(SPOILERS) Imagine how pleased I was to learn that an E Nesbitt adaptation had rocketed to the top of the US charts, evidently using a truncated version of its original title, much like John Carter of Mars. Imagine my disappointment on rushing to the cinema and seeing not a Psammead in sight. Can anyone explain why It is doing such phenomenal business? It isn’t the Stephen King brand, which regular does middling-at-best box office. Is it the nostalgia factor (‘50s repurposed as the ‘80s, so tapping into the Stranger Things thing, complete with purloined cast member)? Or maybe that it is, for the most part, a “classier” horror movie, one that puts its characters first (at least for the first act or so), and so invites audiences who might otherwise shun such fare? Perhaps there is no clear and outright reason, and it’s rather a confluence of circumstances. Certainly, as a (mostly) non-horror buff, I was impressed by how well It tackled pretty much everything that wasn’t the horror element, the only the aspect that seemed mired in formula devices and choices, and even then, mostly in the rather standard-issue third act.
At its best, It imbues a sense of character and setting that makes the classic King adaptations shine (Stand by Me is a frontrunner, but add in Carrie, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile – The Shining is something of a different kettle of fish in that regard). I wasn’t left with that impression from the very generic-seeming trailers, and again, I found the teaser’s record-breaking view count slightly mystifying. Where was allure coming from? Surely not the underwhelming villainy of Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise, with his Bugs Bunny teeth and lack of… something.
Skargsård isn’t bad in the movie – his posture, in particular, is amazing, all gangling limbs like a puppet on a string – but he has little charisma to speak of, no charm. That Beetlejuice poster (why do moviemakers know insist on placing pristine, perfectly positioned posters on kids’ bedroom walls? It’s Stranger Things syndrome screaming lazy nostalgia) is an unfortunate reminder of where It comes up short; shouldn’t Pennywise be like Beetlejuice but scary? That’s why the middling mini-series made such an impression on a certain age group: Tim Curry’s inimitable performance. When Pennywise is strutting his stuff on a circus stage all I could think was, “Wouldn’t this be so much more ghoulish if Michael Keaton were doing it?” Spellbindingly transfixing one moment and then revealing his terrifying teeth the next.
And the thing is, you get the impression director Andy Muschietti half agrees, because he so consistently segues from truly disturbing scenes with real human monsters (be they teenage bullies or abusive parents) to straightforward shock tactics with Pennywise – obviously, as he shows up when they’re at their most frightened and vulnerable – that it underscores that the villain isn’t really the villain here, so building to a climactic showdown that is slightly anti-climactic and ten-a-penny(wise).
You can feel these gears shift irrevocably the first time the group enter the old dark house, and the full-throttle scary set pieces take centre stage. Muschietti still delivers them inventively and a cut above, but prior to that he was sustaining an expert juggling act (the use of CGI is generally of a high quality, but inevitably distracts from complete immersion in a genre movie; having said that, some moments, like the giant Pennywise during the projector sequence, are very effective in spite of the obvious artifice).
There are no weak links in the young cast – pretty much everyone has a bright future to judge by these performances (mind you, you’d have said the same of Stand By Me, and then Star Trek: The Next Generation happened to Will Wheaton) – although a couple (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things, getting all the best lines, and particularly Nicholas Hamilton, who follows the rebellious son in Captain Fantastic with an out-and-out sociopath) are already well on their way. For nominal lead Jaeden Lieberher this comes at a blessed time, since The Book of Henry’s stink can be resoundingly dispersed.
Jeremy Ray Taylor brings subtlety to the forever-passed-over fat kid, Jack Dylan Grazer is surely going to play a young someone in a Scorsese movie at some point, while Wyatt Oleff could be a young Young Sherlock Holmes (that is, Nicholas Rowe’s nipper). Sophia Lillis, like Grazer, has a compelling but somewhat cartoonishly-staked out domestic horror to deal with, so it’s to her credit that she imbues it with utter conviction (one of the strongest elements of this thread is the blood-spattered bathroom, whereby her father’s obliviousness to its state is never spelled out). Less laudable is the decision to put Beverly in the position of requiring rescue in the third act. There’s also the problem with a compressed narrative like this, as opposed to a novel or serial, that it highlights the schematic nature of sequentially following each kid overcoming their personal traumas to face the greater threat.
Muschietti obviously doesn’t follow King’s novel with the “gang bang” of the final act, or we’d never have heard the end of it (which makes me wonder why it’s only now becoming a subject of discussion, mostly in the form of apologias and excuses by people who ought to find it creepy full stop), but he doesn’t pull his punches in other respects. Right from the opening scene, where Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott, whose performance outdoes even his peers) has his arm ripped off during a storm drain encounter with Pennywise, the director announces this as a taboo-busting picture (you can imply, but don’t actually show that sort of violence against juveniles).
I’m not sure how effective the realisation of Pennywise’s rather commonplace modus operandi is (It is, after all, an elaborate construct based on the oldest motive in the book, the monster that feeds on fear, and only really gets a pass because it’s kids who have to work this out), but Muschietti carries off the occasional impressive element even here, such as the weird cosmic totem built of children’s toys and circus debris encircled by levitated victims.
There’s also the question of how come, in a place where evil thrives every quarter of a century-plus, these happenings haven’t become an urban legend that keeps every nipper awake at night, such that it takes a new arrival to uncover Derry’s dark history? The quartet of bullies too, are remarkably orchestrated in their achievements, managing to impress themselves on every “loser” in the town with regimented dedication. But It gets much more right than it gets wrong, and I say that having seen a few talked-up “intelligent” horrors in recent years that rather stumbled when it came to delivering the goods (The Conjurings in particular).
Kim Newman said in his review that the picture “feels a little too much like pastiche”, but that wasn’t my first response. Similar charges were levelled at Stranger Things (not that pastiche is something necessarily requiring a defence), but they only tend to stick if the sources are foregrounded. There is an inevitable evoking of Stand by Me (‘50s made in the ‘80s, where this is ‘80s made in the ‘10s) but not so much that influences or period wag the dog (the '80s were, of course, replete with murderous movie clowns, from the ones from outer space to the one who tried to kill Dean Stockwell. Chris Isaak, to be precise). It’s deficiency, where it had a deficiency, is of the horror genre generally, that the pay-off very, very rarely actually justifies the work that goes into setting it up.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.