Overview: A group of kids band together over the course of a summer to defeat an ultimate evil disguised as a clown. Warner Bros; 2017; Rated R; 135 minutes.
Want a Balloon?: Fear. It’s something that many of us encounter every day in some way or another, and in 2017 that’s particularly true. There are very real-world, concrete fears that pull at us, weigh us down, and sometimes sink us. So many of our best modern horror movies speak to that fact, so much so that even the supernatural becomes grounded, a reflection of our modern societal anxieties. This reflection has always been a foundation of the genre, albeit with varying degrees of success—for what is horror if not an attempt to understand ourselves in the here and now? But perhaps it also stands true that much of modern horror, regardless of the fact that a significant amount of it is great, has been stripped of a certain element of wonder, a magical, floating property, which in turn leaves us reaching for nostalgic comfort. Simultaneously, in this quest for nostalgia, we’ve forgotten that many of those horror film from the ’70s and ’80s we seek to reclaim and emulate, were never about comfort. Those films were more than Carpenter synth scores, Savini effects, men in masks, and recognizable formulas. They were the death throes of baby boomers and Gen Xers, pushed forward into the thresher of growing up.
Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s IT captures what so many modern ’80s-set or ’80s influenced horror films rarely achieve. He doesn’t just attempt to recreate the ’80s through clever pop-culture references, though there is, unavoidably and pleasantly some of that. Nor does he rely on recognizable, over-explored horror elements, the result being that even fans of the book at the 1990 miniseries feel like they’re witnessing something unexplored, powerful in its ability to surprise. IT brings back the genuine wonder that our empty-handed nostalgia quests often seek, while at the same time reminding us that horror is more than recognizable aesthetics; it’s facing the temporary nature of time and innocence. Like a balloon, these moments are fleeting, destined to lose air, or as Pennywise would say, “Pop! Pop! Pop!” IT isn’t a rousing success because it takes place in the ’80s. IT is a rousing success because it takes place in an ’80s where kids recognize that the worst horrors of the world, aren’t mummies, and werewolves, and clowns, but a world where adults have left them their own worst failings as inheritance.
The Clown in the Storm Drain: IT is unquestionably a film made for adults, one that fully leans into its R-rating, but so much of what we encounter is from the perspective of children. From the cold open, in which Georgie chases his paper boat down the flooded street that leads to a storm-drain, Muschietti and screenwriter, Gary Dauberman fix us to childhood, much in the same way King did in his novel. As Georgie approaches the storm-drain and Pennywise emerges, his eyes so bright their luminescent, we recoil and yet are drawn by this clown. With adult characters, we as audience members are so often prone to thinking, some vocally doing so, how stupid this character is for getting anywhere near that. But the camera resides right at Georgie’s level, and we can’t help but lean in with him, his wonder becoming ours. This cold-open, may be the scariest scene of the film. Not in terms of blood-letting or horrific imagery (that comes in spades later), but in this feeling of vulnerability, this sense that we’re giving ourselves over with a complete lack of self-control. In this scene, IT doesn’t remind us what it was like to be children; it makes us children for the duration of the film’s runtime, and whether we fear clowns or not, we cower from this perspective.
Bill Skarsgård so completely transforms into Pennywise that it’s easy to forget we’re watching an actor. The way he gives himself over to this character, physically, vocally, and emotionally, are bound to draw comparisons to Heath Ledger’s Joker. There are no similarities in performance delivery, despite the fact that both characters are clowns, but Skarsgård holds the same kind of magnetic, possessed power that’s sure to cement him as an icon for the long-haul. Skarsgård’s Pennywise drools with hunger, seems overcome with such an acute hatred and lust for children that he constantly seems on the verge of coming apart, his clown shell crumbling to reveal the gaping emptiness within. There are subtle variances that exist within his performance as well, so that Pennywise never seems concrete or constant. He shifts, sometimes becoming funnier, or meaner, moving between clown and monster like some physical manifestation of time’s ability to tickle and torment us. Pennywise is past, the cracked but not broken manifestation of a made-up history that seems more beneifical and innocent than the reality was. He is the very thing we’re fighting against currently, the thing that is somehow easier for children to combat than adults, and hence our hopes often reside with them.
The Losers’ Club: Pennywise may be the central selling point, but IT lives and dies by the power of The Losers’ Club. Jaden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, and Wyatt Oleff all make distinct impressions and bring the key elements of these characters to life just as King imagined them. While a departure from The Losers being children of the ’50s in the novel to children of the ’80s in the film, means that certain elements had to be removed for believability, Bill, Richie, Bev, Ben, Mike, Eddie, and Stan have all the emotional components that make these individuals work as a unit. Muschietti makes sure that these characters live in this world of Derry, Maine, in this time of 1989, rather than feeling like people plucked from 2017 and placed on these sets. There’s such fantastic chemistry between this gang that it’s hard not to want to spend the summer with them. Even without the clown, these characters simply become interesting to hang around for the sake of their personalities. In fact, some of the film’s best sequences come from the lighter moments of The Losers hanging out at the rock quarry or visiting each other’s respective houses. These are funny kids, and despite how dark IT is overall, there’s a joy that comes from the sincerity of their emotions.
As characters, The Losers succeed not only because of their distinct personalities but also because they each have issues in their life that are even more frightening than the clown. Keeping in line with the thematic integrity of the novel, Pennywise is drawn to feed on these children’s fear because they are ones who have proven most resilient. There is horror in growing up, bullying, abuse, racism, sickness, and death, and the summer of 1989 awakens something in The Losers that allows them to combat it: adulthood. Lieberher’s Bill and Lillis’ Bev face the brunt of this awakening, and their emotional journeys are perhaps the most challenging of all the characters. In the third act when Bev stares into the deadlights, the essence of IT in his true form, she is starting into the future, into an adulthood where they are more terrified than ever before (as she recounts at the end of the film). When Bill faces Pennywise as his brother Georgie, and Bev confronts him as her sexually abusive father, they are facing the realities of life, time, and the loss of innocence, those deadlights that we must all face eventually.
Circus of Nightmares: Despite all this discussion on characters and thematics, don’t be mistaken: IT does straight, full-course horror incredibly well, arguably the best for a film of this size with this much anticipation behind it. With polished, and expensive looking production design by Claude Paré, IT succinctly blends aspects of del Toro, Raimi, Wan, Craven, and a bit of Burton into a treasure trove of nightmares, all while retaining the fact that IT is very much an Andy Muschietti film. While the novel and the 1990s miniseries used classic monster archetypes in its exploration of childhood fears, IT does us one better by personalizing those monsters to an even greater degree. The highpoint of the film comes when The Losers first face off against Pennywise as a group in an abandoned house. Split off from one another, Pennywise creates rooms and halls that cater to each of The Losers’ fears, allowing Muschietti to create varied horror where the jolts and surprises never become repetitive. Muschietti and Dauberman display a fundamental understanding that for the horror to work we have to understand these characters’ perspectives. These rooms of horror, mutilated bodies, and geysers of blood weren’t created for us but for The Losers, and whatever fear we reap is because we’re given the chance to see a bit of ourselves in them and join the club.
Overall: Wonderfully performed and crafted with unmistakable care, both reverent and inspired, IT is a top-tier Stephen King adaptation and an instant horror classic that will in all likelihood inspire its own legacy. IT is scary, but it asks more of you than jumping and marveling at gore and aesthetics; it asks you to meet these kids on their level, to face horror and not look back in nostalgia. IT puts a cap on the ’80s, insisting on a reality far darker and more honest than our pop cultural memories. IT asks us to grow up and move forward while knowing there’s nothing more terrifying.
Feautred Image: Warner Bros.