My main problems against the idea of Andrés Muschietti’s smash hit horror film It were things that weren’t out of the control of the people making the film, but it absolutely doesn’t make any true reflection on the final movie I was watching outside of the context of its source material. Those problems were inherent in the producer’s decision to split the giant tome of Stephen King’s perhaps most popular book into two movies and to move the time periods from 1950s and 1980s to 1980s and (I’m guessing for the inevitable second film) 2010s. I get the logic behind both decisions – production costs* and narrative integrity of a modern classic – it is impossible not to see it. But it means you lose the pointed criticism of Rockwellian Americana nostalgia by taking away the very home of said nostalgia and it means that the second movie has to do a lot of hard work in order to have narrative momentum – something both the miniseries’ adult storyline and frankly the book’s don’t do well without cross-cutting – or have any depth on the theme of trauma and memory without deferring to clunky stock footage from the predecessor.
Anyway, these are concerns I’ve had with the production, still have long after seeing the film, and I do think they’re valid (I wouldn’t mention them otherwise), but that’s not the movie itself. Talking about the movie itself is recognizing that it’s a pleasant and enjoyable experience depending on which angle I’m coming from.
The story of King’s childhood half of the novel is brought to life by a draft of Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer’s script redone by Gary Dauberman following the aftermath of the disappearance of 7-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) one rainy October night in 1988 as he left to float a paper boat made by his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). The following summer shows that Bill, who suffers from a stutter, is still affected by his lack of answer for Georgie’s well-being but we know the full story because we watched in the first scene as Georgie lamented his boat’s departure into a storm drain and peeked in to find the grinning ghostly visage of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), who deliberately lure Georgie into a shockingly violent end.
Meanwhile, Bill and, parallel to him, new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) are noticing an accelerated amount of disappearances happening in their town of Derry and slowly The Losers’ Club, an alliance of young outsider kids, begins to grow against Pennywise’s historied terrorizing of the town.
Here’s my main gripe with It: I think it’s a bad horror movie on the constructed elements. Its scare scenes are not only repeated setpiece remakes from Muschietti’s breakout short film Mamá – kid looks behind him or around the corner to face a deformity and get chased out of the space – telegraphed frequently by Benjamin Wallfisch’s obnoxious score, but the first hour or so of the film keeps feeling busted in pacing by arranging itself as occasional, nearly unrelated first act vignettes of these jump scare moments as each member of the Losers’ Club encounters Pennywise at least once until they meet each other**.
But Skarsgard IS scary. Taking a different approach to King’s monster than Tim Cutty’s 1990 miniseries performance, Skarsgård embodies a exaggerated stance of a being like he’s a big sock puppet or balloon animal extension of some other bigger monster. His clowniness feels like a costume, right down to primal growl underneath his floaty voice. He’s so off in presence that it’s impossible not to feel threatened by his stare, a broken attempt to warmly make contact with his prey disorganized by the fantastic eye movements Skarsgård provides. Even underneath a sheen of CGI, Skarsgård’s screen presence creeps in as the sole motor to the horror angle of It.
Whereas It can still work phenomenally well as a movie about a group of kids growing brave in one terrifying summer instead. Not that the script does them any favors – Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) are practically hosed on paper with how much character is removed, though Oleff himself has one of the best heart-breaking freakout moments late in the film – but the actors themselves are so full of personality that they’re able to embody the puerile, excitable youthfulness of 1980s kids in a genuine unfiltered way. Sure, the way loudmouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard) doesn’t shut up and keeps making dumb sex jokes bemuses me as much as his hypochondriac foil Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), but it bemuses me in the way that all kids from the 80s do and it feels so much more honest.
It may be contradictory to what It‘s attitudes on nostalgia are, but that’s nevertheless its strength – portraying small-town childhood memories in warm timelessness (aided significantly by Chung Chung-hoon’s soft outdoor cinematography, doubled down on darkness in the horror moments). The cast of It makes that movie, breaking out of shallow characterizations to provide lived-in relationships and friendships that not even the best writing could provide in such a legitimate fashion, is the real key to how well It works as a piece of entertainment. It even helps the script deviate away from the notoriously bad final beat of the book to something more innocuous. This despite the fact that the only character that really works out well is tomboy Beverly Marsh in how much screentime is dedicated to her sexually (much more explicit here than in the book) abusive homelife and so it’s no shock when Sophia Lillis ends up coming out with arguably the best performance in the movie, one where all her fears and anxieties inform every second of her screentime and she’s able to use that as a basis on every emotional decision. Personally, my favorite is Taylor, whose attempts at casually hiding his sense of dislocation in the new town and consciousness of the evil within it come off as kind of charming. Plus, his ability to visually emote the crush Ben has on Bev is so adorable.
But anyway, the town of Derry as a location gets informed by the cast’s response to it. Muschietti and company don’t really do much to help us feel like people are disappearing around us because we don’t have time to know the town before it jumps into spooks mode and its personality feels only slightly less anonymous than the cobble of locations in Stranger Things, but it still feels grounded in time enough to have some tangible atmosphere as living memory***. And I mean, there’s where the darker moments in the kids’ lives gets to have some real punch: interrupting their camaraderie to divide them emotionally is what helps It work out its main premise of small-town horror, despite the handicaps the movie gives itself.
It could be a much better horror film (I honestly yearn for the alternate universe where Fukunaga stayed on as director – though there are elements of the script that had to go), but as an adaptation of a moment in a boy’s life where he has to face the anxiety surrounding him, there’s little improvement possible.