Selections from this week’s Blu-ray releases can be found below in this ongoing weekly summary of reviews. Click on any of the following titles to navigate directly to that review. This week’s releases include: the new adaptation of Stephen King’s killer clown IT; and cult classic “JAWS rip-off” Orca. A list of other titles also available this week can be found at the end.
Distributor: Warner Bros.
When children begin to disappear in the town of Derry, Maine, a group of young kids are faced with their biggest fears when they square off against an evil clown named Pennywise, whose history of murder and violence dates back for centuries. “IT” stars Bill Skarsgård (“Allegiant,” TV’s “Hemlock Grove”) as the story’s central villain, Pennywise. An ensemble of young actors also star in the film, including Jaeden Lieberher (“Midnight Special”), Jeremy Ray Taylor (“Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip”), Sophia Lillis (“37”), Finn Wolfhard (TV’s “Stranger Things”), Wyatt Oleff (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), Chosen Jacobs (upcoming “Cops and Robbers”), Jack Dylan Grazer (“Tales of Halloween”), Nicholas Hamilton (“Captain Fantastic”) and Jackson Robert Scott, making his film debut.
The genesis of this new version of Stephen King’s IT was a bumpy ride. I greeted its initial announcement with a resounding “oh” — especially when hack novelty writer Seth Grahame-Smith came on as producer. I’ve read the original King novel twice now, and in my mind, no standard-length film or even reasonable number of films could do it justice. And granted, despite a flawless Pennywise portrayal by Tim Curry, the original miniseries is far from perfect, chucking out a lot of rich and creepy Derry history, along with the novel’s depravity, to conform to ABC television standards. But, as imperfect and cheesy and cheap looking as it sometimes is, nostalgia often overrides good taste, and the miniseries was a huge part of my childhood. When True Detective season one director Cary Fukunaga came aboard to adapt and direct, my “oh” became “holy fuck, let’s do this.” And for months I eagerly awaited any developments — casting, shooting locales, and oh yes, any early signs of a rating. One day, there was an update: New Line Cinema, who was originally financing the film before parent company Warner Bros. took over, balked at his proposed budget, and Fukunaga walked. My hopes were dashed, and I stopped caring again. Eventually, when Mama director Andres Muschietti was brought on board as a replacement, I felt nothing. It seemed, to me, that this was nothing more than a studio making that typical studio move of hiring someone with reasonable talent but with a short tenure in Hollywood — i.e., someone who would tow the company line, back down from demands, and hopefully still conjure up something halfway well made. IT — a novel whose concept was very daring, and which could easily be turned into something cheesy and terrible if not done the right way — seemed doomed.
Despite my misgivings and its shortcomings, this new ITeration (ha!), if not a totally faithful retelling of the original story, is totally faithful to its core essence, themes, and intent for relentless terror. It’s a well balanced, emotional, and surprisingly amusing experience, which is to be expected when a group of seven smart-mouthed 13-year-olds are your main characters. But, above all and most importantly, is IT scary? Well, as usual in this genre, fear is subjective. What I can say is IT is obsessed with scaring you — is willing to show you some ghastly and taboo-shattering images in order to do so. King’s Pennywise was just a clown — not a purposely scary looking clown — because his image was supposed to make him immediately trustworthy to children. Likewise, the miniseries Pennywise wasn’t scary except for when Tim Curry’s still amazing performance (and some monster teeth) wanted to make him so. Either to its compliment or detriment, the terror in IT is exaggerated — almost fairy tale-like — right down to the design of Pennywise himself, along with his unnecessary CGI enhancements. From strictly a non-cannon horror standpoint, Pennywise 2017 is a frightening figure, and of course that’s great. But when taking into account Stephen King’s original intent for this character, as subsequently presented in the original miniseries, the new Pennywise can seem like a bit much. If you saw Pennywise 1990 walking down the street, you’d say, “Hey, a clown.” If you saw Pennywise 2017 instead, you’d say, “Fucking RUN!” And this exaggerated image isn’t relegated just to Pennywise, but the specters the kids see and the infamous house on Neibolt street, right down to the off-kilter shooting angles — everything has been designed to seem extra scary; sometimes this works in the film’s favor, and sometimes it can seem artificial. It’s clear that another Warner Bros./New Line Cinema horror franchise — The Conjuring — was a large influence on IT’s design, and it’s a good measuring tool for what kind of fear mileage you should expect. Like that film, the fantastical portions of IT seem to be rated-R more for intensity than the actual gruesomeness of what’s appearing on screen. (As for the more straightforward scenes of horror, you’ve never seen this amount of on-screen violence lobbed at children in a mainstream movie. Using the scene where Georgie sails his boat directly into Pennywise’s sewer as the ultimate example, IT pulls no punches.)
The new Losers’ Club is great, with the standouts being Sophia Lillis as Beverly and the Fred-Savage-looking Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie. Bev’s very first appearance — crushing out her cigarette against a bathroom stall while looking both annoyed and defeated — is gif worthy, and Eddie is more than just the Opie-ish dweeb as essayed in the miniseries. He’s the same hypochondriac as before, but now with the same smart-aleck mouth of his friends, which helps the character feel less like an archetype. The kids, who became best friends during the shoot, really do feel like best friends, and obviously this helps to reinforce their bond. Playing opposite them is Bill Skarsgård, who has the unenviable task of stepping into the clown shoes of a character previously made infamous by Tim Curry, which results in a performance that’s unusual but also fitting; thankfully the makeup and costume aids in hiding the actor’s youth and boyish appearance. He’s manic and chaotic and very drooly — like his predecessor, he really is the stuff of nightmares.
Granted, not everything works. Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard as the smart-mouthed Richie likely walks away with the showiest part, as his character is there to constantly make off-color jokes and keep things light, which he does, and the actor nails it, but there are a couple instances where he robs the scene of its intended emotion. (A problem with the script — not the actor.) The musical score isn’t particularly memorable, and most of the soundtrack’s ’80s selections are jarring and tonally at odds with what’s going on in the scene. And as for the changes made from the book, or how certain characters’ traits have been swapped or stolen (seriously, Mike is the most interesting character in the novel, but here he was stripped of everything that made him important or empathetic), I could go on and on, but no one ever wants to see the book purist complain, so I’ll just let it go unsaid. (But let me say that Richie’s admission that his greatest fear is clowns seems perfunctory and even a little reckless; it offers the impression that he’s the lead Loser, since Pennywise wears the look of a clown for most of the film — that the two are the main foes to each other — but except for one clown-exploiting sequence, this doesn’t lead anywhere. Such a proclamation would’ve been more appropriate for the character of Bill, who one might argue is the lead character.) (I can feel myself getting lost down the book-purist rabbit hole so I’ll bail out now.)
Overall, what’s important is that IT remains faithful to King’s original intent: good vs. evil, the power of friendship, faith, loss, etc. And if you’ve read King’s massive tome or seen the miniseries and still remember much of its content, you’ll have fun spotting the subtle nods throughout: bully Patrick Hockstetter licking his lips as the kids pass by him in school hints at the sexual depravity his character exerts in the book (and which could, again, never appear in a mainstream film); the handful of references to or appearances of a turtle refer to the more mystical elements from the novel that are meant to represent the power of light which guides the kids through their fight against Derry’s evil; and the appearance of a clown doll that closely mirrors that of the Pennywise design from the miniseries was a nice and respectful moment.
As far as King adaptations go, there hasn’t been one this great since 2007’s The Mist, which is a relief to say, being that IT seemed like a huge gamble from the beginning. IT: Chapter Two hasn’t even begun casting yet (Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, please!), so there’s a way to go before we get to see the adult Losers’ Club return to Derry for one more go-around with Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- Pennywise Lives! – Discover how Bill Skarsgård prepared to portray the primordial creature known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown
- The Losers’ Club – Get up close and personal with the teenage stars of “IT” as they bond together during the production,
- Author of Fear – Stephen King reveals the roots of his best-selling novel, the nature of childhood fear and how he created his most famous monster, Pennywise
- Deleted Scenes – Eleven deleted or extended scenes from the film
Distributor: Umbrella Entertainment
Captain Nolan (Oscar® nominee Richard Harris, Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone) is a man of the sea. Brave and headstrong, he is a fisherman who takes up the fight of his life against one of nature’s most fearsome creatures – the killer whale. Orca seeks to avenge the death of his pregnant mate, left murdered in blood red waters. Rising from the ocean, leaving behind it a wake of destruction and mayhem, the deadly marine creature lures his human adversaries to a match of wits and survival in the chilly arctic waters. Also starring Bo Derek (10), Charlotte Rampling (The Night Porter), Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Keenan Wynn (Dr. Strangelove) and Robert Carradine (Django Unchained) and featuring the music of award winning composer Ennio Morricone, ORCA is a thrilling aquatic adventure of breathtaking scope. (Buy this region free release directly from the distributor.)
By now, JAWS is a Hollywood institution. It not only birthed the summer blockbuster, but, like any popular new idea, it inspired countless knockoffs, which still continue to this day. Addressing the great white in the room, Orca is obviously one of these JAWS bastards. It even takes the name of Quint’s doomed sea vessel for its title. Obviously, the similarities are profound. Sea-based killer animal? Check. Crusty boat captain tasked with killing the beast? Check. A crew assembled with people of differing philosophies toward the animal and how it should be dealt with? Check. An entire town’s financial stability affected by the maniacal animal? Oh yes. And like JAWS, Orca also gets a huge boost from its musical score — Ennio Morricone’s absolute all-time best, in fact. (You can hem and haw all you want about that, but even the composer himself cites it as his own personal favorite of his very prolific career.)
Yes, Orca follows a lot of the same familiar JAWS beats, and though it pales in comparison, Orca is honestly much better than its reputation or immediate sketchy filmic colleagues would suggest. (The opening sequence, which sees the orca not only kill a great white shark in a violent battle, but does so to save the life of a stranded diver, is basically the film saying, “JAWS who?”) Based on a 1977 novel of the same name by Arthur Herzog, what sets Orca off from its uninspired brethren is the amount of sincerity with which it was made, with much of the credit going to director Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run; 1984) for maintaining a level of seriousness and weaving in a palpable sense of regret through what would otherwise be your standard animal-revenge thriller.
Richard Harris’ Captain Nolan is a heavy figure. The hard drinking fisherman lives a life of isolation, having seen his pregnant wife perish in a car accident caused by a drunk driver — one that’s already taken place before the opening credits, but which can be unnervingly glimpsed through quick flashbacks complemented by the unsettling shrill shriek of an orca. The film draws parallels both obvious (the tragic loss of a burgeoning family) and subtle (obsession threatening mortality) between Nolan and the orca that hunts him, and which he then begins to hunt. As life took away Nolan’s family, so Nolan took away the orca’s. They become one and the same — two lost souls navigating a cold and barren seascape; satisfying the avenging beasts within them is the only thing offering them forward momentum.
For its time, the special effects are quite good — granted, some of the visual tricks, like superimposing together scenes of orcas breaching the ocean’s surface, show their age — but the practical effects are extremely lifelike to the point where certain shots can look downright disturbing. Charlotte Rampling sitting on the beach next to the corpse of the orca that Nolan kills during the opening moments and seeing it rock and sway in the coming and going ocean tide offers it a very sad reality.
It’s fair to admit that Orca would not exist without JAWS, but it would also be fair to profess Orca as being more than just some lazy cash-grab. A good film is a good film, regardless of its genre, unfair reputation, and especially regardless of its inspiration.
(Buy this region free release directly from the distributor.)
The interview with Dino De Laurenttis’ wife, Martha, is brief — running just under five minutes — but what’s here offers good substance. Among other things, she (mostly) puts to rest any rumors that at one point De Laurentiis was considering Orca vs. Kong after the latter proved to be a huge box office success for him. But if you want exhaustive information on Orca’s production, see the audio commentary with Lee Gambin, who hardly takes a breath the entire time. Within the first five minutes, he provides a brief summary of De Laurentiis’ beginnings in the film business, the genesis of Orca, and the ecological aspect of the whale behavior on display (which he touts as being about 90% accurate). This rapid fire info-blast continues throughout and to the end. He mentions that De Laurentiis was disappointed with the box office return of Orca and barely mentioned the film for the rest of his career, which seems to further cement those rumors of a proposed Orca/Kong team-up being unfounded. Gambin also drops little unexpected nuggets throughout, like how one of the real trained orcas used during the production was named Keanu!
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- Audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin
- MOBY DICK ala DE LAURENTIIS: Martha De Laurentiis remembers ORCA
- Theatrical Trailer
Also Available This Week:
Distributor: IFC Midnight/Shout Factory
Trailer-dwelling, sewage-pumping Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler, Criminal Minds) may not lead the most glamorous life, but he’s got one thing going for him: he’s head over heels infatuated with his girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord, 90210). He’s more than willing to overlook her wild streak — the fact that she’s hooking up with their landlord, her rather extreme mood swings — so when she proposes a plot to steal $68,000, he goes along with the plan. But what was supposed to be a simple heist turns into an off-the-rails, blood-spattered crime spree, and Chip learns the hard way just how deranged the love of his life really is. The new film from Troma alum Trent Haaga blends wicked comedy with pure pulp thrills for a no-holds-barred blast of insanity!
Special Features: None
Distributor: WellGo USA
In this witty and ultra-violent thriller, a mild-mannered farmer sets off on a bloody quest for vengeance after his elderly mother is murdered. As he tracks her killers through the criminal underworld of Belfast, he begins to realize that there was a darker side to his beloved mother – and to himself.
Special Features: None
Best friends Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Fluttershy, and Rarity team up in their most epic adventure yet! When a dark force threatens Ponyville, the Mane 6 go on a journey beyond Equestria to save their beloved home and they meet new friends and exciting challenges along the way.
- Deleted Scene
- Equestria Girls Short
- “Baking with Pinkie Pie” Featurette
- “Making Magic with the Mane 6 and Their New Friends” Featurette
- “The Journey Beyond Equestria” Featurette
- “I’m the Friend You Need” Music Video (Sung by Taye Diggs)
- “Hanazuki: Full of Treasures” Featurette