By Nathan Evans
While I’m not going to go out of my way to seek them out, I think I’m finally starting to understand horror films. In the past I’ve either found them too gorily grotesque to bear or too predictable to actually be horrifying, but since I started in on this Nerd On Film project I’ve had the pleasure (something I’ve never thought I’d say in regards to the genre) of seeing several high quality horror flicks. ‘Don’t Breathe’, ‘Get Out’, and ‘It Comes At Night’ have all been top notch experiences that either executed horror essentials effectively (‘Don’t Breathe’) or pushed the boundaries of what horror can be about(‘Get Out’ and ‘It Comes At Night’). Now comes director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s well regarded horror epic ‘It’, and while I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite of the films I’ve already mentioned (it comes damn close) it does manage to accomplish both of the goals the other films had to choose between; resulting in a film with a strong moral about standing up to bullies, as well as a film that will scare the dog shit out of you (sorry about the language, but, yeesh, this movie’s scary).
The film follows a group of young outcasts that refer to themselves as ‘The Losers Club’ over their summer vacation in the quaint, fictional town of Derry, Maine. The natural leader of the group, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), finds it difficult to partake in the summer festivities as he’s obsessed with discovering the whereabouts of his brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), who went missing at the tail end of the previous summer. It turns out Georgie isn’t the only child that’s gone missing recently in Derry either; in fact, there’s been a rash of abductions. With the help of the newest member of their group, the heavyset Derry historical buff, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) Bill and ‘The Losers’ set about seeking out the force behind the disappearances. Unfortunately for them, that force just happens to be an ancient demon that likes to take the form of a particularly horrifying clown with razor sharp teeth named Pennywise.
Pennywise is portrayed to terrifying effect by Bill Skarsgard (son of ‘Good Will Hunting’s’ Stellan Skarsgard and brother to ‘The Legend of Tarzan’s’ Alexander Skarsgard). Bill is only the second actor to portray Pennywise onscreen, following the fondly remembered performance from Tim Curry in a television adaptation of the same material. Rather than replicate what Curry did, Skarsgard goes his own way, aided ably by some unsettling makeup and costume design and a heaping helping of CGI that allows Pennywise to contort, change and distort to achieve the scariest possible result. All the effects in the world pale in comparison to Skarsgard’s strongest choice: the guttural, yet girlish lilt he assumes when spouting the few lines of dialogue he’s given. He’s a clown so terrifying, he makes Heath Ledger’s Joker and John Leguizamo’s Clown (from ‘Spawn’ you rightfully don’t remember) look like charming guys in comparison.
Skarsgard’s efforts are well matched by the talented young cast that round out ‘The Losers’. Lieberher’s Bill is a strong, yet sensitive protagonist (you really feel the love he has for his missing brother) and his love interest Beverly Marsh (portrayed by unknown Sophia Lillis) is equally engaging and complicated; the scenes the young actress shares with her pedophilloic father are arguably more horrid and disturbing than the many face offs with Pennywise. ‘Stranger Things’’ Finn Wolfhard plays the loudmouth of the group, Richie Tozier, and he very nearly steals the show. His character is the inverse of the soft spoken Mike Wheeler he portrayed in his Netflix series, and you can tell the young man is enjoying himself. While all of the performances are strong, some of the other ‘Losers’ unfortunately get short shrift. Chosen Jacobs’ Mike Hanlon and Wyatt Oleff’s Stanley Uris in particular seem to get set aside.
A foible like that can be forgiven whenever a film features a cast this large, but what’s a bit harder to forgive is the trope that has plagued every horror film I’ve ever seen ever: characters acting stupid and making the worst possible decision at any given moment. It’s the biggest flaw that has kept me from connecting with the genre, and while ‘It’ thankfully dodges it for the most part, when the trope does rear its ugly head it’s even more noticeable because the rest of the film is so good. ‘It’ gets nearly an hour into its runtime before any of the children decide to even talk about the shapeshifting clown they’ve had run ins with.
Why haven’t you told anyone what you’ve seen? Why would you ever go back to that room? Why are you speaking to the demonic clown in the shadows of that sewer grate?
Run fool! Get out!
Sorry, where was I?
What’s most refreshing about ‘It’ is just how good its presentation actually is. In recent years it’s seemed as if the only way horror films get made is if they’re on a tiny budget, but ‘It’ looks like New Line actually sunk some money into the project. The cinematography from frequent Chan-wook Park collaborator Chung-hoon Chung is top notch and the score from ‘Hidden Figures’ composer Benjamin Wallfisch makes the film sound like some demented prestige picture.
It’s clear director Muschietti had confidence in the crew he lined up as he stages many of the film’s scares in broad daylight. It’s often said that the scariest things in film are what you don’t see, but Muschietti confidently challenges that notion. While I wouldn’t necessarily champion his sensibility on other horror directors, he pulls it off well. He also proves to be adept at the jump scare; a technique that can usually be seen coming a mile away. I’m secure enough in myself to admit he got me more than a handful of times.
Despite working for the most part, his technique does start to lose some of its potency as the film drags on just a hair too long. Running at two hours and fifteen minutes, toward the end of the film you begin to doubt Pennywise’s menace. I found myself wondering why he hadn’t yet killed the children when it seemingly should’ve been easy to do.
With a few nitpicks aside, ‘It’ is a strong, confident film that respects its source material without being slavish to it. While I have yet to read this novel in particular, I’m familiar enough with Stephen King’s other work to pick out what belongs to the author and what must’ve been Muschietti and screenwriter Cary Fukunaga’s invention. From what I can glean, the departures the filmmakers have made from the book serve only to make the material stronger. Despite the telling halfhearted attempt at the end of the film to set up for a sequel (it’s obvious the studio was hedging its bets in case the film didn’t work out) I enjoyed it enough that I’m actually looking forward to what can come next. With that said, the sequel is gonna have one hell of a time living up to the original.
RATING: 4.75 OUT OF 5
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