IT - Review: Yep... They Nailed IT
Sometimes ,we really do overreact. Despite the current “get offended by everything” perceptions, I’m not going to pretend this is a recent development because 20th century history begs to differ. Yet sometimes, we get so desperate to see the worst in a situation that we’ll the most insignificant detail or flaw out of proportion. That’s certainly what happened when the first images of Pennywise, The Clown hit the web from this year’s new adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. People couldn’t call IT or Bill Skarsgård terrible fast enough..... well, it seems they are the ones with the last laugh. Both this film and its feature clown menace are excellent.
Every generation, bad things happen in the town of Derry. A shapeshifting entity lurks within its sewers: Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård – Hemlock Grove). In 1988, kids start being haunted by their nightmares and disappearing until the “Losers Club”, led by Bill (Jaeden Lieberher – Midnight Special) decide to face their fear once and for all.
Now while this IT-carnation has been in development for some time. the film resonates with the same well-captured emersion into 80s childhood that many will be familiar with, from the recent likes of Stranger Things (helped by sharing a Hawkins alumni in Finn “Will” Wolfard”). In fact, IT is very much the upside-down to the said Netflix smash, being set primarily during bright summer daytimes rather than eerie nights. It helps convey a Stand By Me/E.T. level aesthetics to the central “Losers Club” kids and helps create films most important theme: childhood innocence and coming of age. While IT is at its core a horror film, underneath that, it’s a small town set fantasy adventure that boils down to battle between good and evil as these kids confront the embodiment of their greatest fears. Whereas as most horror films that aspire towards being a franchise want you embrace the villain, IT keeps the kids feeling like strong and likeable protagonists throughout. Scenes of the kids having fun (and just being kids) are given just as much importance as the horror money shots, with no shortage of humour. It even manages to make their more conventional evils of bullies and overly affectionate fathers seem as bigger deal as their supernatural demons. That’s taking nothing away from the clown-based antics (more on that later) but this film really impressed me with the way it gave its young group actual character. Even if nothing more than an archetype like the loud mouth or the hypochondriac, each gets their own development and the sense that these events are changing them. Pay particular attention to Sophia Lillis as token girl Beverly, delivering what will come to be known as her breakout performance. Though chances are everyone watching will find at least something or someone they can relate to within the diversity of the Losers Club.
Another feature that really made the film work for me was its pacing and story progression. Horror 101 is to deliver an early big scare then spend another two-thirds of the film building up and teasing towards an all-out climax , often stagnating along the way..... but thankfully, not in Derry. Not only does the horror-based material begin early in the film but it becomes a steady and consistent reoccurrence throughout as the story builds around it rather than towards it. You’ll never have to wait too long for another creepy scene if that’s what floats your balloon. For the most part, the story progresses very nicely, helped by a quick-moving first act. There are a couple mid/two-thirds points where things get a bit slack. The required later stages group fall out especially feels like a speed bump in the narrative but overall, director Andrés Muschietti (Mama) deserves credit for keeping this circus moving in time. It even justifies its 2 hour-plus run time and when the hell was the last time a horror did that? The story has also been well-split for this first of two planned films. Those familiar with Stephen King’s novel or the previous Tim Curry incarnation will know that IT takes place when these characters are kids and 30 years later as adults. Making this film entirely about that childhood section of the story was emphatically the right choice. It makes the film so much more approachable by giving IT an easy-to-follow linear story rather than two tangled timelines to unravel. No prior knowledge or familiarity is required to enjoy this film.
As for the film’s horror-based content, that is an interesting mixed affair that almost constitutes a rope-a-dope. Many scenes are deliberately less scary (even goofy in places) as the kids are menaced by the kind of generic CG monster you’d see on an evening TV show. Although you will find yourself questioning the moment (“is this meant to be scary”)... fear not because they make the real scares seem bigger and all the more terrifying by comparison. At several points this, film is genuinely messed up with moments that stretch every inch of its age certificate (how did they get away with that bathroom scene?). Of course, all the best moments come from the clown IT-self and this is where cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung should take a bow for the intensity and visceral way these clown attacks are presented. From a signature shaky cam lunged towards the camera to perfectly framed close-ups. What’s more, the transition that Skarsgård achieves between happy grinning clown and nightmare creature is at times terrifying. If you already have an issue with clowns, I would (regrettably) advise giving this film a miss. Overall, while hardcore horror fans will raise an eyebrow to the softer scary scenes, they will be satisfied by the full picture. This film is also quite open towards the less horror inclined because of its strong character and coming of age charm along with clear breaks in between the horror based scenes.
I walked out of IT feeling that this wasn’t just a case of getting a good horror remake/adaptation for a change. This was more of what I would like horror movies to be. Yes, give us blood, scares, elaborate villains and the whole damn circus but give us content and depth behind that too. If you’re even slightly horror inclined/tolerant I would strongly recommend checking it out.