Although I don’t visit them often, I am a huge fan of haunted houses, roller coasters and similar rush thrill-rides, so the prospect of seeing a film with enhanced 4DX effects — which essentially give your seat the kind of physical powers that a vibrating controller does during a video game — was intriguing for me. I have vivid memories of being strapped into rotating seats at Disney World while visions of STAR WARS and BODY WARS blew past in full video circumference. This, I assumed, would be on par with that.
I’m not personally bothered by clowns, but IT has a sinister sense all its own, and the sprawling Stephen King novel rocked my world as a teenager.
The story is epic and massive and emotional, and the new film adaptation does an excellent job of capturing that. Is it scary? Sure. Several scenes allow for unexpected surprises and terrifying imagery, much more so than the average “thriller” depending on the startling squeaks of a violin to create tension. The shape-shifting nature of Pennywise, of course, allows for a myriad of threatening figures, among them a woman from an abstract painting, a headless corpse, and several zombie versions of missing children.
IT also successfully demonstrates Stephen King’s near-flawless weave of scares and childhood coming of age experiences, which has been a staple of every story from CARRIE to STAND BY ME. While the jump scares are effective (and punctuated in 4DX by violent shakes of your seat, natch), the film wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable without the counterpart of comedic timing demonstrated by the young actors and each of their idiosyncratic fears and situations. Finn Wolfhard in particular is a total scene-stealer, and his quips nicely offset the darkness of the horror bits. Although a few aspects of Pennywise’s attacks feel gimmicky, such as his penchant for running rapidly at the screen, every big budget picture suffers from a few gimmicks, and it’s pointless to dwell on them.
The film is good. So let’s get down to the dirty of the 4DX: does it enhance or detract from the theater experience?
As can be said with many horror movies themselves, the effects worked best when they stayed on the subtle side. Having your chair tilted forward slowly while going down into a basement, for instance, really ramps up expectation for what’s coming next, as it’s the literal embodiment of “being on the edge of your seat”. Twists and turns in the sewers were punctuated with swings of the seats, almost as if the audience were following the rolling camera on the move, and from a first person perspective, that was pretty thrilling.
A few weather-themed touches were also delicate enough to be creepy. Being sprayed with water during scenes of rain didn’t work so well — a few times everyone around me giggled a little and went “Really?”, prompting several people to click the WATER ON/OFF button — but watching the kids walk into a drafty house and getting blown by chilled wind? Yikes. There is a scene in the sewer with a makeshift hairspray blowtorch that also really benefits from short bursts of air. The timing on the gusts is perfectly aligned with the film and almost caused me to cringe from the flame.
Most of the scenes with intense scares from Pennywise were accompanied by varying levels of seat-shaking, but there were a few in particular that really worked. When Ben is in the basement of the library, for example, running through racks of paper to escape, getting dizzy, and then slamming right into the librarian — having the audience tossed back and forth physically along with him allowed for a brief but very visceral connection to his terror.
As could be expected, not everything was perfect. At the top of my list were the smells. In a few scenes there were odors clearly meant to imitate flames or burning wood, but they really just smelled like rotten food and made everyone in the audience groan in disgust. It might be effective to give brief pops of pleasantness where appropriate, like popcorn or coffee or old books, but the unpleasant smells should probably be canned.
Another thing that pulled me out of the movie were the random jolts and punches when the kids on the screen experienced pain. If they were hit by bullies or fell down a hill, my seat gave me a similar pummeling. I understand that it’s painful for the characters, but the majority of these instances were not pivotal plot points, and thus had no effect on the overall mood of the film. Perhaps a more sparing use would have worked during a few of the more violent sequences, but at times it felt like I was watching DRAGON BALL Z. It’s possible that this is merely a matter of genre; after all, a superhero or action film might benefit hugely from putting the audience in the place of someone powerful or in the driver’s seat during a car chase. But for this movie, it just seemed irrelevant.
General advice for future 4DX horror features would be this: less is definitely more. 4DX is over the top and ridiculous, and the most intense of its effects should be reserved for over the top and ridiculous films — slapstick comedy, for example, or even 3D animation. In fact, the most fun the theater had with the 4DX during the entire several hours we sat there was the Regal Cinemas opening sequence on the roller coaster, because it felt like an amusement park ride with the audience in the driver’s seat. Several of the punches and air bursts in the rest of the movie fell flat because they were too far removed from the audience’s experience.
It’s also possible that 4DX is a new enough format that filmmakers have yet to cater to it as obviously as they have to IMAX and 3D. As is, for films that rely on emotional fear and thrumming strokes of dread like IT, IMAX may be a better bet. On the other hand, if you’re going to see something like JUSTICE LEAGUE or STAR WARS, 4DX may be just the proper exhilarating accompaniment. Just don’t forget to click the “WATER OFF” button if your main character lands in a river.