Ellie Kemper Could’ve Been a Good Pennywise (At Least on Paper)

The title of this blog post just occurred to me after I saw an image of Ellie Kemper on an AV Club article today. Expressive, toothy grin. Proven ability to play a character who’s so impossibly cheerful it seems as if they’re from another world. She even has the red hair. Just let her play up the gleefulness until it’s unsettling, throw in some Kubrick stares, and I’m confident she could come off as perfectly menacing Pennywise the Clown.

I’m not one to suggest “gender swapping” characters at random, or just because it seems like the thing to say. I am, however, one to believe that certain characters needn’t be gender exclusive. There’s nothing particularly male about Pennywise. “It,” after all, is very much an “it.” Psycho clown, abominable pregnant spider, wolfman, mummy, incomprehensible eldritch being from another dimension. It can be anything It cares to be.

Pennywise being a man is, at absolute most, secondary to it being a creepy clown. And a big part of It being a “creepy clown” is that It looks a lot like a genuinely happy, friendly clown, who’s getting a kick out of doing horrible things.

pennywise-laughing

Some years ago, in my article about The Blair Witch project, I called out the fact that It and Poltergeist seemed to make adult coulrophobia sort of trendy. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, or that people who legitimately have this phobia should be ridiculed for it, but I do think it’s one of those things that other people commandeer because it somehow sounds cool nowadays to say, “Clowns are so creepy.” No, they’re not, at least not inherently, and sometimes the more deliberately “frightening” they are, the sillier and, well, more clownish they end up being.

This, for instance, is not at all scary.

clowns-are-not-scary

And neither, really, is this.

clown-trying-to-be-scary

The most recent high-profile “scary clown” in pop culture came from American Horror Story: Freak Show, and “Twisty the Clown” has a design trying so hard to be scary he looks more like some sort of “edgy” Juggalo cosplayer. A hulking maniac wearing a human scalp over his head and a fake giant mouth to cover his shotgun-erased jaw doesn’t need the clown motif to be ostensibly menacing. It’s like giving Leatherface a clown outfit and face paint, as if the human-skin-headgear, chainsaw and homicidal childishness didn’t make him threatening enough.

Similarly, the new Jared Leto take on The Joker for the upcoming Suicide Squad isn’t even a clown anymore. He looks like the leader of some goth-metal-worshiping, heroin-freak street gang from the movie The Warriors.

I point all of this out because people seem to forget that what made Tim Curry’s turn as Pennywise so iconic is that he often looked like this.

Pennywise_shower

If you were unfamiliar with the miniseries or novel, you might think he was delivering a harmless, misguided PSA about wearing shower shoes or something. He looks like the host of an 80’s Saturday morning kids show: Pennywise’s Playhouse. This picture of Pennywise has a lot more in common with the three goofy, mugging, Seussian clowns two pics up than that picture of the snaggletoothed fang monster with a colorful ‘fro. I can absolutely see Ellie Kemper exuding this kind of affability onscreen.

This guy that they actually picked for the part, meanwhile…

Bill-skarsgard

bill-skarsgard2

…look, hell, Bill Skarsgard might knock it out of the park, but on first sight he gives me that Leto Joker vibe. Like he’s going to show up as Pennywise with “Deadlights” tattooed in cursive on his forehead.

I’d rather have the Tim Curry / Ellie Kemper type. Someone whose smile seems a little too big when you look at it for a few seconds. A little too friendly. Someone who appears sincerely happy, yet also looks like they’re up to something.

ellie-kemper-1

Yeah. That’s the face of someone who’s genuinely thrilled to be giving out a bunch of blood-filled balloons.

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Checking Out the “American Horror Story: Asylum” Teasers

Part of the appeal and beauty of supernatural horror stories is their ability to explore the unexplained and incomprehensible. Horror stories often afford storytellers a level of freedom they can’t find in other genres – not if they’re going for something “serious,” anyway. Even the most outlandish science-fiction stories require a certain adherence to established rules, but a story about ghosts or demons or spiritual possession is pretty free to make up its own rules, and isn’t required to offer a sensible explanation for what is taking place. Hell, some horror stories are weakened by too much explanation; when you start trying to explain the inexplicable, you run the risk of ruining the suspense and mystery, or of just cooking up a lame, half-baked explanation that renders the proceedings ridiculous.

Unfortunately, that leads directly to the one big issue inherent to supernatural horror: it doesn’t punish (and sometimes even seems to encourage or reward) undisciplined storytelling. Being free to explore general weirdness and eschew explanation sometimes results in stories that don’t make sense for the sake of not making sense. Sometimes making up your own rules and ignoring the details is just an easy way for a writer to get from point A to point Z, and the story clearly suffers for it.

I say all of this because the first season of American Horror Story was a primer on the benefits and drawbacks of storytelling freedom in the horror genre. Ultimately, the show was a bit of a mess, but it was an entertaining and frequently disquieting  mess, when it wasn’t being a silly, self-parodying mess. Now we have the second season, American Horror Story: Asylum, which features a largely different cast, a new setting (the titular asylum) and a fresh storyline. It’s an interesting direction for a TV series to take, and it gives the showrunners freedom to either improve on the things that didn’t work in season one, or completely break all the things that worked well in season one.

The teasers look promising, as did the teasers for season one. Fans of the show are already speculating as to what kind of plot clues might be found in these teasers, since the teasers for season one hinted at some of the more crucial twists and plot developments (my favorite was the stomach cello solo which was both scary and sexy). American Horror Story was never at a loss for visual panache – many of these images are as artful as they are creepy – and that carries over here, with six increasingly weird and intense teasers.

The first – “Special Delivery” – sees a nun walking through a wooded area, carrying two buckets of what appear to be body parts…

“Blue Coat” is more subtle, with the nun’s momentary, fourth-wall-breaking glance proving surprisingly unsettling.

Probably the most surreal of the six is “Hydrobath,” where it looks like we might be looking in on a drowned body in a bath of… milk? And then the bathtub gets zipped shut? I’ve had prescription-drug-induced nightmares that weren’t as weirdly frightening as this. Okay, that’s an exaggeration… even my sober nightmares are legendarily bizarre, but this is still pretty damn impressive. Probably my favorite of the bunch, overall.

And then there’s “Rose,” my least favorite of the Asylum teasers. It’s not bad, just unremarkable. It looks like the winning idea from a “Submit Your Own AHS Teaser” contest. Even the hint attached to this teaser seems destined to be predictable. Someone’s going to be named Rose, or an actual rose will feature heavily either as symbolism or as an actual object and catalyst for hauntings, or Derrick Rose will be on somebody’s fantasy basketball team. Something. Here’s hoping I’m pleasantly surprised and proven dead wrong.

“Ascend” kind of has a German Expressionism vibe to it. Visually speaking, I’m kind of sort of in love with it. I can’t figure out which still image from this video I most want to turn into a poster. Remember when I mentioned “visual panache.” I wasn’t just saying that just to be saying it.

The last teaser, “Glass Prison,” probably hits me hardest on a visceral level, which is saying something considering the first one has a nun discarding a bucket of body parts s like she’s dumping chum overboard on a shark hunting expedition. It’s a pretty impressive five-second blitz of horror.

For all my misgivings, these teasers have me pretty well sold on the second season American Horror Story. I’m just hoping it can hit the ground running a little better than season one did, and hit a few more highs and one or two fewer lows than season one.

 

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