“Ain’t nothing like a little fear to make a paper man crumble.”
What I think the latest iteration of It accentuates and absolutely nails as a cinematic version (and, I can only assume, Stephen King’s prose in his tome of a novel does as well) is to achieve the great exaggeration of a young mind’s eye. The opening scene introduces us to the galosh wearing Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) who’s told by big brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) to go into the cellar and grab the sealant for his brand new paper boat. As he stands at the head of the stairs, the unlit basement feels inherently scary. It’s dark and it’s rarely visited, and both factors combine into a place of the unknown. Georgie escapes the shadows and sprints upstairs, runs his boat down the street in a rainstorm, and thinks his sloop to be lost to the sewers. That is, at least, until two jaundiced eyes open in the pitch black, the boat comes into focus, and Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) the Dancing Clown eeks out into the light. When I mention the influence of exaggeration, just take a look at the size of the run-off grate compared to the boy in the image below. It creates a world where children’s creative capacities are at war with those who willingly bait their imaginations, and like everyone else in my loud, expressive, off-kilter audience, I swallowed the imprecisely thrown yet toothsome lure in one big gulp. Sometimes you just can’t help yourself.
In a shot as open as a python’s jaw, poor Georgie is wrestled below the roads. It’s common for kids to go missing in the town of Derry and Bill’s little brother is no exception. The main question is surprisingly simple: Why don’t the adults seem to notice, and more importantly, why don’t they ever show more concern than tacking another missing person’s photo on top of the last one? Such interrogation dives headfirst into the film’s deepest and darkest themes. It is a story devoid of the protection of so-called modern safe spaces, and in every single case, the cast of kids are fearful of their homes and left to dwell on their own in the lower rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s at the bottom where they find security and are able to nurture the kind of analog friendship you could only properly foster in such an 80’s inspired setting. This culture is torn, it’s on the mend, and our lovable losers contrast the norm with an often hysterical sense of humor (I honestly haven’t heard this many solid dick jokes since Superbad) and a genuine attachment to the fears that dwell within their hearts. I didn’t find It to be as scary as it could’ve been, but better yet, it was far funnier, heartfelt, and more edifying than the numerous trailers ever could have let on.
This Loser’s club is defined by their fears. Bill is haunted by the ghost of his little brother. Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) breathes through an inhaler and pops pills to the tune of his Casio watch, a hypochondriac disturbed by thoughts of illness. The loud-mouthed and wise-cracking Ritchie (Finn Wolfhard) fears clowns, maybe because he’s aware he acts like one. Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) can’t stand to look at the ghostly painting in his Rabbi father’s office. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the pudgy new kid who happens to love New Kidz on the Block and is terrified by the town’s history. Then there’s the home-schooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs), last to enter the group and haunted by a house fire. But the most interesting and well-rounded character shines through Sophia Lillis’ breakthrough performance as Beverly Marsh. She’s the supposed school slut, as fearful of her groping father as she is of embracing her womanhood, and Lillis plays her with strong eyes and sure-footed awareness. Her character might be given the most emotional range and depth to work with, but Lillis manages to imbue it with great maturity. In a film about pubescent boys wrestling with primordial fears, it’s nice to see that the strongest and most tested character is a girl on the brink of becoming of a lady. Mark my words: this new actress is a star in the making.
Having said that, and however overly critical it may sound on my part, some of the performers simply don’t add anything to their characters. Even Lieberher – a seasoned vet in his age group – can’t match his awkwardly stuttering voice to the vigor of his eyes. He knows how to feel, but here I think he misses the mark of empathy. The same goes for performers (not yet real actors) Oleff, Jacobs, and Taylor in curiously undemanding roles given the story’s eventual two-part pattern. As such, director Andy Muschietti’s vision for the picture comes across as blurred. It’s never as scary as it should be, the jokes are more like broken white lines meant to pass the time on this long mystical road instead of confining us to impassable stretches of uncertainty, and the editing undermines the film’s use of jump scares by repeating the same narrative scheme without much alteration. This is a one-sized fits all horror flick that rightfully makes us tremble; I’d have preferred if it was tailored, tighter, and more static with its scares.
The film’s disturbingly predatory opening sequence is one which I imagine will lie just outside the realm of iconic for most adults but will make its presence known in countless nightmares yet to come for youngsters who scramble and sneak into this R-rated film. In all of 5 minutes, It spins Pennywise into an entirely different beast compared to the 1990 miniseries. Tim Curry previously and famously played the character with color and the kind of personality you’d come across from a failed comic taking their talents to a grotesquely inappropriate carnival booth located in the back corner. It resonates after all of these years because the costuming was so customary and so suited for a boring birthday party. However, this new take is more diabolical in its scheming, the bullying, and ultimately more driven by its fiendish sense of consumption. In one scene alone, Bill Skarsgård delivers the kind of faintly lingering and legendary performance destined for horror lore. It’s absolutely chilling to the bone, and I so wanted to devour more stagnant conversation pieces where his stalking and mad-capped Pennywise was allowed to really act instead of fly at us in service of an easy scare.
I can always convince myself that a picture is very good – as is It – when I have to convince myself that it’s just as far from being great. There’s too much CGI, and even if this choice is intentional on Muschietti’s behalf, it still takes away from our antagonist’s worldly connection to the Losers. A cleaner marriage between the miniseries’ practical effects and this film’s grandeur might have remedied this ailment. There’s also a rhythmic editing pattern introducing us to the Losers’ alarm which reduces the terror of Pennywise’s presence scene after scene. There’s silence, quivering lights, and…BAM!, there he is again and again. That’s the problem with the editing of this film; all of the elements are in place to scare us, but they’re so sequential and patterned that it becomes repetitive. It, in this first installment of two, is a praiseworthy critique of the parts of life we identify with and how kids relate from a literally lower POV against one that looks down and hounds after their innocence with gifts, festival treat, and with popcorn that goes pop pop pop. It earned every single gasp from my fellow audience members. So while I might not have thought that this movie was great, it still understands how friendship can overcome the town bullies, the deepest and darkest parts of our hearts, and yes, even a drooling and peckish clown who feasts on fear.
“We’re all afraid of something.”
Rating: 4 out of 5