Happy Death Day – Film Review

It’s a rare occasion when a great performance manages to elevate an otherwise sucky movie. The likes of Nicholas Cage and Eva Green have made careers out of the art – but very few others have managed to pop up out of the mess and do something truly special to make their movie watchable. Jessica Rothe does just that in Happy Death Day, her full-blooded performance turning an otherwise forgettably bloodless teen slasher movie into a genuine thrill.

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Rothe plays Teresa – or Tree for short – an irresponsible college student whose birthday – a day she already loathes – gets off to the worst possible start when she wakes up hungover in the dorm room of her adorably dorky one-night-stand. Naturally, things get progressively worse for Tree in the ensuing 24 hours as she endures repeated calls from her disappointed dad, snarky snipping from her sorority sisters and the needy advnaces of her sexually confused ex. Oh yeah, and she gets murdered in a campus underpass by a baby-faced psychopath. But then she wakes up, stuck in the same day, unable to to break the cycle until she finds her killer.

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Few surprises lay ahead in this slasher horror meets teen comedy as Tree naively barrels into every cliche in the horror cannon in her attempt to Live.Die.Repeat her way to uncovering her killer’s identity. There’s enough walking through darkly lit corridors and fleeing into obvious dead ends that genre aficionados will likely suffer a repetitive strain injury from the amount of eye rolling they’ll be doing. The lack of invention wouldn’t be so problematic if Tree’s many deaths weren’t so scare-free and gore-less. That’s the key flaw with this Groundhog Day-aping format: we already know she’ll wake up again so we have no reason to fear her next impending demise – especially as it appears it’ll be largely painless.

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Thankfully, Rothe is the movie’s saving grace. Whether she’s strutting across a college campus in the nude, delivering brilliantly bitchy one-liners with venomous aplomb or going full Sarah Connor in her attempts to defeat her killer, Tree is a fireball of badass energy that actually makes the movie a fun, spirited watch for 90 minutes. It’s also pretty refreshing to see a female action hero being so unafraid to be unlikeable and confident in her sexuality – at least until she’s bizarrely slut-shamed by an incomprehensible third act twist. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie doesn’t share her boldness.

Runtime: 96 mins (approx.)
Director: Christopher Landon
Screenwriter: Scott Lobdell
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken

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Gunpowder – TV Review

“No more swords, no more horses – and maybe I can cut my hair.” So Kit Harrington reportedly demanded of roles inbetween turns as Game of Thrones’ resident auntie-romancer Jon Snow. Cue much sword wielding, horse riding and an impressive mane as Harrington seeks to transfer his brooding charms to BBC1 for Gunpowder, a bleak historical drama about the plot to blow up the House of Lord in 1605.

But while the King of the North might be on familiar territory, the same can’t be said for the rest of us. Despite commemorating the event each year by setting fire to old kitchens and paying through the nose for whimsical pyrotechnic displays, it’s likely many of us know next to nothing about the real events of the gunpowder plot.

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For starters, Harrington isn’t even playing Guy Fawkes, who was really just the fall guy for the plotters after being caught guarding barrels of explosives beneath Westminster all those years ago. Instead, he stars as his real-life ancestor Robert Catesby, the true mastermind behind the plot whose role has largely avoided the eyes of history up to this point.

That the true story has gone untold for so long is surprising, for it’s a tale ripe dripping with dramatic potential. Scripted by Top Boy’s Ronan Bennett, the show draws us into an expensively mounted, relentlessly grim world of religious persecution, where stately homes are routinely ransacked by the King’s guard and Catholic priests are forced to cower in secret holes for preaching the word of God.

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Gunpowder doesn’t shy away from revealing the gruesome reality of this period. One particularly unpleasant sequence sees Catesby’s elderly aunt stripped naked and slowly crushed to death in front of a baying mob, followed moments later by a boyish priest being disembowelled and dismembered.

So why, given its obvious pedigree and rich source material, does the drama underwhelm? Part of the reason is the aforementioned bleakness. The first episode is unrelentingly grim, full of stoney faced characters either being brutally tortured or brooding over the state of the country. Perhaps such horrific scenes are important in establishing what sets Catesby and his conspirators on their path towards an act of terrible revenge, but it hardly makes for enjoyable Saturday night entertainment.

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The story also suffers by trying to hard to cover all angles. The flaw in dramatising a little-known period of history is that the audience need events to be put into context for them. That leaves episode one with a lot a heavy lifting to do, meaning there’s little time to get under the skin of its characters. And that’s a shame because the performances are uniformly excellent – look out for a grandly malevolent turn by Mark Gatiss as arch schemer Lord Robert Cecil.

The fireworks may be still to come, of course – the plot has barely begun to be plotted by the episode’s end, leaving plenty of scope for the action to pick up in the remaining two instalments. But if Gunpowder continues on its current trajectory, its plot is in danger of being scuppered before it’s even had a chance to light the fuse.

The Snowman – Film Review

The body of a desirable young woman artfully displayed at a crime scene. A tauntingly sadistic serial killer with an offbeat calling card. And a drunken, rulebook-shredding cop with a penchant for flattering winter wear. Director Tomas Alfredson has dusted off every moth-eaten crime drama cliche he can find for this half-baked adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman. But while the latest Scandi-noir thriller certainly has the look of a classic crime drama, dig a little deeper and you’ll find little more than a hackneyed murder mystery lacking in pace and originality.

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Michael Fassbender is Harry Hole, a booze addicted detective and forgetful father-figure whose once promising career hangs in the balance unless he can find a new case to help him get back on track. Fortunately for him, plucky new recruit Kathrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) lets him tag along on the case of a missing woman whose body is found near a freshly built snowman. Needless to say, there’s more to the crime than meets the eye, as the mismatched duo uncover links to a previously unsolved cold case.

Scripted by Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini – who penned the Oscar winning screenplay for Drive – and directed by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s Alfredson, the early signs were promising for this adaptation of the seventh of Nesbo’s Harry Hole novels. Yet while Alfredson beautifully captures the breathtaking isolation Oslo’s icy landscape, almost everything else about this film is a tangled mess.

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Many of its problems stem from a script that feels cobbled together out of disparate parts that don’t quite mesh. The investigation feels like a long slog through the snowy wilderness as the plot stumbles between different timelines that have little connective tissue between them. As a result, the resolution to the case fails to have the desired impact, offering only tenuous links rather than the devastating revelations intended.

Alfredson also struggles to gain a firm grasp of the film’s tone. The director displays a David Fincher-esque eye for macabre imagery – a shot of child’s toy drenched in blood is particularly unsettling. Yet this sits uncomfortably alongside the quirkier elements of Alfredson’s style, such as the police force’s anachronistic portable tablets, which are bulkier than most TV sets, or any scene involving Val Kilmer’s hammy detective, who appears to be acting in an entirely different film.

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Still, at least Kilmer can claim to be having fun with his role, which is more than can be said for the rest of the cast. The Snowman boasts a startling supporting cast, including the likes of J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones and Chloë Sevigny, but such talents are rarely afforded time to make an impact, playing a conveyor belt of unlikely suspects and easy chicken fodder for the real killer. Fassbender also struggles, failing to truly sell the personal turmoil Hole suffers in trying to solve the murders – even if he does inevitably look the part as handsomely dishevelled anti-hero.

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It’s Rebecca Ferguson who really shines as typically overzealous rookie Bratt. The revelation of what drives her reckless desperation to find the killer is the film’s most powerfully devastating moment and it’s a shame her character is inexplicably sidelined during the film’s final third, her impulsive actions robbing her of the opportunity for revenge.

If the intention was for this film to kick-start a franchise for Oslo’s finest detective, The Snowman is an abominable misfire. There’s little in this lacklustre and weightless thriller to suggest there’s any reason for Fassbender to dig out his tatty green duffle coat anytime soon. Perhaps he can find a place to hang it up next to his Assassin’s Creed garb…

Runtime: 119 mins (approx.)

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Screenwriters: Peter Straugan, Hossein Amini

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Val Kilmer, Toby Jones

Blade Runner 2049 – Film Review

If reviving the Star Wars franchise seemed a near-Herculean task, spare a thought for Dennis Villeneuve. Revitalising the superlative space saga might’ve had its challenges, but at least its legion of fans were of one mind about their expectations. In creating this long-awaited follow-up to Blade Runner, Villeneuve faced a much tougher assignment, its diehard supporters having spend the past 35 years pouring over every iteration of the sci-fi classic, endlessly debating the plot’s myriad mysteries. While Villeneuve wisely steers clear of offering any definitive answers to those questions, there’s no doubt Blade Runner 2049 defies even the loftiest of expectations.

Scripted by Michael Green and Hampton Fancher – who also penned the original – 2049 unsurprisingly picks up three decades after the first film. The intervening years have not been kind to Earth: the climate has collapsed and the wealthiest citizens have abandoned ship for the off-world colonies, leaving only the poorest, who survive on synthetic gruel and the companionship of holographic call girls.

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The Tyrell Corporation has also fallen, bought out by the Jared Leto-led Wallace Corporation, who’ve created a brand new line of replicants, more compliant than the Nexus-6 models thanks to the eradication of troublesome features like emotions or free will. Ryan Gosling’s Agent K is one of the new breed, a blade runner tasked with hunting down and retiring older models. His latest mission leads K to an encounter with Dave Bautista’s protein farmer where he makes a startling discovery that causes him to question his own existence and the future of the human race.

To say anymore would be to spoil a bold, absorbing movie, who’s mysteries are best discovered as the story unfolds. What is certain is that 2049 is a much cleaner, easier watch than its predecessor. Whereas the original was deliberately, almost punishingly obtuse, Villeneuve’s update feels like a much brisker watch – despite being 45 minutes longer – and is more open about it’s intentions, rather than hiding everything behind a wall of portentous eulogising.

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Not that Blade Runner has become yet another commercialised blockbuster filled with city-pulverising, vertiginous actions sequences. 2049 remains a slow-burning, deeply ponderous detective story that gently muses on themes of isolation, identity and human connection in a way that feels like a natural progression to the first film. Any violence is brief but brutal and purposeful, acting as a sudden, devastating blow within a supremely satisfying, emotionally compelling narrative.

The defining elements of the original’s dark, twisted future world remain intact, too. Eyeballs are a prominent motif, fluorescent-hared denizens still munch on Asian street food and the Voight-Kampff test has become an even more distressing experience. In fact, so delicately has Villeneuve recreated the look and feel of the original, it’s almost to his detriment. Blade Runner was such a ground-breaking piece of work at least in part due to Ridley Scott’s impressively realised neon-drenched futurescape, which has been aped countless times over the intervening years. By contrast, 2049’s rain-soaked tower blocks and dust bowl necropolises feel like just another respectful copy – albeit a superbly crafted one.

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One area where 2049 undoubtedly excels is in the performances of its two leads. Gosling once again demonstrates his talent for imbuing deep pathos into handsomely passive characters, transforming the outwardly machine-like K into a thoughtful, engrossing presence. Harrison Ford is on similarly excellent form. Returning to yet another classic character, Ford’s skills are seriously tested in role that requires him to dig much deeper into Deckard’s emotional state than in his previous outing.

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Only Jared Leto, playing self-aggrandising, monologue-prone industrialist Niander Wallace, feels below his best. Though given he’s lumbered with an entirely superfluous character who exists solely to deliver drawn-out theological rants to Sylvia Hoecks’ super-humanly patient replicant enforcer, it’s perhaps no surprise that Leto would resort to biting huge chunks out of the gorgeous scenery.

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Without an engaging antagonist to match the Rutger Hauer’s tragic skinjob Roy and the unplanned poetic alchemy of his ‘Tears in rain’ soliloquy, 2049 misses some of the devastating emotional force of its predecessor. Yet that shouldn’t detract from what’s otherwise an extraordinary achievement by Villeneuve. Whether Blade Runner 2049 lives up to the expectations of its demanding fanbase will no doubt be debated for at least another 30 years, but there’s no denying Villeneuve has succeeded in crafting a smart, gripping and thought-provoking movie that immensley satisfying in its own right.

Runtime: 163 mins (approx.)
Director: Dennis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Michael Green, Hampton Fancher
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Sylvia Hoecks

Goodbye Christopher Robin – Film Review

One of the most beloved characters in children’s literature, the honey-stealing bear Winnie the Pooh is famous the world over. Far less known is the true story of it’s broken creator, A. A. Milne’s relationship with his son, who provided the inspiration for Pooh’s adventures only to find the burden of fame too much to bear. It’s this tragic father-son relationship that is at the heart of Goodbye Christopher Robin, a warm, charming movie that’s often overwhelmingly moving.

Scripted by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, the story begins with Domhnall Gleeson’s Milne returning to London a changed man. Having fought on the front lines during the Battle of the Somme he comes home in the grips of PTSD, where anything from the clinking of a glass to the buzzing of a bee is enough to transport him back to the horrors he witnessed on the Western Front.

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His attempts to find peace lead him to escape London, moving his wife and son to the countryside where he intends to write an anti-war memoir. Instead, he finds only severe writer’s block and decides to spend more time outside with his son Christopher Robin, who’s imaginative games inspire Milne to pen an entirely different kind of book.

The scenes of father and son playing with sticks or imagining wild safaris through the woods behind their country home are some of the movie’s most joyous moments – and not only for their quaint, sun-soaked Great British Bake Off depiction of early 20th Century England. They also offer a rousing exploration of the magic of play and how the innocence of a child can rescue a man who has seen real nightmares. Watching Milne’s traumas drift further away the more he lets his son into his life is surprisingly affecting.

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That’s in no small measure down to Gleeson’s wonderfully restrained performance. He not only captures Milne’s famously dry wit, but also the near-silent agony of a proud man totally at a loss of how to move on from the devastation he experienced at war. He’s ably joined by Kelly Macdonald who, as Christopher’s tirelessly devoted nanny, is perhaps the film’s biggest hero when she delivers a stirring scolding to the poor boy’s neglectful parents after refusing to bite her tongue a moment longer.

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In fact, the only weak link is Christopher’s highly-strung socialite mother, Daphne. Despite Margot Robbie’s flawless RP accent, Daphne appears cold and distant, abandoning her husband in his time of need and treating her son as her personal play-thing to be picked up or discarded depending on her mood. That feels like a wilful ignorance of Daphne’s own traumas, particularly during childbirth, which were sorely needed to lend understanding to her seemingly heartless actions.

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The most praise must be reserved for Will Tilston, though, who is a revelation as the adolescent Christopher Robin. Whether it’s the unexpected joy of a new toy to play with or the confused anguish of being thrust into the spotlight to sell his father’s books, Tilston sells every emotion perfectly. Which is just as well as the film gradually shifts focus onto Christopher as he struggles to maintain his own identity while his father packages his childhood memories into a book to be flogged to the general public.

Tilston’s excellent work in making Christopher a brightly endearing presence pays off in the film’s bittersweet final scenes where the true devastation caused by his childhood are brutally laid bare. His story might not be as well known as the characters he inspired, but the tale of Christopher Robin is just as moving and impossible to forget.

Runtime: 107 mins (approx.)
Director: Simon Curtis
Screenwriters: Franker Cottrell Boyce, Simon Vaughan
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Will Tilston, Kelly Macdonald

Mother! – Film Review

Whether it’s Jennifer Connelly’s desperate drug addict in Requiem for a Dream or Natalie Portman’s barmy ballerina in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky seems to draw an almost sadistic thrill from dragging his desirable female leads through hell. Even so, the torment inflicted upon Jennifer Lawrence’s titular Mother in the director’s latest psychological horror is beyond anything we’ve seen before.

A dense, deranged and distressingly breathtaking piece of art, it’s no wonder Mother! has polarised critics, with many praising it’s sickening beauty and others dismissing its befuddling plot as nothing more than auteuristic twaddle. The truth, as if often does in these cases, lies somewhere in the middle. Mother! is an undoubtedly astounding work of artistic vision, both horrific and mesmerising; but in his haste to disturb and disorientated his audience, Aronofsky loses sight of exactly what he’s trying to say.

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The movie starts off in compelling fashion, resembling a slow-burn chamber piece as Lawrence’s Mother devotedly restores the previously gutted home she shares with her husband (Javier Bardem), a poet wrestling with his latest work. Their idyllic seclusion is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Ed Harris’ wheezing doctor and, the next day, his boozed-up wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). Invited to stay for as long as they like by Bardem, the destructive couple make themselves comfortable, breaking precious heirlooms and asking invasive questions. It’s not long before Mother starts to worry that her husband has opened the door to something far worse than passing strangers.

Aronofsky’s direction is masterfull in these early scenes, gently dialling up the tension and paranoia by drip-feeding jarring sounds (amplified by the absence of a soundtrack) and unsettling images as Mother’s anxieties take shape. And unsettling is most certainly the right word. Like Hogwarts, if J.K. Rowling had written the Harry Potter series while suffering a bad trip on LSD, the house has a mischievous life of its own. The walls shake, the doors don’t lock, and the floors ooze blood from human-like orifices. Despite her desire to make it a model home, Mother is a prisoner here, never leaving the confines of the house and shot either in tight close-up or from her own dizzying perspective. It’s a claustrophobic experience, but also an exhilarating one.

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Not that any of it prepares you for a brutal and bewildering final act that’s the closest thing to an actual living nightmare ever committed to film. Time seems to lose all meaning as the walls shift and mutate in the blink of an eye and all manner of frightening apparitions storm the scene, culminating in one sequence so vile and vicious, it will likely be too grotesque for many.

The technical skill on display here is impressive, with Aronofsky seamlessly mashing together a discordant collection of genres and influences. Yet, as his visual ambitions expand and become weirder, he loses sight of his story. Mother! works best as an intimate study of maternal anxiety, with Lawrence powerless to prevent the dangerous forces of the world from invading her perfect home and laying ruin to everything she holds dear.

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But as Aronofsky’s roller-coaster of bizarre despair shifts into overdrive, he over complicates matters by throwing even more ideas into the mix. Religion, family, sexuality and the crumbling of civilisation are all exposed and plastered across the screen. Still, Aronofsky saves his most scathing work for a self-loathing portrait of the creative process as Bardem’s blocked artist becomes increasingly frustrated by his inability to find inspiration.

It’s this theme that eventually overwhelms and derails the plot. As the focus shifts more and more towards Bardem’s creations, Lawrence’s angelic Mother gets lost in the maelstrom, losing her voice and agency until she is little more than a (at times literal) punchbag for Bardem’s creative ambitions.

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There’s no denying that Mother! is a bold and unforgettable visual masterpiece, but as soon as Lawrence’s compelling presence fades into the background, the film descends into a cold, hollow mess of vivid imagery that lacks purpose or meaning. It seems that, like his onscreen counterpart, Aronofsky is guilty of letting the embers of a good idea burn out before that’ve truly caught fire.

Runtime: 121 mins (approx.)
Director/Screenwriter: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

 

It – film review

For those who’ve ever pondered what the resultant movie would’ve looked like had Stephen Spielberg directed The Exorcist in 1973, Andy Muchietti’s It might be the closest you’ll get to the real thing. Pitched somewhere between The Goonies and E.T., if either of those movies had a penchant for perma-grinning demonic clowns or severed toddler arms being munched on like breadsticks, this latest adaptation of Stephen King’s classic tome is a heartfelt coming-of-age yarn that will pin you to your seat – even if it doesn’t always rattle your bones with fear.

Barring a few slight differential nods, this new version immediately sets itself apart from the Tim Curry-starring TV movie of 1990 by making some smart updates to the source material. Discarding the cumbersome back-and-forth timelines (saving the grown-up part of the story for a planned sequel), Muchietti shifts the action forward from the quaint 1950s to an Amblin-inspired 80s that often makes it feel like we’ve mistakenly dropped in on the set of Netflix’s Stranger Things.

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Like that TV show, It hones in on a band of young outsiders, each with their own identifiable dysfunction. There’s Richie, the class joker; Ben, the chubby new kid on the block; Miles, the orphaned son of a sheep farmer; Eddie, a germaphobic mama’s boy; Stan, whose dad is a rabbi; Bev, the snarky token female of the group; and stuttering B-B-Bill, whose little brother was believed to have drowned during a heavy storm.

Though it leads to a rather baggy and cliche-riddled opening third, Muchietti’s devotion to developing each member of The Losers Club pays off to great effect when the gang eventually face-off against Bill Skarsgard’s titular supernatural being. Each kid has their own frightening encounter with Pennywise, who often takes the form of their greatest fears.

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While the fright-factor of these encounters is fairly hit or miss – Bev’s bloody grapple with a tangle of sentient drain hair is chest-poundingly terrifying, while Eddie’s tussle with a decaying patient feels rote by comparison – they’re still intensely gripping throughout, the horrifying effect amplified because we understand the personal stakes for each kid and feel invested in their survival.

It helps that the entire cast are superb throughout, each perfectly capturing the carefree recklessness of youth and the paralysing fear of impending adulthood that courses through the veins of every adolescent.

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And then there’s Pennywise. Though Tim Curry’s iconic performance will continue to linger long in the memory, Skarsgard has successfully carved out his own distinct interpretation of the unhinged child killer. With his oversized porcelain dome, puffy cheeks, protruding bottom lip and grubby Victorian garb, Pennywise is a triumph of make-up and design. Yet it’s the subtle nuances in Skarsgard’s performance that really draw you in and disturb. The realisation that It’s eyes aren’t looking in the same direction as Skarsgard executes that slight malevolent smirk and a bead of drool drips from his chunky fangs will unsettle even the toughest of moviegoers.

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The only disappointment is that the resultant horrors don’t quite match the insidious power of Skarsgard’s performance. Muchietti leans heavily on well-worn horror tropes, with jump scares, spooky empty rooms and bone-snapping body horror all getting a thorough airing here. The practical effects work is mightily impressive, but the set-pieces themselves so often fail to elicit a stir simply because we’re so familiar with how they will play out. It’s telling that the most chilling scenes of all are the moments when the kids are subjected to real-life horrors, whether it’s a harrowing encounter with a rabid school bully or the uncomfortable touches of Bev’s lecherous father. Proof that sometimes the suggestion of evil can be even more potent that the real thing.

Nevertheless, It works surprisingly well as a standalone movie – a rarity in these times of tentpole blockbusters, unleashing an emotionally affecting tale that effectively relays the horror in King’s original novel while amplifying its heart. How Muchietti will make the second part as entertaining and satisfying is anyone’s guess, but the very prospect has us grinning like a bloodthirsty demonic clown whose just spotted his next victim.

Runtime: 133 mins (approx.)
Director: Andy Muchietti
Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, Cary Fukunaga
Stars: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Taylor, Sophie Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Grazer