Stephen King’s It was first and foremost a coming of age story that utilised its horror elements as a metaphor for the traumas of childhood and adolescence, and it is in reflecting this human element that Andy Muschietti’s new film adaptation truly excels. Unfortunately, he isn’t as successful in taking the novel’s antagonist and turning him/it into an interesting villain.
For those who aren’t in the know, Stephen King’s It is the tale of seven young kids growing up in the town of Derry, Maine. Derry is like most other small towns, except for the fact that kids go missing there at an alarming rate. One of those kids happens to be the little brother of thirteen-year old Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), who is deeply traumatised by the loss. Luckily, Bill has the support of his ever-growing gang of misfits, and together they spend much time over their summer-break talking rubbish and fending off brutal attacks by the local bully. But this is a horror film, and it soon becomes clear that the entity kidnapping the children of Derry has supernatural origins, and likes to appear in the form of either a child’s greatest fear, or an evil clown (Bill Skarsgård), before dragging them into the abyss.
SPOILER ALERT: THIS REVIEW DELVES INTO SOME SPECIFIC PLOT POINTS
What’s good about It
Right off the bat it’s clear that Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman have an ear for naturalistic and convincing dialogue. The conversations amongst the seven kids who make up the film’s protagonists are incredibly natural. Like most real adolescents, these young folk are more than a little obsessed with the topic of sex, usually discussed with the aide of colourful expletives and accounts of the various ways in which they’ve encountered each other’s mothers. But more importantly, these characters interact with each other in a way that is completely convincing. Within the comfort of their gang, they needle each other endlessly. When they’re faced with outsiders, they rally together. When dealing with each other’s deeper suffering, they are quietly one.
And it is in this last point that the film finds its greatest strength as a metaphor for the impotence of children in the face of life’s greatest evils, and the resilience with which they are able to push through (but never passed) their trauma. This is a film in which the central male protagonist is dealing with the kidnapping and probable murder of his little brother. It is a film in which young boys are bullied to the point of torture and physical mutilation. And most disturbingly of all, it is a film in which the central female protagonist, Beverly Marsh (the incredible Sophia Lillis), is suffering from ongoing sexual abuse by her father.
By the time the malignant entity known as It rears its head, these children have already suffered more than enough. Worse still is the fact that this monstrous being tends to manifest itself as the very trauma that these children have undergone. There is a true horror in It, and it has nothing to do with a killer clown. Instead, it’s a brutal truth regarding what human beings are capable of doing to each other.
It’s been decades since I read Stephen King’s novel, but what occurred to me while watching this new adaptation was the way in which the ethereal nature of King’s clown becomes distractingly literal when brought to life on the screen. Within the context of the novel, Pennywise was the avatar of an ancient malign entity known as It, apparently picked up somewhere along the way in its travels through time. When Pennywise or any other apparition appears to children in the novel, there is a sense that the experience may not be occurring in the traditional physical sense.
In this new film (and in the old film for that matter), the constant appearances of Pennywise make for a far more tangible entity. This clown is expressed as the monster-proper, rather than a mere manifestation of a greater evil. This effect is accentuated by the rather generic manner in which these scenes play out:
- It appears, taking the guise of the victim’s greatest fear, usually through a kind of elaborate performance piece
- The victim becomes terrified and runs, hides, or is paralysed by fear
- It returns to its Pennywise form and takes a running jump at the camera.
This is a formula that works well for the movie on more than one occasion – I won’t say that there aren’t moments of genuine creepiness. But there are periods in which this technique is used so repeatedly that I found myself totally taken out of the film. Not only does this approach undermine any sense of subtext by reconfiguring the entire enterprise as a kind of Freddy Krueger-esque attempt to come up with creative kills, but it also seems to sit in contradiction with the core narrative.
How could this ancient, evil, and supernatural entity be as limited in its modus operandi as the serial killer in a stock-standard 21st century horror film? I suppose it’s because that’s what It is. The film could have benefited by greatly reducing the amount of screen time given to the monster, and obfuscating the Pennywise character in order to create a sense of the unknown. It purports to be a mystery, but plays all its cards well before the final scene.
Depending on your perspective, It is either an unusually well written but entirely disposable monster movie, or a beautifully crafted story of adolescence interrupted by constant bursts of nonsense. Whichever way, it’s interesting but frustrating viewing.