Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman
No, I haven’t read Stephen King’s book It. In fact, I’ve never read a Stephen King novel, short story, or anything. I understand that is something I need to remedy at some point in my life. It is a regret. No, I haven’t seen the original mini-series It, released in 1990 and starring the incomparable Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown. I have admitted this before, and should come as no surprise to many of my readers, but horror is typically not my priority, and certainly not my expertise. I enjoy a good horror movie, and count films such as Halloween, Silence of the Lambs, The Thing, Scream, and others among some of the best films of all time. I just tend not to seek them out, and more often than not I find them to be full of cheap scares and little substance. The 2017 adaptation of the Stephen King novel It is strange in that it manages to be quite good, while also not being very good. Let me explain…
It’s Derry, Maine in the late 1980s and school has just been let out for the summer. A group of so-called “losers”, consisting of Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) find themselves teaming up with a homeschooled outcast Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and a cute, but ridiculed girl named Beverly (Sophia Lillis) to avoid the town bully’s. Of course the bully’s are the least of their worries, as children continue to mysteriously disappear, dating all the way back to when Bill’s kid brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) disappeared in a rainstorm after an encounter with a strange clown who lives in the sewers named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). The group of misfits must come together to overcome their collective fears to survive this tense coming-of-age horror film.
It gets a lot of things right, and I mean a lot of things. But it also gets it’s fair share of things wrong, and I readily admit this may be personal preference, but I do want to emphasize everything this film has going for it. First and foremost, these kids. The producers did a wonderful job casting these kids who carry the movie from start to finish. And director Andy Muschietti deserves credit for coaxing their stellar performances out of them as well. They have great comedic timing (with the numerous moments of humor and laughter sprinkled throughout a nice surprise in the film), they have good charisma, and perhaps most importantly, they have great chemistry. These kids are believable and play off each other in a great ensemble performance.
The screenwriters deserve a good deal of credit here too, with experienced horror writer Gary Dauberman teaming with Chase Palmer and talented filmmaker Cary Fukunaga. They write full-bodied characters each with their own experience, something unique to bring to the story. Bill is the lead here, but it’s the group that stars as a result of the solid screenplay. Taking place in small town Maine, and featuring a rag-tag team of kids, It begins to feel much more like a coming-of-age classic like Stand By Me (also based on Stephen King material), or even better something like Super 8, just with a little more horror involved. So where the film manages to go wrong is when it brings in the horror elements of the story, which more often than not feel out of place, forced, and cheap when compared to the inroads made by the dramatic narrative-building done by much of the rest of the film. It has a bursting heart at its center and a cancerous obligation on the outsides.
Pennywise is a formidable villain, and what he stands for is a solid allegory. Skarsgard is effectively creepy in the role, but Pennywise also doesn’t feature all too prominently in the film. What I found wrong, and off-putting, about It was how it played the horror. As I said, it feels as though it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film. There is such a solid core, and a great cast, emotional connection, that the style director Andy Muschietti goes with for his horror feels completely cheap and fake in comparison to the genuine feeling from the rest of the film. Sure there are scares, but I felt like most were unearned. It feels like two completely different movies that don’t quite gel in the end and the supernatural elements are in direct opposition to the more grounded elements of the narrative. There is plenty here to applaud, and plenty to build on (wink, wink) that I have no problem recommending the film. I’m just not as confident calling this a great horror movie, since it works much better as a genuine coming-of-age tale.