“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” So begins Stephen King’s 1,000 plus page horror epic, first published a little over thirty years ago. It’s a novel remembered for a great many things, but perhaps most of all for providing people of a certain age Tim Curry shaped nightmares, courtesy of a (fairly ropey) TV mini-series in the 90’s.
Now comes the inevitable remake, targeted straight at that same crowd. The action, as per nostalgia milking guidelines has been shifted from the pastel tinted 50’s to the Spielberg picket fenced 80’s; New Kids on the Block get several (very oddly timed) jokes aimed at them, and The Cure soundtrack a particularly strange bathroom cleaning scene (seriously, the music is oddly jarring at times). The kids this time throw fewer racial and homophobic slurs around than they do in the novel, and their overlapping dialogue and outcast relationships brings back memories of dinner table scenes from ET and Close Encounters.
The change of decade is more or less window dressing to the main story which doesn’t stray particularly far from the children’s portion of the novel (if IT proves successful, a sequel will likely cover the remaining half of the book). The town of Derry is plagued by a malevolent creature, a shapeshifting monster who takes the form of the things that children fear, though most often appearing as a clown called Pennywise. After the death of his younger brother, Bill Denbrough and his friends, The Losers Club, discover the existence of Pennywise/IT and try to destroy him, all the while IT plagues their lives, taunting them and exposing them to their own fears.
The film does a decent job streamlining most of the plot from the book into its two hour running time, though it does inevitably make some sacrifices. Gone is a set piece in the industrial works, an hallucinogenic trip, and some of the more inappropriate sequences (Patrick Hocksetter’s story, the extremely problematic sex scene); and for a while in their place, the film attempts to find more metaphorical scares. In the book, Mike Hanlon is attacked by a giant bird monster, but here he finds himself tormented by the burning hands of his late parents, and Bev Marsh finds the hair she cut off regurgitated back at her. Elsewhere, Derry feels lived in though empty, what few adult characters appear on screen (there are very, very few) are party to Pennywise’s schemes, or blind to them at the very least, keeping a tight focus on the children themselves. Removing some of the older generation’s storylines from the film actually works in its favour, and one of the instances of adults wilfully ignoring the horrors of the town elicits one of the few properly chilling moments (courtesy of the backseat of a car and a red balloon). This is very much a story about children discovering and trying to understand the horrors of adolescence and the isolation of that feeling and this is captured well.
But, this is all thrown by the wayside once the action moves closer to Pennywise’s territory. The Neibolt House, home of many great set-pieces in the book, becomes an overblown haunted house, replete with rooms full of foreboding (and some very recognisable) clowns, and doors marked “Very Scary”. It all starts to feel a bit less thought through, and a bit more slapdash. In the end, once the film reaches its climactic moments, it does claw back some of the early fears of growing up, but that’s all mashed up with a big dose of CGI that fails to deliver on the promised scares.
Director Andy Muschietti’s previous film, Mama had similar issues. Bogged down in the end by a goofy monster, the film never quite managed to bring together its fairytale and horror elements to a satisfying close. Here it is much the same. IT wants to be a coming of age drama, and a horror film and when they work in tandem, the film plays like gangbusters, but too often it throws headless ghosts and child zombies around at characters without too much thought about why.
It’s strange that this stuff bothered me so much in the film. In many other horror films these kinds of scares (or attempted scares) would be fine. But IT is rooted so much in the idea of children growing up, understanding that adults can be broken and useless, and finding the fear in both of those things, that when Muschietti opts for cheap frights, it feels like somewhat of a cop out.
Equally frustrating is the films treatment of some of the characters. It’s worth noting that all of the actors are terrific. Not least the seven children. Jaeden Lieberher makes for a great Bill, Finn Wolfhard and Jack Dylan Grazer both make the most of two of the most annoying characters in the book, giving both Richie and Eddie heart and warmth, and toning down the relentless jokes and hypochondria. But it’s Sophia Lillis as Bev Marsh who makes the biggest impression. She’s fantastic in the role, which makes the climax of the film, in which she becomes just another damsel in distress, all the more frustrating. Likewise, Chosen Jacobs, whose character Mike Hanlon is essential to the book, is sidelined here and given barely anything to do, a shame since the changes made to Hanlon’s backstory are quite interesting.
What of Pennywise then? The 90’s mini-series is remembered for Tim Curry’s performance more than anything, and taking over the role does mean stepping into some fairly hefty clown shoes. The Lovecraftian cosmic horror of his book origins is largely removed (though hinted at in moments), but he does mostly retain a lot of what makes the character so scary for so many people. Bill Skarsgard’s performance is, well, fine. Pennywise is at his most unnerving when he’s simply talking to other characters, asking Georgie about his friends, daring him to take back a wax boat, but all too often when he’s in motion, the alien movements make him seem more Dr Zoidberg than evil demon.
I sound down on the film but I’m not. I enjoyed it immensely for what it is, and that’s as a perfect warts and all Stephen King adaptation. It has the scale and tone of the novel, it has characters that are easy to love, and monsters both human and demonic. It also has issues, most notably underserving the only notable black and female characters, in some moments to a baffling degree.
In the end, IT works as an engine for frights. Resembling less and less a well structured and composed horror film as it descends into the depths of Derry, and more and more like a fairground ride. That’s fine, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell structured itself in much the same way and got away with it brilliantly, but you come away from IT with the feeling that it wanted to be so much more than just the sum of its parts.
Review by Daniel Carpenter
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