As is customary with a horror release, most of the trailers attached to IT belonged to the same genre. Watching them in succession shows how much all so-called “scary movies” these days fit into one of two types.
There are the movies that feature some supernatural element preying on a cast of beautiful young people/twenty-somethings; these movies may differ in terms of plot but the same template for how they dole out their frights is consistent. There’s the long, quiet shots of a character walking around a darkened room, with tension slowly rising (usually along with a sustained violin note crescendoing with it), and just when you think the bad guy will pop out…he doesn’t. Instead the character turns to walk away, only for the audience to see the baddie step out of the shadows toward the character. The idea of a monster who lurks in the shadows and creeps up on our unaware heroes is a special kind of terror; it’s different from the classic Freddy Kruger baddie, who chases his prey in four of five sequences of the movie before the big confrontation at the end. The kind of baddie in the modern supernatural horror movie is seen by the audience more than the characters; we are the ones being scared, not the heroes. And when he is seen by the heroes, its usually in the form of a sudden reveal, a scream, a quick chase and then sudden disappearance. This is the Blumhouse-production model, whose movies like Insidious and the upcoming Happy Death Day (as well as non-Blum produced films like The Conjuring) have ushered in a horror movie revival, where low-budget scare-fests are making four, five, or even ten times their production costs.
The other kind of horror movie these days is the one that eschews supernatural demons or haunted ouja boards, and instead features a more grounded villain for the good guys to contend with. Since there is no magic in these universes, these movies tend to go for either over the top gore or a more intimate setting that keeps the heroes in one location. The Purge movies have the gore, 2008’s The Strangers had the intimate setting and the Saw movies (whose newest installment, Jigsaw, is coming later this year) had a little of both.
Whichever style you prefer, there are enough of each released each year to keep you fed. While many of them are rubbish, every now and then a gem is released that seems to have perfected its style.
So it was a great pleasure to take in a throwback sort of horror movie, one which doesn’t spend two-thirds of its runtime at night, which doesn’t feature a quartet of twenty-year-olds with the collective IQ of a ripe potato, and which stars a villain who is able to exhibit both supernatural feats of fright and also some truly gruesome down and dirty violent tendencies.
IT is not just set in the 1980’s, it is made to look and feel like a 1980’s horror film, albeit one with better acting, pacing, thrills and even humor than what you’d find in an old Nightmare on Elm Street sequel. It would be easy to say the freshness in style on display here is due to the fact that the movie is based on a best-selling book, and wasn’t crafted from the ground up to make money in the modern era of horror movies. It would be easy to say that, but there must be more to it than that.
After all, IT isn’t just based on a book; it’s based on a Stephen King book, and for all the acclaim that King has achieved over the decades, the movie adaptations of his works have been hit and miss. For every Pet Cemetery there is a Lawnmower Man. For every Stand By Me there is a Thinner. For every Carrie (1976) there is a Carrie (2002). And as great as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was, it was as different from the source material as the Dolph Lundgren Masters of the Universe movie was to He-Man.
“IT” remains one of the writer’s most celebrated and well-known works.
The thousand-plus page novel tells the story of a group of children who bond while fighting off a monster that lives in the sewers of their town and targets kids for devouring. The monster has been a recurring menace to their town for centuries, as he rises to hunt for a year or so before hibernating another twenty-seven years. The book follows the so-called “losers club” who fight off the monster as children, but then are horrified to find it (IT) has returned twenty-seven years later, when they are all adults. The book alternates between the two time periods, giving equal emphasis to both the heroes as kids and grown-ups, struggling to face their fears, which IT uses against them in more than one horrific way.
The story brilliantly blends a “coming of age” tale with a “face the demons of your youth” story, and was ripe for on-screen adaptation. The first crack at it came a few years after publication, when ABC aired a two-night miniseries adaptation to big ratings success. Tim Curry starred as the titular monster, earning rave reviews, but the rest of the movie has not aged as finely. The cheap production budget, very 1990’s look and feel, and some sketchy acting moments keep it from living up to the source material. Still, it was a hit and remained the only version of IT ever to be seen on screen…until now (twenty-seven years later, fittingly).
As with most reboots/remakes that Hollywood loves to shovel onto the public, the initial announcement of an IT adaptation was met with a mixture of derision (by those tired of Hollywood being devoid of new ideas) and certainty (that the movie would not be as good as the original…which most people who complained about the movie likely hadn’t actually watched in years). There were very few people who expressed confidence in the project. When the first image of IT’s most-famous visage, Pennywise the Clown, was revealed, the annoyance turned to outright frustration. “He’s too scary looking; he’s supposed to look innocent!” they would say.” Rumors of script turnover and last-minute alterations to the screenplay didn’t help the worries that the movie would fail.
It wasn’t until the first trailer dropped and people got to see it in motion that it became clear this will not be another Thinner, or some other cheaply/thoughtlessly-made cash-in. A lot of love and care went into the making of this movie, and even though it’s not perfect, it’s the best “faithful” adaptation of a King horror story since the original Carrie.
WHAT IT DOES RIGHT
Easily the biggest worry going into the movie was how Bill Skarsgard would do in the role that Tim Curry made so iconic. Skarsgard was not ignorant of the high expectations either; he intentionally went out of his way not to mimic the way Curry played the part, while also praising the previous actor’s role as inimitable. The 1990 Pennywise was menacing as much as a TV movie villain could be, and Curry played the part with a healthy dose of camp. His Pennywise danced and taunted in a playful way, as though killing was the funniest and happiest thing in the world to him. Skarsgard plays the part much more darkly. This Pennywise dances, but with a dead-eyed, straight-faced stare while doing so. It’s different enough from the 1990 take that you won’t even need to compare them. The movie uses him in a variety of ways, too: He jumps out at you, he slithers out of the shadows, he chases with a run, he stalks with a walk. And even though the kill count is smaller than you’d think, some of the deaths are particularly brutal. As much as they showed the scene with Georgie and Pennywise at the storm drain in trailers and previews, they left out a lot that will give you the willies.
Casting even one important child role is a crapshoot. Casting seven who are the stars of the movie, plus other minor parts, had to have been a daunting challenge. And yet, there isn’t a single bad egg in the bunch. Other than Pennywise there’s not a one adult character that gets more than five minutes of screen time. These kids carry the whole movie and they do it with skill, moving from humor to drama to horror as the story dictates as effortlessly as any A-list ensemble film cast could do.
That Stranger Things vibe
Years ago, the Duffer brothers actually petitioned to direct this movie (it’s been in development for close to eight years), but were turned down for being too unknown. So they made their own coming of age horror story and now Stranger Things is one of the best shows Netflix has yet produced. Watching IT, it was impossible not to see the similarity in the two projects with the kids (Finn Wolfhard is in both), the 1980’s aesthetic and the very true-to-life dialogue. The Duffers might have done the project justice too, but Andrés Muschietti (who directed 2013’s Mama) perfectly captured the “Amblin movie from hell” tone that made the first season of Stranger Things so great.
WHAT IT MISSED
Depth to the characters of Mike and Ben
This is a minor criticism, and it’s likely the case that the screenplay simply had to be cut down for time, but while much of the Losers Club was given character development and growth as characters, not all of them were. Mike has the least amount of screentime, despite his fear having the potential for a lot of exploration. Maybe the sequel will go into it more. And while Ben is given a lot of screentime, his character never really goes anywhere or progresses. It felt like, if the movie had another hour to tell its story, he could have gotten a true character arc, but a three hour horror movie isn’t practical so his role was cut down. Neither hinder the film, but if you’re looking for a nitpick, there you go.
A better explanation for the other baddies
The sins of Bev’s dad are easily understood, and his scenes will likely creep you out and upset you more than anything the clown does, but it’s the other human villain that gets the short-end of the stick. The school bully, Henry, is well-developed considering he’s just a supporting character, but it’s not clear exactly what happens to him during the final act of the movie. He goes from being a typical bully with a bit of a sadistic edge, to someone suddenly over the top in his crimes. It was unclear if he was acting of his own accord, if he was being manipulated by IT, or if it was a little bit of both and he was being pushed and prodded by the monster along the way. And then there’s Eddie’s mom, who seems for the first two-thirds of the movie to be one thing, but in her last scene you start to think if maybe she is something more sinister. Do the townspeople know about IT? Are they able to be controlled by IT? You wouldn’t think so, since the movie never explicitly says so, but a few moments here and there give the impression. It’s a plot point that would deserve to be explored if it was intended, but that would lengthen the already long-enough runtime, so maybe it too was cut and seeds of it were left into the final version. Either way there are a few isolated moments here and there where you might scratch your head and wonder what the point was.
Individual vs. Group dynamic
Probably the biggest knock on the film, though it’s still not a big one, is how the plot “checks boxes” for the first 90 minutes, moving from one scene to the next with no progression to the story, but instead a lot of world-building and setup. IT terrorizes one kid, then he goes across town to terrorize another kid, then he hops over here to terrorize some other kid, and so on until they’ve all been terrorized. Then we get a great stretch where they’re all together dealing with it all, before we do another wave of actions with the kids on their own and so on, until we get the conclusion. No particular scene is poorly-made, but put together the movie feels a bit disconnected. The movie works best when everyone is together, riffing off each other, dealing with the terror of the moment as a group. When they’re isolated, the movie loses a lot of its heart and soul and becomes a more generic “scary movie.”
It’s no spoiler to say that the film only explores half of the material found in the book. Whereas the book takes place in the 1950’s and 1980’s, the movie sets the kids in a late-1980’s backdrop, which means the recently-confirmed sequel will focus on the Losers as adults, fighting the monster around our present day. Ironically, it’s going to be the adult actors next time who will likely struggle in the sequel, since the kids featured in this movie did such an amazing job it’s going to be hard to imagine anyone else in their roles.
9/10 – There’s a bit too much “box checking” in the plot-progression and some minor head-scratching moments, but they don’t drag the film down. The cast is too good, the tension too real and the dialogue too sharp to be ruined by a few minor quibbles.
IT doesn’t just overcome the initial negative buzz, it succeeds, along with Get Out, as one of the two best horror films of the year.