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Non-Review Review: IT – Chapter Two

IT: Chapter Two is muddled, messy and bloated, particularly in its middle stretch.

The horror sequel opens relatively strong and delivers a satisfying emotional pay-off. Unfortunately, the film’s structure means that it meanders wildly between those two fixed narrative points. Chapter Two runs a muscular two-hours-and-fifty-minutes, a full quarter-of-an-hour longer than the original film’s already impressive run time. In fact, taken together, the two films are more than one-and-a-half times the length of the early nineties miniseries adaptation of the novel. Chapter Two spends a lot of time on repetitive storytelling beats, splitting up the cast so each of the leads has their own identically-structured adventure.

Glowing, glowing… gone.

These structural flaws feel inevitable. Part of what worked so well with IT: Chapter One was the decision to largely eschew the complicated and convoluted mythology that King wove through his beloved doorstopper of a novel. The original film was not concerned with alien invaders or local legends beyond what was strictly necessary, allowing it to offer an extended horror movie riff on Stand by Me, a coming-of-age saga about young teens on the cusp of adulthood. In Chapter Two, that bill comes due. The sequel not only has to do its own heavy lifting, but take on a lot of the world-building the original film mostly ignored.

Indeed, there is a sense that Chapter Two works much better as a companion piece to the earlier film than as a narrative in its own right. Indeed, there is something interesting in the way that, taken as a whole, the two IT films represent the first real cinematic glimpse of Stephen King as an author of the American epic. IT is the story of a group of childhood friends facing a monstrous evil, but it feels much larger than that. Perhaps the most compelling thing about Chapter Two is the manner in which it creates a sense of scale and scope that has previous eluded adaptations of King’s work.

Pennywise, pound foolish.

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Non-Review Review: Pet Sematary

The horror in Pet Sematary is primal and ancient, both literally and figuratively.

The tropes that power Pet Sematary were already familiar and old-fashioned by the time that Stephen King published the book more than a quarter of a century ago. Indeed, there are extended stretches of the novel when Pet Sematary feels like a game of Stephen-King-related mad-libs: a dash of paternal anxiety here, a sense of existential dread about the American wilderness there, a familiar older character to provide exposition thrown in, and a climax where everything gets very brutal very quickly.

“You just take a left at the Pet Seminary.”

Even beyond the sense of Pet Sematary as a collection of familiar Stephen King elements blended together, the novel riffed on familiar genre elements. There was more than a faint whiff of The Monkey’s Paw to the basic plot, the story of a seemingly wondrous device that could resurrect the dead only for the person responsible to realise that their beloved had come back “wrong” – or, as Jud helpfully summarises, that “sometimes dead is better.” (The novel alluded to this more directly with the story of Timmy Baterman, which is consigned to a newspaper clipping in this adaptation.)

Writer Jeff Buhler, along with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, clearly understand that appeal. The script for Pet Sematary makes a number of major alterations to the book’s plot, but most are logical and organic, rooted in the realities and necessities of cinematic storytelling more than the desire to change things for the sake of changing them. For the most part, Pet Sematary revels in the old-fashioned blend of Americana and horror that defines so much of King’s work, the mounting sense of dread and the decidedly pulpy sensibility.

The purr-fect villain.

Pet Sematary only really runs into trouble in its third act, and this is arguably a problem that is carried over from the source material despite the major branching choices that the script makes leading up to that point. The issues with the third act are not those of character or plot, but instead of tempo and genre. In a weird way, these third act issues make Pet Sematary feel like a spiritually faithful adaptation, carrying over something of the essence of the book, for better and for worse.

Pet Sematary is at is strongest when building mood and mounting dread, when offering its own shading on the familiar iconography of a haunted and untamed wilderness. Pet Sematary is at its weakest when it is forced to shape that dread into a more conventional horror movie climax.

Shades of grey.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Alice (Review)

Alice is a misfire.

To be fair, the episode seemed doomed from its original set of premises. Star Trek: Voyager has never been particularly good at capturing the sense of Tom Paris as a restless unreliable rebel. The episodes of Voyager focusing on the character’s rebellious tendencies tend to be spectacular misfires; Ex Post Facto, Investigations, Vis à Vis, Thirty Days. These stories do not play to the strengths of either the writing staff or Robert Duncan McNeill, feeling largely incompatible with the character of Tom Paris as he developed in the wake of Caretaker.

I’ll never get used to not living inside of Alice.

However, Alice literally weds this familiar and unsuccessful premise to another recurring Voyager trope with a less-than-impressive rate of success. It is not enough for Alice to be another story about Tom Paris proving that he has a rebellious streak, that premise has to be woven into a broad science-fiction gothic horror in the style of Threshold or Macrocosm. Indeed, Alice is explicitly a psycho-sexual horror in the mode of Blood Fever or Darkling, inevitably butting up against the difficulties of constructing an episode that is about sex but can never discuss sex.

Alice is flawed from the ground-up, but those flaws are only further revealed in the clumsy execution and the disappointing storytelling. Alice is a very bad piece of television.

A deep-space dust-up.

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60. The Shawshank Redemption (#1)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney and this week with special guest Charlene Lydon, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode along with them.

This time, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption.

Convicted of murdering his wife, Andy Dufresne is sentenced to two life sentences in Shawshank Penitentiary. A harsh and unforgiving prison, Andy struggles to hold on to hope as the years go by.

At time of recording, it was ranked the best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: IT

IT works best as a fusion of weird fiction with a classic coming of age story.

IT is arguably one of Stephen King’s most iconic and influential works. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is perhaps King’s most instantly recognisable creation. King’s work seems to recognise this. The monster clown haunts his fiction, making various appearances in other works, suggesting that the creature is an infection spreading across the author’s vast tableau. There are lots of reasons for IT‘s success and status, but a lot of it comes down to the fact that IT is an encapsulation of many of King’s pet themes and plays to many of King’s strengths.

Bill Skarsgård used his other 98 red balloons on Atomic Blonde.

Director Andrés Muschietti seems to understand this. In fact, IT serves as a smorgasbord of cinematic King adaptations, drawing upon and even quoting from various other successful adaptations of the author’s work. Most notably, IT owes a surprisingly large debt to Stand By Me. The decision to exorcise the “present day” sequences of the novel from this film, leaving them to a potential sequel, means that IT is even more overtly and consciously a coming of age narrative.

However, IT is very much a coming of age horror story, a grotesque and unsettling expression of the nightmares lurking just behind familiar childish fears.

There’s something in water.

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The X-Files – Chinga (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Chinga is the episode of The X-Files that was written by Stephen King.

That is a pretty big deal. Stephen King is one of the most influential American writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He is a writer who has enjoyed tremendous commercial success, but who has also balanced that popularity with considerable respect of critics and academics. His work has permeated popular cultured, and sparked all sorts of analysis and exploration. While no creator of that calibre works without at least some small level of backlash, King is one of the most successful American writers by any measure.

Play time!

Play time!

Writing about King in A Century of Great Suspense Stories, Jeffery Deaver argued that the author “helped free the popular name from the shackles of simple genre writing. He is a master of masters.” As such, he should be quite a comfortable fit for The X-Files. Even aside from any stylistic sensibilities that he might share with the series, King is a creator who manages to consistently producer work that might be dismissed as “genre”, but manages to compete with more prestigious and high-profiler literature.

The X-Files did something similar in the nineties. It was a show that frequently dabbled in cult genres – it was a show that dealt with horror and science-fiction themes on a regular basis. However, thanks to the craftsmanship of those involved, The X-Files was frequently able to compete with more “serious” fare at the major awards ceremonies. Chris Carter worked very hard to prevent the show from being relegated to the horror or science-fiction “ghetto.” It was a show that could slide to high-brow to low-brow over a single act; that was part of what made it so fun.

A bloody disaster...

A bloody disaster…

So landing King was very much a coup for The X-Files. He was one of the best-selling and most prolific American writers of the nineties, with his name all over a wealth of media. All that Chinga really needs to do is exist. It would be next to impossible for Chinga to be anything but “that episode of The X-Files written by Stephen King.” Indeed, it seems almost unreasonable to expect anything more from it. The hype on Chinga was unbelievable – as one might expect from a television show that had bagged one of the most popular fiction writers around.

Chinga is a very flawed piece of television, an episode that feels too much like an early draft than a fully-developed concept. The styles of Chris Carter and Stephen King blend reasonably well, but there is a sense that neither is pushing the other out of their comfort zone. Chinga is a pretty average piece of television, a pretty average Stephen King story, and a pretty average episode of The X-Files. While not necessarily a catastrophic failure, it is hardly a fantastic success.

"Yeah, I'm sure this vacation will be completely uneventful!"

“Yeah, I’m sure this vacation will be completely uneventful!”

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Non-Review Review: Carrie (2013)

Carrie is, for the first half of its runtime, a fairly effective attempt to update Stephen King’s iconic high school horror story about religious repression and teenage issues. While Chloë Grace Moretz isn’t quite as memorable and quite as nuanced as Sissy Spacek was in Brian De Palma’s much-loved original adaptation, she gives a strong central performance. However, the film falls apart a bit as it enters the second half, turning into a large-scale action set piece that feels more like a superhero disaster movie than a psychological teen horror.

There will be blood...

There will be blood…

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