Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard
Length: 2hr 15m
Andrés “Andy” Muschietti’s It is a film adaptation of Stephen King’s iconic 1986 horror novel of the same name. The film revolves around seven misfit teenagers battling with social rejection, bullies, overbearing or abusive parents and a shape-shifting killer clown that takes the form of its victim’s worst fears. In that order. Taking on the form of “Pennywise the Dancing Clown”, the shape-shifting monster, coined by the characters simply as “It”, preys on the town of Derry, Maine to feed upon their fears as sustenance. Opening with It’s gruesome murder of the main character Bill Denbrough’s younger brother Georgie, the film follows Bill’s quest to discover what happened to his little brother, recruiting the help of his friends to investigate the supernatural horror that the adult townsfolk mysteriously choose to ignore.
It is both a well-timed and poorly-timed film. With the success of last year’s Stranger Things and a recent renewed interest in everything ‘80s pop culture, this year was a perfect time for a reimagining of It, as one of the few Stephen King novels never pulled off satisfactorily by film (the Tim Curry performance as Pennywise in the TV miniseries notwithstanding). On the one hand, the film captures the drama and personalities of its lead teenage protagonists near-perfectly with fun, well-written dialogue and brilliant performances by all of its child actors (Jaeden Lieberher as Bill and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh notable highlights). It works as a homage to coming-of- age films like Stand By Me, and as its own work of bildungsroman. So far, so very Stephen King.
Yet on the other hand, the film relies far too much on jump-scares by the monster to the
point that it becomes annoying, failing to utilise It’s guise as a creepy clown effectively. This film would have been perfect ten years ago during the Paranormal Activity craze, as it’s essentially Stephen King for the jump-scare generation. But a paranormal monster in makeup yelling “Boo!” just comes across as dated and silly in this present era of suspense-driven films like It Follows and Get Out. With so much screen time devoted to It, it’s amazing how little we actually learn about him, with his scenes devoted entirely to scares without exposition, meaning scenes with him become less and less engaging. Another issue is that the film doesn’t seem to understand the Pennywise disguise. Pennywise the Clown isn’t scary because he’s a shapeshifting monster; he’s scary because he’s a monster hidden behind an uncanny mask of children’s entertainment. What should have been a disconcerting experience was a disappointingly generic one, filled with horror movie clichés that we’ve seen time and time again. For a monster that feeds on fear, It will really struggle with the audience.
With the creepy clown completely cut out, it would stand up as a near-perfect bildungsroman
Which is frustrating, because almost everything else in the film works really well. The young teenagers who, shockingly, actually talk and act like young teenagers, are engaging and likeable, their interplay and brilliant dialogue the saviour of the film. Stranger Things’s Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier hit the mark constantly with funny one-liners and great comic timing, as does Jack Dylan Grazer as the germaphobic Eddie Kaspbrak. We get a real sense of every character’s fears and anxieties and grow to understand their need for friendship and belonging. We see how they struggle with very real personal issues (in some cases incredibly grim ones like Beverly’s abusive father and Ben Hanscom’s psychopathically-violent bullies) but we also see how they rise above their problems through their own realised inner strengths and through one another. Each character is a victim in some regard, but the joy of the film comes from their refusal to be victimised. It is at its best and sweetest when these characters and their relationships are focussed upon.
Where the film’s narrative structure chimes badly is in the compounding of the bildungsroman stories and the central horror plot. Only Bill’s character arc actually intertwines with Pennywise’s antics, meaning that every other character’s encounter with It feels shoehorned. Due to Pennywise’s own lack of development, you start to wonder why he’s even there. The real villains of the film are the kids’ personal problems, and with them the real drama is found. But as the story centres more and more around the underdeveloped villain and less upon the developed characters, the film really starts to lose its steam. Couple this with an unmemorable score and uninteresting visual editing and the film ends up failing to hold your interest towards the end.
It is an entertaining coming-of-age film with great characters and great dialogue performed by great child actors. If we could get an edit of the film with the creepy clown completely cut out, it would stand up as a near-perfect bildungsroman film alongside classics like Stand By Me and The Goonies. As it stands however, It is a horror movie that fails to deliver on its scares, and when you consider the long cinematic history of successful Stephen King adaptations, that is a cardinal sin.