The Movie Lover’s Review: IT (2017)
Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s uber popular novel piles on the nostalgia, wonderful performances, and a major case of the heebie-jeebies to great effect.
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While it’s difficult to find a scary movie nowadays that actually instills ‘scares’ in this reviewer, it certainly helps when the scary movie in question offers a variety of sequences on top of being a flat-out study of fear, what makes us afraid, and what we do to overcome those fears. This is exactly what Stephen King’s novel and, naturally, Andy Muschietti’s adaptation has on it’s mind, making it not only an interesting examination of childhood fears, but also one that is perfectly cast, extremely well-written, and packed with the perfecta mount of nostalgia to turn it into a no-doubt bonafide blockbuster when all is said and done.
I knew that I wanted to see IT when the first trailer was released. I knew because it was one of the first trailers in a very very long time to unnerve me in a deeply unsettling way, and that was extremely exciting. I didn’t think that they new film would genuinely scare me, but I appreciated the marketing enough to allow them to lure me in, even though they didn’t bother showing Pennywise in all his insane glory until later trailers. Beyond that, I had hopes for the story being updated to the 80s and that the filmmakers pledged to make the relationships between the kids of The Losers Club the central focus on the story. Full disclosure, I never read the original Stephen King novel, and I have zero loyalty to the 90s miniseries that, let’s be honest, has not aged well at all. With Muschietti, the director of the gorgeous and decently creepy Mama, I knew that at the very least IT would have style and performances going in it’s favor, and boy was I not disappointed.
Set in the 80s (rather than the 50s of the novel), IT follows a group of outcast kids who lovingly dub themselves ‘The Losers Club’ and the constant fear that they live in, not only from the monstrous entity terrorizing them, but from absent or abusive parents, psychopathic bullies, and the every day terrors that dominate the lives of kids who don’t quite fit in with anyone else. The heart and soul of the movie lies within these kids and their relationships with one another, be it the close friendship of Bill and Richie, or the first-love-fueled attention that Ben gives to Beverly, and these relationships are really what give the film it’s heart. Some of the film’s best moments come when Pennywise is barely even a thought, and when the kids are allowed to just be kids, spending their summer hanging out at the swimming hole or getting into a rock fight with a gang of bullies or even feeling the first pings of love in their young hearts.
Ultimately, audiences care more about characters they love and can relate to, and every single one of the kids brings something unique and special to their role. Although all are equally great, the standouts have to be Sophia Lillis as the tough and pretty Bev, Jack Dylan Grazer Eddie Kaspbrak, the hypochondriac with some of the best ‘guys, this is really dangerous’ dialogue in the history of scary movies, and Stranger Things alum Finn Wolfhard as the hilarious motormouth Richie Tozier, who gets some of the biggest laughs in the film as well as gets maybe the most badass line ever delivered by a kid in cinema history.
But as good as the kids are, they need an equally compelling villain to face, and that is no easy task when you have to follow Tim Curry as Pennywise from the aforementioned 90s miniseries. Although I don’t feel that Curry’s performance was particularly scary, I do think that it was a legendary, tour-de-force showing that would be hard to live up to. Fortunately, Bill Skarsgård is apparently a lunatic, and brings an otherworldly, psychopathic energy as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Pennywise in clown form is cleverly and sporadically used throughout the film, almost like the shark in Jaws. Skarsgård makes the most of these moments, and like another murderous clown, Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, he is both completely unnerving and utterly mesmerizing. His Pennywise is clearly not from this earth, approximating what he thinks a clown should be all the while never bothering to contain the salivating hunger that it has for these children and their fears.
While Pennywise the clown is the marketable terror for IT, the horrors these kids face are much more varied and relatable. The monster comes after each of them as their deepest darkest fears, be it a leper attacking the hypochondriac Eddie, the ghosts of a horrible, racially-fueled accident haunting Mike, the only African-American of the group, or even a sink full of blood erupting in the face of Bev, who is struggling with her own body as she grows up. The change of these sequences from the book, where Pennywise often took the form of movie monsters, allows for the themes of King’s novel to come to the front. Ultimately this is a story about kids who are forced to grow up way too soon and face their fears head on, and by becoming the physical embodiment of those fears, Pennywise becomes even more monstrous, hitting these kids where it hurts the most.
Another thing that makes the story structure of IT so effective is the way that King initially wrote the town of Derry, Maine as being effected by Pennywise in ways not so obvious as lepers and headless ghosts. The adults and older kids in Derry are all various levels of horrible, ranging from absent or overbearing to abusive and downright insane. A few scenes with the town pharmacist, librarian, and most importantly the Bowers Gang of bullies result in some of the more genuinely creepier scenes in the film. There are small touches with adults even in the background that create an effective sense of unease, be it the posture of an one looming in the background or the leering gaze of another. Henry Bowers, played with an unnerving intensity by Nicholas Hamilton, is the worst case scenario of school bullies. He reaches levels of psychopathic behavior that would otherwise be over-the-top in any other film. The fact that King wrote Derry as some type of cursed, supernaturally damned town makes some of the more typical horror movie (and kids movie) tropes actually PART of the story, and that’s a brilliant piece of writing that should not go overlooked. Adults just don’t understand, bullies and mean kids are terrible, and it’s even worse in Derry.
What makes horror movies so interesting is that there ‘scare’ sequences are often designed like action sequences in big budget blockbusters, getting increasingly complex with higher stakes until the gigantic finale. Muschietti brings an inventiveness and a flair, even if some of the sequences do tend to be a bit repetitive in the middle of the film. Memorable sequences fill the film with an exciting sense of tension, and sequences where the kids find themselves locked in a dilapidated house with the monster as well as the finale all play like gangbusters, with the kids more than holding their own with Pennywise in these scenes.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t without flaws. For example, the above mentioned ‘scary’ sequences stack up one on top of another, which is needed for the story, but repetitive. We need to see these kids get individually terrorized by Pennywise and his tricks, and there’s enough variety to keep it interesting, but it really doesn’t go beyond the ‘kid is doing something normal, scary shit happens, kid gets away’ model. Also, there’s been a lot of talk on the over abundance of CGI, and while I don’t think the CGI with Pennywise or some of the other scares was terribly distracting, there was one particular sequence directly from the trailer that was enhanced by CGI to what I felt was a diminishing effect. Sometimes the performance alone speaks volumes, and doesn’t need the extra computer boost.
Perhaps what makes IT so exciting is that there’s a guaranteed sequel built in, with the kids growing up to be played by adult actors returning to take on Pennywise one last time. The prospect of at least a few months of fantasy casting is extremely exciting, and one can’t help but hope that the studios shell out a few more dollars to get some A-list talent to fill in the roles created here. Particularly seeing Amy Adams as Bev, Chris Pratt as Ben, and maybe even a heavy hitter like Chiwetel Ejiofor or Michael Fassbender would be extremely exciting for the eventual follow up.
The Final Pop
Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s IT is a film with endless amounts of heart to match its creepy scary factor beat for beat. The film is a faithful adaptation that is driven by excellent performances not only from Bill Skarsgård as the horrific Pennywise, but also the young cast of kids that make up our group of heroes. IT shakes off some of its minor weaknesses to wind up not only being an effective, scary monster movie, but also a film about growing up way too early, facing your fears, and depending on your friends no matter what.
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