The long-gestating big screen adaptation of Stephen King's iconic novel has excellent teen performances and is highly entertaining, even if it's not especially scary
When you have a movie where the main antagonistic force is based around toying with people’s fears, is it an inherent detriment if the film lacks a certain nerve-shredding quality itself? Such is the question with It, directed by Andy Muschietti (Mama) and based on half of Stephen King’s epic-length novel of the same name, which was previously adapted as a small screen miniseries in 1990.
This is not to say that Muschietti’s scary set-pieces are by any means poor in execution. There are, in fact, several strong examples in the film’s second act, including one revolving around a projector and a foray into a haunted house that goes tits-up to the extreme; special credit to cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and production designer Claude Paré for their work throughout. The issue is more that the bulk of the frights, particularly those establishing the threat of demonic clown Pennywise in the first act, are very samey.
As Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård (son of Stellan, little brother to Alexander) successfully continues the family tradition of playing creeps, but he gets stuck in a routine of jack-in-the-box jump scares centred on suddenly screaming and dashing at people. When he gets to do slow-burning menace, he’s quite terrific, but that only really happens after he’s spent an hour as a tool for LOUD NOISES.
That the film succeeds despite its Pennywise-go-boo problem is down to most of the surrounding material. As the adolescent group of bullied kids known as The Losers’ Club, an array of familiar child actors and newcomers are the most endearing protagonists of a studio horror in a long time. It feels unfair to single anyone out for praise, but Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard is a consistent scene-stealer as sweary motormouth Richie, while Sophia Lillis, as lone girl Beverly, is a future star-in-the-making with a hint of Jodie Foster about her.
Every character gets their moment in the spotlight, though it’s unfortunate that the storyline for Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the sole non-white member of the group, who doesn’t join up with them until relatively late, feels like it’s had the most material left on the cutting room floor.
King’s novel concerns both his young protagonists fighting a child-killing evil in the fictional town of Derry, Maine and their adult counterparts returning 27 years later when it re-emerges (spoilers for the proposed sequel). So that the good box office-dependant follow-up can presumably take place in our present day, It the film moves the novel’s 1950s setting for the childhood portion to the late 80s.
Though there are a couple of 80s pop culture nods and jokes, they’re mostly kept to a non-nauseating level, with the atmosphere of the period details evoking Amblin productions or Steven Spielberg-tied titles like Poltergeist. The hidden horrors of suburbia are especially prominent in It, with adult residents not only turning a blind eye to many of the mysterious goings on, but factors like drug-fuelled hypochondria, religious torment and ritualised abuse providing substantial sideline traumas even before the kids start meeting a spooky clown.
A poster for the Spielberg-produced Gremlins can briefly be seen above one character’s bed, and its blend of bloody horror, comedy and sympathetic youths in peril is the sort of movie that the best of Muschietti’s It feels in debt to. On that note, if Muschietti doesn’t return, why not shake things up and bring in Gremlins director Joe Dante for Chapter Two?