It’s no secret that clowns creep me out. It’s also a well-established fact that I’m a huge fan of Stephen King – despite being a total scaredy cat when it comes to horror! So it’s fair to say that It: Chapter One – director Andy Muschietti’s big screen adaptation of King’s seminal novel about a demonic clown who preys on children – presented a challenge for me.
On the one hand, I’ve been terrified of It – and its shapeshifting monster, Pennywise the Dancing Clown – since I first encountered the 1990 TV adaptation of the book at the too-young age of six. On the other hand, not only is the book a favourite of mine, but the remake has also received glowing reviews and has already raked in some serious cash at the box office.
In the end, my curiosity outweighed my fear. I plucked up my courage and went to see It, entering the theatre with a level of trepidation matched only by my high expectations for the film. I’m happy to report that I survived the screening – although this is largely because It is strongest when it plays as a coming-of-age story, and far weaker when it tries to be an actual horror film.
It is set in the late 1980s, in the sleepy town of Derry, where young children begin to vanish. After seven-year-old Georgie Denbrough disappears, his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) sets out to find him, aided by his friends in the “Loser’s Club”: Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff).
United by their shared status as social outcasts, the Losers make an effective team, and they soon uncover the truth of Derry’s dark, blood-soaked history, and the existence of shapeshifting, child-killing monster Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). This brings them face-to-face with the leering monster himself, and they quickly realise that Pennywise’s powers – and hold over the town – may be far greater than they ever imagined.
The best way to describe IT: Chapter One is that it’s just like another Stephen King-inspired coming of age flick, Stand By Me, only with a supernatural, child-eating clown thrown into the mix. Like Stand By Me, what really works in IT are the relationships between the Losers. Screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman have created believable pre-teen characters, realistically capturing the joys and heartaches of what it means to be a young misfit. Their screenplay also has a surprising amount of heart and humour, and thanks to this, we quickly grow attached to these characters, and unlike other horror movies, we actually care if our leads make it out alive.
If IT is strongest whenever the Losers are in focus, it’s at its weakest whenever Pennywise rears his greasepaint-coated head. Part of this is due to an over-reliance on jump scares. While Muschietti does manage to engineer some genuinely tense scenarios, the pay-off is almost always limited to a quick shock. Once the impact of this initial reflex has faded, all we’re left with are fairly blunt and, frankly, clichéd horror movie visuals, which makes the inherent ridiculousness of what we’re looking at increasingly apparent.
This unintentionally goofiness means we’re never too scared to process what we’re seeing, and this means the internal logic rapidly becomes strained to breaking point. Admittedly, horror films require the audience to suspend their disbelief; however, Pennywise is so powerful it seems implausible every time he fails to chow down on our heroes. Yes, the film does offer the same partial explanation offered by King in the book regarding why It prefers to play with his food before eating it, but it’s hard to take the evil harlequin seriously when he starts to come across as borderline inept.
But what It is missing most is a pervasive sense of the sinister, like we feel when watching a truly great spooky film like The Shining or The Babadook. It’s suggested Derry itself has a malignant core, but the full weight of this is never really felt. No disrespect to Muschietti, but it makes me wonder what Fukanaga – originally attached to direct – might have done with the material, given his impressive track record with the unsettling first season of True Detective.
Still, that’s not to say that It isn’t a scary movie. On the contrary, some of the more subtle scares – like one scene that involves ghostly voices, a bathroom sink and a tape measure – are outright spine-tingling. Even so, fair to say the average viewer will almost certainly sleep soundly after watching the film and that’s not a good thing.
If the screenplay for It is a little uneven, the acting definitely isn’t. It’s rare to find one talented child actor – to track down seven is nothing short of a miracle, and Muschietti and casting director Rich Delia really deserve plenty of praise on this score. Of the junior performers, Wolfhard is the obvious MVP (although he also has the best-written part), but all the teenage players acquit themselves well. They’re all so good, in fact, that it’s a real shame they’ll be replaced by more mature stars in Chapter Two (although Muschietti has promised they’ll crop up again via flashbacks).
Then there’s Skarsgård as Pennywise. The Swedish star carves out a performance that mostly stands apart from Tim Curry’s iconic turn in the original miniseries, although he isn’t able to completely avoid echoing Heath Ledger’s Joker (still the gold standard for creepy clowns on screen). It’s a solid turn, however, you’ll find yourself wishing there was more to it.
The same can’t be said for Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography, which over-delivers, if anything. The visuals in IT: Chapter One are lush, and together with Claude Paré’s production design, help to sell Derry as a real place. Admittedly, some of the CGI work is a little ropey, but then just how convincing a clown with a gaping maw of razor-sharp teeth can be made to look is somewhat debatable. Nevertheless, the obvious fakery on display further detracts from the overall sense of dread Muschietti is trying to build here, and that’s a shame.
Good horror movies that fall under the horror umbrella are rare, and It: Chapter One certainly is a decent flick – so this may account for the somewhat exaggerated response the film has received from critics.
That said, even if It is over-hyped, it’s still very much worth seeing. At its best, this flick is a near-perfect snapshot of what it’s like to be a kid on the verge of adolescence. At its worst, IT: Chapter One is a serviceable (if underwhelming) creature feature, and it’s hard not to be excited by the prospect of the sequel.
And if Chapter Two is able to dial up the scares without losing the human aspect that worked so well in this movie, we could be in for something really special.