Horror movies are not my favorite genre. I have never seen a “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie, nor a “Friday the 13th.” More than once, I have loaded up their Wikipedia pages and read other articles about them, but I’ve never sat down to watch them. I have watched other horror movies, including “Phantasm” and several of its sequels; “Poltergeist;” various Stephen King adaptations, such as the 1990 “It” miniseries; and more.
Although I entered the screening for the updated “It” with trepidation, it is a movie that I simply couldn’t miss. Perhaps it is due to a successful marketing campaign or my memories of the miniseries, but “It” feels like an important film.
I am happy to report that “It” is also a very good movie. Telling the tale of a group of young teenagers in Derry, Maine in the summer of 1989, the adaptation directed by Andy Muschietti manages to be about youth and fear (of the regular variety) and growing up and love and fear (of the supernatural variety). Yes, “It” is a movie full of scares on both the human level—neighborhood bullies, abusive family—and the supernatural—Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
In 1990, it was Tim Curry who terrorized all who turned on the TV as Pennywise, and here Bill Skarsgård takes on the role which Curry made iconic. And yet, despite Curry’s performance being so memorable, Skarsgård never feels like he is aping it. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is no less scary than my memories of Curry (I have recorded the miniseries to rewatch it but haven’t yet had the time… or maybe courage).
Muschietti and Skarsgård make it all scary so quickly, with our first introduction of Pennywise standing there in the sewer. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is a lurking menace, thinly veiled (at best) evil, with just a little bit of drool on his lower lip as he hungers for a taste of human flesh. As we see him more and more in the film, he is less scary but certainly no less evil. That is, to be clear, the games he plays with the kids are never less frightening, just his physical presence.
The movie, of course, is not just about It, the movie is also about our “Losers’ Club” of heroes – Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff). That is not a small group of kids for a film to handle, but Muschietti does so with aplomb, even if they pose great difficulty for Pennywise. From budding friendships to internal squabbles to growing love to personal differences, the Losers’ Club is a well-defined camaraderie comprised of unique individuals. Watching the characters grow up over the course of the film is wonderful… or would be if it wasn’t all so horrifying.
These kids have to endure the unimaginable, but Muschietti and the screenplay from Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman paint the kids in a very human, very realistic manner. The Losers’ Club humor is sophomoric in the extreme and some of the bickering is distinctly petty, but it is all the more human for it. They feel like a younger version of the teens in Brat Pack movies and the film is aware of it.
As well as the movie does with the Losers’ Club and Pennywise, it does occasionally falter elsewhere. The bullying of the Losers’ by Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang never feels terribly scary. It is a sort of over-the-top bullying which certainly may occur in our world, but fails to seem real in this context. Or, at the very least, fails to feel important when these kids face both troubles at home and great supernatural evil. A small amount of insight is offered into Henry’s life and why he is a bully, but there is still both too much and too little of him. He is an important character in the lives of the Losers’ and yet the way in which he is handled only ever offers the most simplistic of explanations.
Similarly, the movie as a whole both provides and eschews detailed descriptions. The Losers’ work out Pennywise’s base of operations and some of the history of the town, but it is a movie unconcerned with the origins of this evil. While no explanations about this history need to be forthcoming, the fact that the Losers don’t seem hugely bothered by it is perplexing.
A sense of disappointment also occurs with the climax of the film. So much of “It” is beautifully, and creepily, shot. This Derry is a place where horrors are around every corner, be it in the school bathroom, the local pharmacy, one’s own home, or the sewers. A sense of fear impregnates the town through the visuals as well as Benjamin Wallfisch’s haunting, dizzying, score. Yet, when the final battle does come (as it must for such a film), it is more action movie than horror, dizzying for the quick cuts and camera movements, not for the hypnotic sense first imparted in earlier moments. This is not the first time in the film quick cuts deter from the movie (a prior sequence in a haunted house also suffers from this), but it is disappointing nonetheless.
In short (I say now that I’m 900 words deep), as scary as some moments are, as imperfect as other moments are, and as much as horror films are not my go-to genre, I hugely enjoyed “It.” I like the exploration we got of the Losers’ Club as individuals, even if I want more of it, and I love the scares Pennywise offers, even if I want more of them. Running two hours and 15 minutes long, I would have happily sat there for another 45 minutes if the characters could’ve been more fleshed out.
photo credit: Warner Bros