Pennywise the Great and Terrible is IT [movie review]


My father was a storyteller. It was how he taught his classes. He loved history, and in order to pass that love along to his middle school students, he disguised the dust of the past in dramatic story form. I'll never forget being at a campground one night when he regaled us with a retelling of Bram Stoker's Dracula. With the dark of night around us, a fire crackling nearby, his strong baritone carried the tale and transported us to a different world. The story was one that I knew well, but my father sparked new life into his rendition and captivated me.

Around that same time in the mid-seventies, I discovered the novel Carrie and became a lifelong fan of King's works. I read It when it was first published in 1986. After seeing the movie, I browsed through the first chapters and in doing so, I recalled how King's voice always drew me his worlds. He speaks to the reader very much like my father spoke to us when he retold Dracula that long ago night.

There is a conspiratorial tone to his works, as if he is drawing us close to share a terrible secret, and it is only when the last page is turned, do we realize that he merely holds a mirror to show us the monster wears our face. He gives us so much about the people in his fictional worlds that we feel like we know them, because in a lot of instances, we know someone just like them, or we are them. When he paints the picture of a small town--be it 'Salem's Lot or Derry--he peels back the illusion of genteel small town life to accurately portray the willful blindness that walks the streets and enables the monsters in the sewers to thrive.

I recognized King's small towns, because I lived in a version of Derry, where each individual's reality is layered by one's social status and the color of one's skin. Some people are forced to live within the abyss while others are afforded the luxury of looking away. King's skill is his ability to show us our prejudices without alienating us. He also makes the losers the heroes, which in many ways gives us hope that we can persevere over incredible odds. 

Capturing the essence of King's voice and tone is one of the reasons his literary works are so hard to translate into film. Well, that and the sheer magnitude of some of his works--It being one of them.

In the novel, when Georgie is going through the house to find the paraffin that will make his paper ship float, he is thinking about how his brother Bill is a good writer, not simply because he can write well, but because he can see. Likewise, translating a novel to film isn't so much about screenplays and theatrics, although those aspects are part of the process, but the true success lies in the director's ability to see what the author intended, which, finally, brings me to the movie.

Andrés Muschietti knows how to see. He manages to condense the story of the Loser's Club in such a way as to capture the true essence of the children and their complex relationships without diminishing either the story or the characters. The actors who portray the children in the Losers' Club were all excellent and perfectly cast. In what could have been an unintentionally comic episode, the scene in the library with Ben Hanscom [Jeremy Ray Taylor] and the headless child was absolutely horrifying. This was due to Taylor's performance and Muschietti's direction along with judicious use of CGI.

At no point does Muschietti let the film devolve into corny scares. He takes the time to build the mood before launching the more horrific scenes. Like King, Muschietti manages to use Derry's facade of normalcy to contrast the darker shadows lurking beneath Derry's surface.

Which, of course, brings us to the star of the show, Pennywise.


Bill Skarsgård's performance is what turns this film from a remake into a retelling. In an absolute expert performance, Skarsgård uses his voice and eyes to fluctuate between childlike innocence and outright malevolence. During his conversation with Georgie, his voice is pitched sweet and high in the beginning and gradually deepens as his mask slips. In equal parts appealing and repulsive, he chuckles and speaks to Georgie with childish delight of circuses while drooling over the meal to come.

In a reverse transformation of Guillermo del Toro's faun in Pan's Labyrinth, where the faun becomes younger and more vibrant as the movie proceeds, Skarsgård's Pennywise becomes slightly more horrific with each subsequent scene. His forehead seems more bulbous, his makeup a little more cracked, and his voice deepens to give the audience one disquieting peek after another into the monster itself.

It is a retelling, but a damned good one and well worth your time. If you can't wait for the next installment, I highly recommend the book. Let Stephen King whisper his tale into your ear. You'll definitely find yourself somewhere within the pages; although, I can't guarantee you'll like what you see.

I went to see THE DARK TOWER so you wouldn't have to [a review]:

Last weekend, I saw Atomic Blonde (I know this is a review for The Dark Tower, hang with me for a minute).

Atomic Blonde was rated R as it should have been. If you're not in America, R means the movie is for mature audiences only. Atomic Blonde lived up to every one of my expectations, and when it comes out on DVD, I'm going to buy it so I can watch it again.

When I saw The Dark Tower was rated as PG-13, I lowered my expectations for the film, and here's why:

The Dark Tower novels were brutal, just as brutal, if not more so, than the story in Atomic Blonde. Susannah's story-line alone is horrific and that is all before she ever lands in Roland's world. The PG-13 rating said that the studio wanted a movie directed toward preteens and marketing and games and toys and that is precisely what the movie is. 

Being an urban fantasy does NOT make it a bad movie. I imagine a lot of the younger members of the audience enjoyed it immensely. As a matter of fact, from a story perspective, it was a very good movie. It simply bears only a passing resemblance to the novels.

Idris Elba as Roland was the best part. If you want to go and support this movie so that you see him in more leading roles, your money won't be wasted. He captured Roland's gravitas and his rare moments of amusement. While Elba gave the most nuanced performance in the film, his co-star Tom Taylor was also excellent as Jake Chambers. He and Elba had a lovely chemistry that really carried the film.

And while the film worked as a coming of age story, the movie failed for fans of the series, because The Dark Tower is really about Roland, not Jake. By changing the protagonist from Roland to Jake, the horror is replaced by wonder, and it's all sort of like the Wizard of Oz, but with gunslingers and creepy monsters and the Man in Black.

King gave Satan/Death a corporeal form in the Man in Black, and in doing so, he gave flesh to the evil that walks among us. The movie gives us the Man in Black as a Cruella de Vil caricature intent on slaughtering preteens instead of puppies. Somehow I never imagined the Man in Black to be quite that organized and operating from a command central. His was always a more subtle menace as the chaos that wanders among us. The movie robs him of that role, and in doing so, gives Matthew McConaughey's character very little to do other than walk around and be nasty to people.

If they ever do an R version of The Dark Tower and have McConaughey reprise the role, I'll be on the front row, popcorn in hand.

The plot proceeded smoothly from point to point, sometimes too smoothly. I never felt a great deal of tension, but the cast was great, and I was never bored. There was a lot of shooting; however, I found the violence in Wonder Woman to be far more intense than anything I experienced in The Dark Tower. There was also a nice little nod to Pennywise about midway through, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, coming soon to a theater near you. 

Overall, I enjoyed The Dark Tower movie as a light urban fantasy. However, if you're looking for something with guts, read the books.

Disaster utopias

Hang in there ... this is another one of those long gotta-get-it-out-of-my-head-before-I-can-move-on posts. I'll try and do a fun post after this mass of thoughts has cleared my head.

Human behavior baffles me. It's one of the reasons I write. Stories are my way of trying on someone else's mindset in order to see how they think.

Sometimes reality intrudes. For the first six months after the 2016 election, journalist after journalist canvased America, trying to understand the phenomenon behind Trump's election. Nothing they said rang true to me.

I didn't--and still don't--buy into the theory that rural voters are stupid. Educated people live in rural areas too. People with college educations voted for Trump. Journalists' attempts to fit all of these groups into one mold felt like a jigsaw puzzle hammered together--the picture was disjointed at best, broken in other places. However, in reading all of those articles, I did find a couple of common characteristics in these voters: they were Evangelical (or identified with Evangelical churches) and they shared feelings of persecution exacerbated by the rhetoric of their pastors, the NRA, and straight-up lunatics like Alex Jones.

Remember that I was raised in the shadow of the Evangelicals. I talk a little about that here and also here, and probably somewhere else too, because religion and its grip on the supplicant's mind fascinates me. Anyway, the important takeaway from both of those posts is that throughout my childhood I was told not to question the authority of the Bible, or my minister. Likewise, politicians told me that they knew what was best for me, and based on their superior knowledge, I should simply accept my circumstances and be happy with what I had, because hey, questions are easy, answers are hard.

This is important, because the command not to question authority is drummed into a child's head from their first experience in church to their last. It's a form of brainwashing and explains why people like Alex Jones and Jim Jones can lead their followers to drink the Kool-Aid.

The indoctrination age also seems to have dropped too. When my daughter was very young, five or six, she wanted to spend a Saturday night with my niece and her family. I knew this meant she would end up going to church the next morning, but I figured, hey, little kids in Sunday school with Jesus and all of the baby lambs, what could possibly go wrong?

Over dinner that Sunday evening, I asked my daughter how church went and she proceeded to tell me about Satan and the demons from Hell and how the world was going to end in fire and blood. I inquired about Jesus and the baby lambs, and she told me the preacher talked about nothing but end-times. From that point forward, I took over my daughter's spiritual education, found a nice Episcopal Church (Catholic-lite, all the ritual, none of the guilt), and forbade my sister from taking my daughter to her cult-church again.

Bad experiences aside, I've always wondered why Evangelical ministers seize so fervently on these apocalyptic themes. It's almost like they exult in recounting the suffering to come.

And then, while doing research for my current novel, I think I accidentally stumbled on the reason. In this passage from The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology (p. 86), Goodrick-Clarke discusses Michael Barkun's theory of "disaster utopia":

"Barkun observes the ambiguity of disaster which, while obviously subjecting people to deprivation, can also produce unusual feelings of well-being. He notes that disasters often induce a temporary sense of common purpose and that 'invidious social distinctions disappear in a suddenly opened and democratized atmosphere.' This evaluation accords well with the euphoria implicit in the ‘Ideas of 1914′, and also illuminates [Guido von] List’s enthusiasm for the actual hardships of war. Because a belief in the millennium often assumes the occurrence of disasters that precede the epiphany, the sense of fellowship in the midst of actual disasters can appear to confirm the millenarian expectations. For List, suffering augured salvation."

Ah! said my brain as it is wont to do in these circumstances. This fits. These themes of end-times persecution give a lot of Evangelicals that sense of common purpose. Together, they will suffer through the occurrences of disasters, a process that will bring them all closer together in their shared adversity. The epiphany--or Christ's second coming--is soon to be had, delivering them from a world filled with pain and broken promises.

Suffering augurs salvation.

That's the Kool-Aid.

Some of us drink it, some of us spit it out.

Because no matter how Evangelical ministers might misrepresent the situation, Christians are not oppressed. Their churches flourish, their politicians are in office--misquoting Bible verses and making Jesus look bad--but there is no oppression here. No one is arrested for going to church. People might disagree with you (or your politics or your religion), but that's not the same thing as persecution.

Yet in the minds of those that adhere to the disaster utopia one cannot suffer without persecution. So the ministers and the NRA and the Jim Joneses and Alex Joneses of the world manufacture persecutions.

Remember how armies of ISIS troops were flooding over the Mexican border? Remember how Obama was coming to take your guns? And how Obama schemed his way into being elected for a third term? And how many of these things came to pass?


They were lies predicated on fear.

Since those portents never came to pass, the groups propagating disaster utopias must find different ways to keep their base in a state of fear. Now they must manufacture new and improved terrors. They want their listeners to be scared of people different from themselves. They divide the world into right and wrong, black and white, right and left, conservative and liberal.

Subtleties cannot exist within these labels. Nuance mitigates the community's suffering, and without suffering, salvation remains distant, robbing the true oppressors--those that advocate disaster utopias--of their power over others. And therein lies the answer to Trump's success. He, and the politicians and the Evangelical ministers who supported him, convinced people they were victims of persecution. He told them what they were eager to hear: your circumstances are not your fault, it's all of those other people who are the problem and once they're gone, everything will be just fine for you, and enough Americans drank the Kool-Aid, and here we are.

Now the NRA and Alex Jones are telling people that disaster is once more upon us, and that people must fight with "clenched fists of truth," because it sounds manly, I suppose. These fighting words make them feel important, like they are embroiled in a holy war whereupon their suffering will bring them salvation.

That's their utopia, not mine. I'll take my epiphany without a disaster, thank you very much. I hope you'll join me in spitting out that brand of Kool-Aid too, because if we allow ourselves to be manipulated into another disaster, we might not find our way out.

Cyborg report: Wonder Woman


About the time I had the surgery for my cochlear implant, I saw some of the first ads for Wonder Woman. After my surgery, my audiologist told me that somewhere around six months post-activation, I should see a big improvement in my speech discrimination, although quite frankly, when you're starting at zero, anything's good, so needless to say, I kept my expectations low. Since we activated the implant in January and Wonder Woman had a release date in June, I decided that Woman Woman would be my six month celebration movie.

Going to see a movie in the theater is a big deal for me, because I used to love going to the movies. I practically lived in the theater during my teens and twenties, and I truly mourned the day when I could no longer enjoy a theatrical release due to my hearing loss.

Nothing excited me more than the thought of seeing Wonder Woman on the big screen. As a girl, I loved comics and Wonder Woman was my favorite. When Wonder Woman came to TV, I never missed an episode, and Lynda Carter was my hero. Naturally, I decided that if I ever had a child, I'd take them to a Wonder Woman movie. Being a good mother, I strong-armed my adult daughter into going to see Wonder Woman with me. I promised she would love it. She was less than enthusiastic over the whole thing until I got so overwhelmed by being able to hear again that I started crying, and then she promised she would be there for me ... with tissues.


At the theater the young woman, who took our tickets, thought my excitement was cute. I asked her if they had posters for sale. She said they had two different ones. I couldn't decide so I bought both.

I loved the previews and marked a couple more movies that I might attend if everything went well at Wonder Woman. Then the movie started and I cried a little, and then a little more, and then--like when I was young and entranced by everything on the big screen--the story took me away.

Wonder Woman is an origin story about Diana Prince's youth and entry into the world of men. If you haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil it for you, but I will tell you this: Wonder Woman is not just a superhero movie, it's a film that reminds us what truly makes a superhero, and it's not all about the ability to deflect bullets.

The message comes early in the film when Diana leaves Themyscria. She tells her mother, "I am willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves."

That is what makes a superhero. The willingness to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. This is the Diana Prince I remember from my youth: a woman full of humor and empathy for others, determined to champion those who are helpless against tyranny.

During the scene in no man's land, the scene that was almost cut, I broke out in chills as Diana climbed out of the trench. The entire passage was so beautifully symbolic of her birth into the hard cruel world of men. And like so many of the vibrant women I have known, no matter how much destruction Diana encountered, she still believed in love and justice, and she kept fighting for those who couldn't defend themselves.

The men in this movie were magnificent too. I don't want to shortchange their presence at all. All of the characters treated one another with mutual respect, whether given or earned. So while we tell people to take their daughters to see Wonder Woman, take your sons too.* They need to see a movie with men who are secure enough in their masculinity that they treat women with equality and respect.

And while I didn't catch every word, I heard enough of the dialogue to follow the plot and thoroughly enjoy the film. Wonder Woman reminds us what a superhero movie should be--not gadgets or the ability to toss tanks, although those things are fun and cool--but about superheroes who advocate justice and protecting the weak. They are our better natures made manifest, and they remind us that sometimes empathy for others can be the greatest superpower of all.

Oh, and the cyborg report: I saw my audiologist last week. I now have 50% speech discrimination. Just in time to go see Wonder Woman again.

*The film is set during World War I and is much too intense/violent for the very young.

Evil is a Matter of Perspective

Many of you know that I was invited to participate in an anthology of antagonists for Grimdark Magazine called Evil is a Matter of Perspective. The anthology will soon be available through several outlets, so if you missed being a part of the Kickstarter, you can still pre-order your copy, which will be available on June 16, 2017.

Now you can experience your favourite fantasy worlds through some of the most fearsome, devious, and brutal antagonists in fantasy. Villains take centre stage in nineteen dark and magical stories that will have you cheering for all the wrong heroes as they perform savage deeds towards wicked ends. And why not? They are the champions of their own stories—evil is a matter of perspective.

Contributors are: R. Scott Bakker, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Michael R. Fletcher, Shawn Speakman, Teresa Frohock, Kaaron Warren, Courtney Schafer, Marc Turner, Jeff Salyards, Mazarkis Williams, Deborah A. Wolf, Brian Staveley, Alex Marshall, Bradley P. Beaulieu, Matthew Ward, Mark Alder, Janny Wurts, E.V. Morrigan, Peter Orullian 

Artists: Tommy Arnold (cover), Jason Deem (interior art), Shawn King (design)

Available at:
Barnes and Noble

If you're looking for a Los Nefilim fix while I'm between projects, the anthology contains the short story, "Every Hair Casts a Shadow," which features a story from Alvaro's point of view as he tries to lure a teenage Rafael back to his rightful place among the daimons.