Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures

“It” gives minor scares, has great personality

2017 hasn’t been the best year for film, especially for not for films adapted from Stephen King novels, but in the last quarter of the year we finally have a film that can subvert both of those conditions: “It.”
Adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, “It” is an arguable reboot of the story; its first time on a screen was in 1990, with Tim Curry starring as Pennywise, the titular antagonist. His role is remembered through honeyed lenses as the best part of the TV miniseries. Bill Skarsgård, however, brings the role back to infamy with his own performance as Pennywise, both terrifying and slightly endearing at times.
For those who have begun reading a movie review and didn’t expect any spoilers, please tread lightly below. The story of “It” revolves around a group of young friends in the town of Derry, Maine. The film begins with Georgie, the younger brother of our main protagonist, Bill, being brutally de-limbed on screen. I wasn’t sure how willing this movie was to portray violence against children on screen, but within the first five minutes we see a young boy lose his right arm, so it set a brutal precedent.
After a time jump of about eight months, the real events of the story begin to unfold. One by one, Bill and all of his friends have encounters with Pennywise that all capitalize on the character’s worst fear. For example, the character of Mike reveals later in the story that both of his parents perished in a house fire, and that he could hear them banging on the door as they burned. Mike’s encounter involves a padlocked door suddenly stretching at its hinges while a dozen pairs of burnt, mangled hands force through and bang on the door and the wall.
The characters piece together what’s happening, realize that Pennywise feeds first on their fear and then on their flesh and set out into the sewers to stop the menace once and for all. On paper it almost sounds like a young adult novel, but the film (and the book, presumably) deal with far heavier themes.
These stronger themes are most prevalent around Beverly, the only female protagonist. There is a strong implication of sexual abuse from her father, and her encounter with Pennywise involved an obscene amount of blood gurgling and spraying forth from her bathroom sink. This scene plays on an earlier moment in the film where we see her struggling to choose which type of tampon to purchase in a pharmacy. As she approaches the other characters she hides the box behind her, and later when her father asks her what she bought she says “Just stuff.” The blood spurting forth speaks to her fear of growing up and becoming a woman, a fear that involves both increased sexual aggression from her father and the process of menstruation.
I would say that the film excels at the age-old writing adage of “show, don’t tell,” and Beverly’s encounter certainly supports that idea, but little else of the film is left to the viewer to determine themselves. Each other character explicitly states their fear and how Pennywise got to them, making Beverly the only one who doesn’t explain to the audience what all the blood meant.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The movie runs at a breakneck pace and, while a lot of the scenes are individually slow, there’s ultimately not enough time to allow the viewer to figure things out for themselves. The movie doesn’t want the viewer getting lost, and that’s something I can understand.
On the subject of pacing, I applaud this film’s distance from the mean in terms of horror movies as a genre. The typical horror flick makes you want to look away from the screen, even the laughably bad ones (or maybe that’s just me?). This isn’t necessarily because the content is scary itself, but because the typical horror crutch is to rely on “jumpscares” that the audience comes to expect, and thus wants to avoid getting spooked by. I found myself morbidly involved with “It,” both scared at points but also unable to look away. I would say that, as far as horror movies go, that is a great success.
The characters were wonderfully developed, and I found myself really rooting for them at times. I was elated to see their arcs smooth themselves out, and I was worried for them when they got into binds. The pacing, again, while fast in general, was slow during the real suspenseful, spooky scenes. This allowed plenty of panic to build up in my brain, screaming for the characters to do something. I cared for them, and I’m glad to have shared the journey with them.
Their casting was spot on. Each character came to life within the first 15 minutes of the film. You could tell who everyone was supposed to be, even if they fit into certain archetypes. The kid with the stutter, the jokester, the germaphobe, the (perceived) slut, the bully, the fat kid, etc. These are stereotypes, I admit, but these are also real personalities that real people can have, and the characters as presented seemed real to me. Whether this was a triumph of the film or of Stephen King’s writing I can’t say. I imagine it’s a healthy mix of the two.
All praise aside, the film did have its fair share of tropes. There was an occasional jumpscare and the trademark violin swell before spooky things happened. In certain scenes the framing heavily implied something crazy was about to go down, something I’m not sure the director should give their audience a hint at. Questionable character decisions and ambitions were abound, something I’m also not sure if I should attribute to the film or to Stephen King.
Horror is a trope-filled genre, though, and it’s hard to make these films clear of tropes anyway. In some cases, they’re really not that bad. A lot of the jumpscares in “It” (of which there aren’t many to begin with) are actually just red herrings, things that are completely benign. The audience gets to feel how strung out the characters are. Is this a cheap movie technique? Perhaps, but if you can make me feel what the characters are feeling then, again, I think you’ve succeeded.
The movie does plenty else to set itself apart. The cinematography, while not earth-shattering, is excellent. There’s tons of little details in the set design that reward the attentive viewer. The soundtrack is mostly subtle but effective for what it sets out to accomplish, and some really interesting camera techniques are put into play.
To list two such techniques, in one scene a character, Stan, fixes a crooked frame on the wall. The perspective is from the painting’s as he rotates it, making the camera angle also spin until he’s standing straight up and down from from the viewer’s perspective. The other technique involves a bizarre scene in which Pennywise is dancing. This scene, very near the climax, is actually motion-tracked to his head, meaning that his face stays completely still and motionless while the rest of his body, and the area around him for that matter, jumps up and down erratically with his dance. I can’t decide if I loved or hated the latter trick, but it was at least interesting and unnerving.
All in all, “It” is solid. Very solid. It felt more like a movie than a horror movie. It told a story, an intriguing one and it was spooky along the way. The characters are great, the script is wonderful, the mood is appropriately handled, the tone is coherent and the plot is easy to follow. My one big fault with the film is the unsatisfying conclusion, something that, again, a lot of horror films struggle with. I’ll at least say that it was better than King’s version in the novel, which I’ll refrain from mentioning here but that I recommend the morbidly interested to research themselves (or read the book, it’s only around 1100 pages).
The movie ended with the words “It: Chapter I,” which means of course we’re getting a second part (it is in fact already greenlit and planned for release in 2019). Given the dialogue that went along with the end, it’s implied that the second part will revolve around the same group of characters, back in Derry as adults. I can’t see how the second part will force more character sympathy from me (it’s easier to sympathize with children than adults, especially when the antagonist is a big scary fear-eating monster), but if they stick to the same guns they did with part one, I’d bet it’ll be pretty good.

Post Author: Ethan Veenker