Growing up in Maine, I’ve lived in the land of Steven King’s inspiration. I’ve suffered the bone-chattering winters. Lurked the dense, immutable forests, always so convincingly haunted whenever they needed to be. I’ve challenged forbidden historic landmarks in the twilight hours, suspecting authority, or something more sinister, at every dark fated turn. As a boy, I chomped through King’s preternatural catalogue of horror novels, perhaps because of my budding adoration of the genre, perhaps because he was quite simply the most famous guy from Maine I knew of. I’d taken down “The Shining”, “Carrie”, “Misery”, “The Green Mile”, “The Dead Zone”, “Cujo”, “The Mist”, “Needful Things”, “Pet Sematary”, “Christine”, “Firestarter”, “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”, “Gerald’s Game”, and “Thinner” by the time I was 12. But nothing in King’s oeuvre haunted me more than his 1986 classic “It”. That shit had me shivering in my rain boats.
Not to burst anyone’s bubble but It, the atmospheric, well-acted, expertly-made 2017 adaptation from Mama director Andy Muschietti, just isn’t all that scary. There’s an eeriness that permeates the film no doubt. A couple of well-timed jump scares are sure to elicit a leap or two from one’s seat. Whenever Bill Skarsgård‘s Pennywise the Dancing Clown gets the chance to speak, chills climbed my spine like a thousand baby spiders. But there’s no real sense of terror while the movie is rolling along, no lingering dread after the picture has closed up shop. This is not the nightmare fuel that a movie about a child-gobbling murder-clown who takes the shape of your deepest, darkest fears promises. That being said, for its lack of substantive frights, It gets a ton right along the way, morphing into a story you may not expect but are sure to appreciate.
But let’s stay put for but a moment. In terms of that creepy crawler feeling, nothing tops the opening prologue which ably introduces the film’s hero, villain and foil and does it all in absolutely chilling fashion. Stuttering Bill Denborough (Jaeden Lieberher), holed indoors with a cold, sends his doting pipsqueak of a little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) out to play in the rain with a lacquered-up paper boat. That boat leads him to the fated storm drain wherein waits Pennywise. From our very first glimpse of him, Skarsgård’s portrayal of the hellish clown is oozing with chills. The forked bucktooth smile. The burping pitch and guffaw tenor of his vocal delivery claws itself into your brain. You can almost hear Muschietti offscreen, coaxing Skarsgård to go further, to dig deeper. “More, more, more,” is the center of this performance and it works wickedly. He’s childish. Playful. Flirtatious almost. 100% evil concentrate. The perfect cocktail of creepy, Pennywise is barbarism made flesh. Sadism with makeup. I only wish there were about ten times more of him.
At an intimidating 135 minutes, It has a lot of ground to cover what with expending Georgie, introducing the seven key characters that make up the Losers Club, setting up various conflicts with the not-so-minor-threat bullies tyrannizing the adolescent townsfolk and fleshing out the lore of this lurking evil incarnate. To their credit, the collective of screenwriters (Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman) make steady work of that task. There’s a buoyancy to It that keeps the film from ever dragging, allowing it to float along capably even while making pits stops for exposition or to touch upon extended waking nightmare sequences, giving pause to shape the fears of the group, without ever losing touch with the narrative center driving the story forward. Not to beat a dead horse, but the thing floats just as much as its tagline promises.
Though It won’t make you mess your pants in fear, a number of sequences ought be commended for their stylistic composure and apt use of CGI. The crooked, changing nature of Pennywise demand Muschietti rely on computer animation, often a boon to horror movies in this critic’s opinion, but from It‘s cringy ever-expanding maw to the various shapes he takes to some of the more striking imagery not involving red balloons, the post-production flourishes actually add to the picture and the moody atmosphere at large. A set piece built on discarded playthings and the mortal debris hovering around it doesn’t feel like anything you’ve seen in a horror picture. And that’s because, for all its dark intentions, It as a motion picture is more of an dark adventure epic than an outright horror film, sharing more in common with The Goonies than The Exorcist.
Sure It the creature runs on fear but It the movie runs on heart. The delicate friendships between this winsome group of misfits are lovingly-crafted, finding room for small social victories like newfound friendships and little heartbreaks like unrequited crushes in and amongst a movie about a murder-hungry clown-beast. The angsty, rebellious streak of teenagedom feels expertly captured, that sense of untamed youth nostalgic in its relatableness. There’s a scene where the virginal boys peer at their one sun-draped female friend that would comfortably find itself at home in a John Hughes movie or Stand By Me. Or Stranger Things. Or most boy’s youth for that matter.
Credit can be laid at the feet of the emotionally rich and sharply written script, a tender hand, one clearly committed to earnest character development, in Muschietti and the rapturous cast of young performers. Lieberher is competent as group leader Bill but it’s the chubby, booksmart Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) who’s the real soul of the group, the tortured Beverly (Sophia Lillis) the real hero and the tag team of the mysophobic Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and wise-ass Richie (Finn Wolfhard) who steal all the laughs. While it didn’t go unnoticed that the token black kid Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and resident Jew Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) both found themselves on the short end of the character development stick, this is a movie clearly devoted to these characters and their journey. And in the task of transposing the best elements of King’s tome to the big screen, this is where Muschietti shines most.
CONCLUSION: Pants-shitting scares though this may lack, ‘It’ thrives on Bill Skarsgård’s monstrously unsettling portrayal of Pennywise, a perpetually unnerving tone and strong sense of setting, an awesome cast of young performers and adroit technical showboatery aplenty. What ‘It’ lacks in scares is more than made up for in character and heart and for fans of horror and casuals alike, ‘It’ is sure to float your boat.