remains, however, a decidedly adults-only affair, a Goonies-esque adventure with bloody chaos and coulrophobia. Its fantastical qualities make it more Nightmare On Elm Street than cover-your-eyes nightmarish – the overwhelming sense of trauma and peril is, for the meanwhile, nowhere in sight, but that does wonders for its accessibility, casting welcome light upon a thick and troubling literary classic. Let’s wait the next instalment out before we pass full judgement…