*Warning: Potential Spoilers*
Stephen King is a master of horror, but many of his literary classics have a hard time transferring from the page to the screen. King is usually more critical of adaptions than a general audience, like with Kubrick’s interpretation of The Shining (1980), which King described as “a fancy car without an engine”. After seeing It twice before the big release, King went on the record to say that he was not prepared for how good It was going to be, and his genuinely pleasant surprise is about how you should feel when you walk out of the theater. It is not exactly what you would expect from a horror film about a creepy clown demon, but that’s a good thing, especially for horror fans – every other horror film these days has been so exhaustedly similar (excluding Get Out (2017), obviously) that something you weren’t expecting turns out to be exactly what you need. It is not perfect, of course, not by a long shot, but whether you’re hoping to be scared or seeking a good time out at the theater, It does not fail you.
The town of Derry, Maine is quiet, calm, and peaceful, except for its dark truth that no one likes to discuss: the rate of missing persons is six times higher than anywhere else in the country, and that’s just for adults. Kids are even more likely to vanish without a trace. As school lets out for the summer, a group of kids called “The Losers” (Jaeden Lieberher as Bill, Finn Wolfhard as Richie, Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie, and Wyatt Oleff as Stanley) are doing their best to avoid the class bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and search for the Bill’s younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), who disappeared eight months before. They are joined by Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), an outcast as well, and the new kid Ben Hascom (Jeremy Ray Taylor). As the summer goes on, the group starts to see frightening things throughout the town, but one face pops up over and over again – Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a terrifying clown that seems to live in the sewers of the town. With their parents seemingly resigned to the disappearances and the town bullies out for blood, the Losers join up with home-schooled Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) to face off with Pennywise and destroy the evil in their town for good.
One of the reasons that It functions so well (as a horror and as a film) is because it’s not trying to be scary all the time. Strange, I know, but when you don’t let the audience relax, even a little bit, some of the scares don’t work because they are so tense that they are already sort of prepared for the scare. It jumps the line between straight horror to a coming-of-age, Stand By Me (1986) / Stranger Things (2016) feeling, first terrifying you with the violence and genuine fear of Pennywise, then amusing you with rock battles at the creek and constant swearing. This shifting feeling is sometimes unsettling in a different way than just the unease that usually accompanies a horror film. You are nervous that at any moment now you’ll see Pennywise, but you’re also wondering how a movie that’s supposed to be a nonstop fear feast of clownish nightmares can make you laugh so hard. This not only relaxes you, but it actually does a great job of turning jump scares from being the easiest form of horror into actually scary moments, because you’re not tensed up waiting for them and they are not accompanied by a huge blast of noise that will make you jump anyway. It obviously wants to live up to its creator’s reputation as a horror master, and so it won’t cheap out on you for the small scares just to lead up to some really big ones.
It is important that the scares in the beginning of the film fall so well, because they really give you a lingering fear of Pennywise (even for those who are not at all scared of clowns), and that keeps his antics frightening even when his character starts to wobble a little bit. Skarsgård’s performance is fantastic, with little nuances he brings to Pennywise that will always be unnerving even if you don’t realize it (like how Pennywise blinks exactly one time throughout the film, how Skarsgård threw in a bit of Swedish to Pennywise’s lines, or the fact that he trained specifically to do the contortions and moving his eyes in different directions required almost no CGI). This is good, because after a little while you kind of get frustrated with Pennywise. He is a powerful character, almost God-like in his abilities to transform and inspire fear, and after a little while you start getting a feeling that he’s just messing around with these kids now, and would he just go ahead and eat one already? It’s not like he doesn’t have the opportunity (he literally has one in his mouth at one point) and yet very few times does he dispatch of his prey quickly when he has it in his grasp. As fantastically frightening as Pennywise is, and as much as you almost want him to win, you start to roll your eyes and wonder why on Earth it’s taking him so long, because he should have been done with this group a long time ago.
For the 2017 adaption, director Andy Muschietti decided to turn from the 1990 mini-series version of It, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace. For timing and budget reasons, Wallace’s version of it was told from the point of view of The Losers as adults, using flashbacks to tell the story that we are solely focused on in 2017. By deciding to split the story into two movies, Muschietti has given us far more time to bond with The Losers as children, as well as to really build up the mythos of Pennywise and present him as a truly terrifying figure. While Tim Curry’s Pennywise is iconic, the flashback sequences did not give nearly enough time to emphasize just how dangerous and deadly “It” can be. With this newest adaption of the story, the audience has been given ample time to really appreciate Pennywise as a dangerous figure, as well as tune in to the dynamics of Derry (which play an important role in Pennywise’s reign of terror), so that when the group is called back together in twenty-seven years, we understand the stakes. Because of this separation of stories (and the fact that the It sequel has already been announced for 2019), many of the questions you may have about the film could be answered two years from now. Do the adults of Derry know what is going on behind the scenes of their town? They all seem too creepy not to, and some of them definitely seem in-the-know, especially if the tragedies of their town go back as far as they do, but can we be sure? What is Pennywise, exactly, and where did he come from? We know he was on-scene for a tragic explosion a long time ago, but why Derry? Why kids? What’s the angle? For now, It is not as interested in the history of Pennywise (which is too bad because it sounds gruesome and fun), but in building up the relationships of the Losers, and that’s fine too. The moments of fun are surprisingly welcome in a horror film, from Wolfhard dropping swears and “your mom” jokes into every other sentence (wonder if it’ll be hard for him to go back to being cute and innocent when Stranger Things starts up again) to the spit contests to cliff jumping. It is as much a coming-of-age tale as it is a horror, and it even makes some parallels about the two being synonymous, so when Pennywise does eventually return to Derry in 27 years (story time), we’ll be ready for scares and onboard with the group set out to face them.
4.5 / 5
All of the outside shots really make me want to move to Maine. I know according to Stephen King that’s the most haunted place in America, but it is really damn pretty.