Equal parts Goonies, Gremlins, Stand By Me, and a little Evil Dead, IT is chopped up pop entertainment with laughs, scares, and heart. Stephen King’s coming of age adventure has been produced with a blockbuster sheen and a Halloween bow tying together its story of children evading a shapeshifting demon that emerges every 27 years. This adaptation of King’s monstrous novel opened to a whopping $123 million (a horror film record) in the U.S. on a budget of $35 million. This is shockingly impressive but when viewing the film it’s not hard to see why it’s reached such a wide audience.
IT‘s cultural relevance has more to do with its famous monster clown, Pennywise, than what this story is really about. King’s seminal coming of age tale focuses on “the losers club,” an endearing and lovable group of young misfit teens that roam their small town on bicycles during the summer of ’89 (updated from the book’s 1958 setting). Disappearances of children lead the group on a Goonies-esque mystery as they discover the horrors hidden beneath their town of Derry, Maine. The mysterious and horrifying setup has a great sense of childhood adventure, but King doesn’t stop there. The older generation is absent from the young teens of this tale, and the ones that are present are abusive. Pennywise emerges every generation as an abstract entity that visualizes the repressed fears, pasts, and horrors of the town as he hides beneath them in their sewers. This is a tale of childhood innocence being consumed by trauma and fear, and how it’s overcome through courage and friendship.
Director Andy Muschietti (Mama, 2013) passionately brings to life King’s source material in dynamic ways that make IT more reminiscent of Spielberg’s family Amblin films than recent studio horror like Insidious or Conjuring. IT is by no means a re-invention of the horror genre, but it succeeds as a surface level scare-fest, an emotional tale of childhood’s end, and a thematic investigation of repression and fear. From the opening scene there’s an acute sense of location that feels almost melancholy in its familiarity, yet distant as if such a place in America has been forgotten. The cinematography from Chung-Hoon Chung (Park Chan-wook’s DP) gives the film’s locations a spooky daylight mood and creates a sense of tangible space that pulls us into this town’s recognizable locations. Muschietti/Chung map out Derry as the losers club bike from school to the town square to the woods to the town’s abandoned haunted house and into the sewers. The sets have an old school haunted house feel to them and the scares have a gleeful sense of pleasure in making the audience jump. But IT‘s achievement is in its earnest portrayal of youth and all of its fear, young love, friendship, and the bittersweet goodbye you have to say to it.
The losers club are pitch perfect in casting and performance. I can’t recall ever laughing at kids in a modern movie as much as I did here. Jaeden Lieberher as Bill does moving and empathetic work as the loser’s courageous leader. But the star of the film — besides Pennywise — is Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the heart of the losers club. She radiates movie star potential every moment she’s on screen. The film patiently builds its central characters and smartly prioritizes their relationships over scares. An immense sense of scope to their friendship and their place in this town’s mythic history emerges through this focus. Halfway through the film I realized that this was the first time in a long time that I cared for the characters in a horror movie. This film has reached such a wide audience because the horror lives underneath and threatens characters that we see ourselves in. A young boy writing a poem to a girl that may never know who it’s from is the sort of aching poetry in youth that rarely makes its way into coming of age films, much less a horror film.
As well as this film works, IT is not better than the sum of its parts, but the important parts (the kids) are great. Scenes work in the moment but there’s a lack of momentum tying them together and thematically King’s story feels like much of it has been untapped. The parents are seen as negligent, but one-note, stiffly directed performances from the adults are used to make them “creepy,” and this approach removes any emotion or pathos that could’ve been explored between the generations. A damsel in distress plot point in the third act is troublesome and the sort of cliched plot device that the rest of the film avoids. The scares, while fun, suffer from being reliant on pop outs and CGI heavy monsters that work for a few seconds, but don’t linger. You just have to accept that IT is more of a playful horror film like Gremlins or Poltergeist that’ll have you giddy when Pennywise is on screen. Bill Skarsgard’s portrayal of the eternal eldritch entity is deliciously evil and may join the ranks of horror icons like Freddy Krueger, Jason, and Michael Myers. Pennywise is so fascinating and fun to watch because he’s not just a clown, he’s a metaphysical evil doing an impression of a clown, and Skarsgard’s performance pulls off that strangeness for the most part. The film’s CGI focus limits what he’s able to do and I’d have preferred to see the film use Pennywise sparingly, and in dynamic ways, but he’s got presence. The film’s horror briefly works like gangbusters when the camera holds on Pennywise and we watch him gleefully terrorize the kids.
There’s not enough of a palpable sense of dread to make IT genuinely scary or thematically rich in its terror, but the film works because you buy that the kids are scared. And it’s not just Pennywise that scares them. He’s a manifestation of the town and its history that seeps from generation to generation. We see the kid’s parents that are abusive and absent and these relationships are reflected in how Pennywise scares them. Broken families and loss of innocence are as scary in this story as a child-eating clown.
There’s a version of this film that is more artful and closer to The Shining or Carrie, the greatest King adaptations. In recent years there’s been a lot of writing about the “arthouse horror film” bringing depth back to the genre, but I think IT works as a blockbuster rebuttal to those films. Muschietti’s IT trades dense atmosphere and opaque horrors for a crowd pleasing film of laughs, scares, and heart. Who’s to say that’s not as worthwhile? An artful adaptation might be more haunting and carry more weight (I’d love to see Fukanaga’s version), but the more conventional route that this film takes allows it to be funny, emotional, and scary in ways that are immediately accessible; I admire that. The tone and world-building is closer to something like an R-rated Harry Potter than you’d expect for a film about evil manifesting itself as a clown that eats children. King’s source material is so rich and scary and moving that even a surface-level exploration is substantial and one of the year’s very best films. I’ve enjoyed retro Amblin stuff like Super 8 and Stranger Things, but IT best recreates the Amblin feeling of childhood adventure and that’s likely because the source material was created in the same era. It’s in its DNA.
This will be disappointing to some hoping for a classic like The Shining or Carrie, and I can’t help but wish this was more ambitious and resonant in its horror — both thematic and visceral — but it’s of a similar quality to Stand By Me in that they’re both imperfect films whose depictions of the summer before childhood ends have such immense heart that the flaws are easy to overlook. IT may not intelligently wander into the deep sewers of childhood innocence and the horrific rot of adult negligence, but IT‘s surface level pleasures are the sort of grade A entertainment that only Hollywood is capable of making, and the losers club are as great as any groups of kids in 80’s movies.
IT never steps outside of convention enough to fully achieve greatness but it often comes close and its embrace of crowd pleasing conventions allows it to build a carnival of fun house horrors that I didn’t want to end. Muschietti’s adaptation is bloody entertaining from start to finish, but its power is in its depiction of the final moments in childhood when it begins to slip away. It’s not perfect, but I loved IT.