Being trapped in a funhouse of fears with precocious kids and a flesh-eating dancing clown may be the stuff of horror film aficionado fever dreams. But something is definitely missing in Andy Muschietti’s movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, It (C+), chapter one of a planned duology, a film that oozes with Spielbergian nostalgia but mostly floats in a preposterous purgatory. The director starts with promise and establishes a credible hero played by Jaeden Wesley Lieberher. The youngster leads a tepid tween team of protagonists who are a bit too Stand By Me-esque to feel like true originals. The first glimpse of Bill Skarsgård as the phantom pantaloon with a Cockney cannibal pie hole is menacing indeed. But too many kids, too many CGI shape-shifters and too many similar set-ups render the enterprise less than terrifying. After a while the answer to everything seems to be, “Cue the clown!” It’s ultimately a horror film without enough scares. Sophia Lillis is a standout as a young lady battling family dysfunction, but hers and all subplots are half-baked. These goonies aren’t good enough. By the end, it’s rather unclear why things unspool the way they do or why it might take a second chapter to tell this tale.
Regaining his strut as a writer/director of modern-day suspense films, M. Night Shyamalan has crafted an entertaining psychological thriller and met an acting match for his cinematic chutzpah in James McAvoy headlining Split (B+). The film is above all else a showcase for the considerable acting talents of McAvoy as a man with 23 discrete personalities (Dennis, Patricia, Barry and Hedwig among the most notable). McAvoy uses some pretty sly ticks and tricks to bring brilliant life to his menagerie of characters. What starts as an abduction and escape room type movie in the vein of the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane becomes a more labyrinthine glimpse into a shattered mind. The female protagonist played by Anya Taylor-Joy helps anchor the film gracefully; she’s a perceptive outsider bent on cracking the code of the man holding her captive with two other teens. It’s also a hoot to see a late-career Betty Buckley in fine form clearly relishing a role as a therapist specializing in split personality disorders. The two other abducted teens played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula aren’t quite as indelible in the face of other sharp characterizations. The film is mesmerizing at times and taut throughout until the end, when it limps a bit to the finish line. Like his clear antecedent auteurs Hitchcock and De Palma, Shyamalan has created a twisty tale full of engaging mental machinations. It lacks the visual urgency to match its lead performances and can’t quite sustain the mental sharpness of its moving pieces. But for horror fans who like a PG-13 level basket of scares, it’s a gangbusters gateway drug to the genre and a corker of a story.