If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s seminal horror novel, It, you remember it. At 1,138 pages, it is one of King’s longest novels (which is saying something), and strikes me as his central work. Despite the mythology-weaving of The Dark Tower series, in which characters and themes across King’s literary works rub elbows, It is the essential King. Told in alternating timelines, we see the coming-of-age of well-drawn characters – the stalwart, stuttering Bill Denbrough, the rotund but brave Ben Hanscom, the battered-but-standing Beverly Marsh, wise-cracking Richie Tozier, the ostracized Mike Hanlon, the frail Eddie Kaspbrak and the methodical, practical Stan Uris – and their adult selves, burdened with ending a horror they thought they had finished 27 years before. It deals with the consummate King refrains of the magic of childhood, the dark side of American small towns and the sad reality of adulthood and mortality. No other King novel weaves these elements together in such a lyrical, frightening way.
Enter director Andy Muschietti, who has brought the film to life for a modern audience, with an intended second part to come (I hesitate to say ‘sequel,’ as it really is the second part of this film and story). He has the unenviable task of both paying homage to the beloved novel and still manage to make half the story feel like a complete and satisfying experience, all under the watchful eyes of fans for whom Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the 1990 miniseries is one of the iconic horror performances. I count myself among their number, by the way.
And, in 2017, so we come to a paraffin-coated boat swept away by rainwater and a young boy in pursuit, a monster awaiting him in the sewers. There is an almost immediate tug at nostalgia, set as the film is in 1988. There is more than one reminder of the retro feel of Stranger Things, the Netflix series which is set in a similar time period. That deja vu is all the more noticeable with the presence of that show’s Finn Wolfhard in the role of Richie. The soft focus adds to the sense that you might just be watching a film from that era, too. It looks and sounds great, and the hints of red throughout the movie connect the characters and their fears together well.
The story is obviously much too big for even a pair of movies, and there are significant changes to King’s tale, and some rather infamous omissions, yet most of these changes are smart and help ground the story’s emotional core. At it’s heart, It is really a story of a boy who desperately wants to bring his brother home. Swirling around that notion is the rest of the Loser’s Club, each of the young actors getting a chance to shine in their own stories. Of particular note is Sophia Lillis in the role of Beverly. My early prediction is that she will be a very big name before long. And though the story spreads its tendrils into each character’s life, we return again and again to the central issue – someone or something is stealing the children of Derry, and these kids think it’s a monster.
Where It excels is in the moments where it seeks to scare, and only a few jump scares distract from some fine horror set pieces, especially one that plays out in Bill Denbrough’s garage. This scene represents the movie at its best – intense, aggressive and loud. I don’t know that the movie ever reaches these heights again, but there are plenty of quality scares to be found here. I would be remiss to say that the violence directed at children, certainly part and parcel of a story about a child-eating monster, is not downplayed. There are some genuinely shocking moments for a major studio release, and not all of them are scares. One moment at the finale is heartbreaking and horrible in its implications.
And then there is Pennywise. Stepping into the role that Tim Curry left an indelible stamp upon, Bill Skarsgard’s take on the embodiment of childhood fear is more darkly playful and more monstrous, though no one scene from Skarsgard quite captures this:
Still, there are some supremely creepy moments from Pennywise in this version of It, and I look forward to seeing it again to really study his gibbering, mad portrayal.
But, there are some downsides. For a film that handles so many details with a deft touch, an expository scene at the Fourth of July feels clunky enough to jar me from the film. Also, the emotional weight is front-loaded, and that could be the joy of meeting these characters for the first time, but there is an energy to the first half that seems to be missing from the conclusion. The other thing that is missing is wonder. One of the threads of King’s novel is the notion that children experience life differently, a world full of wonder and possibility (and monsters), and that adulthood is essentially the dulling of that sense of discovery and magic. Maybe the second film will bring that more into focus, but magic was oddly lacking in the corners of this movie where it ought to have been.
I don’t want to dissuade anyone from seeing It with my quibbles. Few punches are pulled in the telling of King’s novel, and there are scenes that will linger with me for some time. It’s a very well-made, occasionally surprising big budget for-real horror movie, and it’s a pretty damn good one. It falls shy of great, but perhaps the whole of It, once we get the next chapter, will be greater than the sum of its parts. In the meantime, I’ll be fine floating with all these nice people in the deadlights…