There’s nothing really “original” or “special” about the first film version of Stephen King’s most famous novel, It. Director Andy Muschietti doesn’t use it as a launchpad for larger themes, like The Shining. There aren’t any major game-changing performances like Misery. And it isn’t quite as terrifying as Carrie. In fact, the biggest knock against it is that it was sort of stripped down to its generic roots, leaving the context for an inevitable sequel in order to make an 80s send-up like E.T. or The Goonies. However, just because something isn’t unique or special doesn’t make it bad. And while I didn’t connect with the film the same way others did, there’s clearly something enjoyable here that makes It the film equivalent of the paperback thriller that King has always embraced as an author.
In 1988, seven-year-old George Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) disappears by the sewers of Derry, Maine. The following summer, his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) sets out to find out what happened to his brother with the help of his six friends, including overweight new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), abused Beverly (Sophia Lillis), loudmouthed Richie (Finn Wolfard), Jewish germaphobe Stan (Wyatt Oleff), African-American Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and the overly-mothered hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer). The self-proclaimed Losers Club discovers an evil entity they call It, which feeds on the fear of small children, and which takes the form of the sadistic Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). Together, they must confront their broken homes, the schoolyard bullies led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and ultimately defeat the monster that has murdered so many children, perhaps including Bill’s brother.
When adapting a 1,000+ page novel for the screen, even if split across multiple films, obviously some things have to be cut. Things must be condensed, events taking place across several pages must be inferred or implied, and so on. I have no issue with any of this, as this is to be expected in an adaptation. However, what’s a bit frustrating with this film version of It is that the part that Muschietti found that the easiest way to present this story was by stripping it of all meaning and subtext to present the most generic story possible. The entire message of It was the fear children have of growing up, especially when presented with the discomforting situation of growing up and become just like their parents. It’s sort of like The Breakfast Club, except with a killer clown instead of a mean principal. This theme of coming of age can best be exemplified in Bev’s fear, blood, which represents her impending womanhood, and worse abuse at the hands of her father. And sure, things like this are hinted at – Bev’s father is the creepiest character in the movie, we see other adults making passes at this 12-year old girl, and one of the first times we see Bev, she’s buying tampons. However, they never commit to the idea, and this is the case with the Losers Club as a whole. We never see their fears of growing up, and worse yet, we only see two truly terrible adults. Not only does this drown out the story’s blatant ideas (the adults have succumbed to It’s temptation) and symbolic ideas (adulthood is the loss of innocence and goodness), but it also raises a whole new set of issues; if the adults aren’t that bad, why don’t the kids just tell their parents about the evil clown?
Without the subtext, It loses the ability to be special. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something a bit frustrating. You see, when stripped of that unique quality, this turns into yet another generic story about a group of kids saving the day. The film ends up resulting in a riff not only on famous 80s films E.T., The Goonies, and King’s own Stand By Me, but also on spoofs of these films, like The Monster Squad and Stranger Things. Now, don’t get me wrong – this movie is a very good version of that template. However, if I’m not seeing anything new or different, my support can’t go beyond a “job well done” pat on the back. Furthermore, by embracing this broad template, things become a little more complicated. Without the fleshing-out seen in the novel, characters like Eddie and Stan become interchangeable, and even a bit unnecessary. Furthermore, they try to simplify the novel’s wide-spread love for Bev into two characters, Bill and Ben. And while I appreciate this effort for simplicity, not only does it downgrade Bev’s character to essentially the object of the male gaze, but it sets up an unwinnable scenario. The film never commits to the love triangle fully, seeming lazily added, never completed, and ending more confused than it began. It would almost have been better to have her choose one of the two boys than to end in the situation it did. However, above all, the dumbed-down nature feels like it raises more questions than it answers. And sure, with both the novel out there and an upcoming sequel, we may eventually receive answers to where Pennywise comes from, how the parents fit into things, and so on. But I can only review what I have seen, and to give them the benefit of the doubt is unearned and unfair.
The thing that frustrated me most of all was the way the film tries to frighten its audience. I think I can best sum this up with this anecdote: I’m terrified of clowns. They scare the living bejesus out of me. I consider Poltergeist a high-water mark in horror, and I can’t even look at Tim Curry on the box of the original miniseries without being unable to sleep at night. The clown in the newest It is the least scary thing in the movie. Pennywise only appears to guild the lily when it comes to the scares. There is some really freaky stuff in this movie, like a great scene involving a headless boy, or a lurching leper. These sequences build on our most base fears, but are always followed the clown jumping out and yelling, “boo!” We’ve already been scared by something truly frightening, an ugly clown hamming it up isn’t going to make things scarier. I have two theories as to why Pennywise isn’t as scary as he’s supposed to be. The first is the fact that, adhering to the film’s generic outline, the film uses the oldest trick in the book when it comes to horror filmmaking (warning: I’m about to give away the mathematical formula for scares. If you want to be spared this, skip ahead a few lines). You see, the most basic way of setting up a frightening scene in a generic horror movie is “music, silence, scare.” What this means is the ominous music builds up the scene’s tension, then immediately stops. The minute this music cue stops, you know something creepy will jump out or appear. If you’re aware of this technique, it is easy to mentally prepare yourself for whatever comes next, and thus defeats the scare (it’s worth noting that the variation that It uses is “music, silence, scare, clown appears and laughs”). Meanwhile, the second theory is the age-old complaint of “too much CGI.” There are two kinds of scares in It. There are the technical effects, and there’s the CGI. You won’t even need one guess to know which one is better. The sequences featuring contortionists, clown doll props, and buckets of fake blood stand out as some of the scariest stuff seen all year. Meanwhile, terrible CGI paintings and floating kids look unnatural and ugly. Hell, the best scare in the entire film comes from basic shadow play as a figure’s silhouette appears across a wall where there shouldn’t be one. That sent shivers down my spine in a way Pennywise’s extending Scary Movie-esque arm never did. Look, all I’m saying is that if the film had dedicated more time to practical scares and mind tricks and less time to Pennywise doing a demented hoedown (I kid you not, this is a real thing, and is already on its way to becoming the next meme), then this film would be a horror film for the ages.
Obviously, if a film is going to follow a template, it’s goal is to get by solely on performances. Luckily, Muschietti and New Line did not skimp when it came to their ensemble. This is one of the greatest groups of child actors ever assembled, and they match their characters in book and film form perfectly. There isn’t a weak link among them, although if I were to single out the strongest of the bunch, I would say that Taylor, Lillis, and especially Wolfhard take the cake. Wolfhard is a natural actor in a way grown men in their seventies aren’t. He understands the goofy nature of childhood while never losing that sense of fear in the face of adversity. His Richie is a source of humor and realism that made him the most identifiably likable character. Two of my favorite moments come when he enters a room filled with his greatest fear, clowns, and just declares, “Oh, f*ck this.” He also has the film’s most applause-worthy line with, “We’re gonna have to kill this f*cking clown” (I really hate clowns, guys, and I applaud my characters who do too). Between this and Stranger Things, it is entirely possible that Wolfhard is a typecast actor, but if he can branch out from the horror-throwback genre, he could be the greatest actor of his generation. Meanwhile, Lillis has the hardest arc overall, playing an emotionally and (possibly) physically abused young girl struggling with her identity as she discovers adulthood, her sexuality, and a world beyond her own. She is the character you feel for, and Lillis does this with such grace and talent in a way beyond her age, it becomes the film’s biggest letdown when she simply becomes something of a girl-next-door damsel in distress. And in the film’s greatest discovery, Jeremy Ray Taylor steals our hearts as Ben, the overweight new kid struggling to make friends. Ben is one of the most beloved characters from the novel, and Taylor plays him so sweetly and kindly, without ever making him a creepy “Nice Guy Hello M’lady,” that he damn near walks away with the entire movie. However, while I focus on these three, I don’t want to take attention away from the other members of the Losers’ Club. Lieberher has always been a talented child actor, and he bounces back tremendously from his disastrous role in The Book of Henry with his role as charismatic everyman Bill. Chosen Jacobs adds a kind-hearted strength to the role of Mike, despite the fact that his character doesn’t get much to do. The same goes for Wyatt Oleff, who plays the unforgiving role of Stan as well as anyone could, considering the character is often an afterthough. And Jack Dylan Grazer takes on the role of Eddie with respectable aplomb, making him a memorable participant in the film’s activities. These kids all interact with each other like real friends, demonstrating the definition of ensemble in their combination of flawless individual and group performances.
Of the rest of the cast, I want to give special attention to Stephen Bogaert as Alvin Marsh, Bev’s father. While his first appearance onscreen felt unnecessarily on-the-nose and shoehorned in, he slowly grows to become the most frightening figure in the movie. His performance is second only to the performance of Joe Bostick as Mr. Keene, the creepiest character in this film. It’s not so much what he says or does, but how he says and does it. With one line delivery, he almost demonstrates an entire layer of subtext that this film was sorely missing, one of the key things I’ll leave unspoiled in this review. As for the childhood bullies, I want to give Nicholas Hamilton credit. Bullies in Stephen King films are quite frustrating. They are all essentially the same role, and they kind of jump from 1 to 100 right off the bat on the sociopath Richter scale. It’s a little unbelievable to see the bully right off the bat trying to carve his name into a fat kid’s stomach, and it takes a bit of the fear out of watching a fifteen-year-old go crazy. Still, one of the scariest scenes in the film involves Hamilton and a cat, so I want to give him some credit. Which I guess brings us to Skarsgård. Look, I don’t want to make it sound like Skarsgård gave a bad performance. I thought he was quite good. I just can’t get over the fact he wasn’t that scary. I think a part of that was because he was trying to be scary. Look, I won’t pretend that Curry’s performance in the original miniseries was very good – it kind of wasn’t. But one of the scariest things about Curry was the seductive nature of his portrayal. If you were a young kid and you ran into Curry’s Pennywise, it would make sense you would follow him for a balloon. If you ran into this snarling, drooling, hoedown-ing Pennywise, you would most certainly kick him in the balls and run the other way. I think that Skarsgård’s biggest hurdle is the fact that he is, at times, clearly influenced by Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. You can see traces of the sinister clown running throughout the performance, and it unfortunately takes you out of whatever Skarsgård is going for. I don’t want to say that he did a bad job – he clearly put his own spin on things, and is clearly trying to create something completely unironic as opposed to his predecessor, but I’m just not sure he got there the way that he wanted to.
This review sounds a lot more negative than I mean for it to. I was just disappointed that we missed the chance at a truly iconic film. However, perhaps that’s reading too much into the necessity for great art. After all, the reason Stephen King is so beloved isn’t because he’s actually a great author, it’s because he’s a wonderful storyteller who knows how to get down to the basic details of our deepest fears and mine them for general, but interesting stories. It’s been done before, and I’d argue it’s nowhere near as scary as it was on the page, but there’s no denying that the infamous opening scene involving the sewer is a master class in building tension. I guess that, when it comes down to whether you should see it, I look to a recent quote by Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan. Over Twitter this weekend, he declared It to be the greatest piece of art this century, because “it is the definition of pure entertainment.” I obviously don’t agree with the first part, but what I must emphasize as I end this review is that I agree with that second part wholeheartedly. If you’re looking for something dumb, with lots of good moments coming together in an enjoyable, forgettable romp, then by all means, go see It. I certainly have no regrets.