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 something of a challenge for me.
On the one hand, I’ve been terrified of It – otherwise known as “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” – since I first encountered the 1990 TV adaptation of the book at the too-young age of six.
And yet on the other hand, not only is the book is a favourite of mine, but the remake has also received largely glowing reviews and is currently raking in some serious cash at the box office.
What to do, what to do?
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 not only did I survive the screening, but my expectations were also largely met – although interestingly, It is strongest when it plays as a “coming of age” story, and far weaker when it tries to be an actual horror film.
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
It takes place during the late 1980s, in the sleepy town of Derry, where young children begin to vanish – brutally murdered by the shapeshifting monster (Bill Skarsgård) of the title.
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).
However, as the Losers look deeper into the mystery surrounding the killings, they find themselves squarely in It’s sights, and are forced to face the reality that the creature’s powers – and hold over the town – may be far greater than they ever imagined…
So yeah, It is basically Stand By Me, except with a supernatural, child-eating clown thrown into the mix. This isn’t surprising – after all, King wrote the source material that inspired both films.
Comparisons with Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things seem equally inevitable – both even share a cast member!
Again, this shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, given that Stranger Things is essentially what happens when you put the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg in a blender (and that’s meant as a compliment, by the way!).
A SURPRISINGLY LAUGH-HEAVY, SCARE-LITE STORY
Indeed, the script is sharpest when handling the relationships between the Losers, with screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman realistically capturing the joys and heartaches of what it means to be a young misfit.
The screenplay also has a surprising amount of heart, ensuring that we actually form an attachment to these characters, which is vital in a horror movie that actually wants us to care whether or not our leads make it out alive.
There are well-developed emotional arcs for several of the Losers, all of which – particularly Bill’s struggle to come to terms with his baby brother’s death – manage to stick the landing.
But what will probably catch most viewers off-guard (especially those unfamiliar with King’s novels) is just how unexpectedly funny It is.
Even amidst the terror and gore, Muschietti still finds moments of humour that further endear these kids to us, without ever lowering the stakes or neutering the tension.
Conversely, the storytelling – and therefore the film itself – is weakest whenever Pennywise rears his leering head.
Part of this comes down to an over-reliance on jump scares. Whilst Muschietti and the writers manage to stage some genuinely tense scenarios that leave the entire audience on the edge of their seats, the pay-off is almost always limited to a quick shock.
Once the impact of this initial, startled reflex has faded, all we’re left with are fairly standard, blunt and somewhat clichéd horror movie visuals, which makes the inherent ridiculousness of what we’re looking at increasingly apparent.
The leads into yet another of the major issues with It: the internal logic rapidly becomes strained to breaking point.
Admittedly, horror films – heck, anything involving fantasy elements – require the audience to suspend their disbelief to some degree.
Yet even so, the monster here is so powerful, it seems implausible when it continually fails to chow down on our heroes, and even less likely that they could pose a credible threat to it.
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 – fear essentially constitutes a marinade for the beastie – but it’s hard to take the evil harlequin seriously when he starts to come across as borderline inept.
But most of all, what It is sorely missing is a pervasive or lingering sense of the sinister, as in truly great spooky films like The Shining or The Babadook. It’s suggested Derry itself has a malignant core, but the full weight of this is never sufficiently felt.
To be honest (and with no disrespect to Muschietti) 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.
But it seems fair to say that the average viewer will almost certainly sleep soundly after watching the film, and in this case, that’s not a good thing.
WHEN IT COMES TO ACTING, THE LOSERS ARE ALL WINNERS
If the screenplay for It is more than a little uneven, I’m happy to report that the acting definitely isn’t, and Muschietti has assembled a strong cast for the first part of his horror duology.
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 – in some ways not hard, considering he 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, fortunately, Muschietti has promised they’ll crop up again via flashbacks).
Of the adult performers (you know what I mean!), Skarsgård makes the strongest impression, as well he should.
As It, he 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).
LOOKS GOOD, SOUNDS GOOD
Changing gears completely, it’s worth pointing out that the whole thing looks great – Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography is lush, and together with Claude Paré’s production design, helps to sell Derry as a real place.
That said, not all the visuals hit the target, and some of the CGI work is a little ropey. Although in fairness, just how convincing a clown with a gaping maw of razor-sharp teeth – or any of the other, even more surreal forms It takes – can be made to look is somewhat debatable.
Shifting our attention to the film’s soundscape, It boasts a decent score – although it does occasionally drift into the aforementioned horror movie cliché territory – and an admirable restrained playlist of licensed period tracks is deployed effectively.
It also benefits from a respectable showing by the sound design department, with the innocuous foley effects – think creaky floorboards, stagnant water, even that tape measure! – particularly on point.
Good 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 has been a tad over-hyped, it’s still very much worth seeing.
At it’s best, it’s a near-perfect snapshot of what it’s like to be a kid on the verge of adolescence, while at it’s worst, it’s a serviceable – if at times underwhelming – creature feature, and it’s hard not to be excited by the prospect of the sequel.
Because if Chapter Two is able to dial up the scares whilst still maintaining the human aspect of the story that worked so well – which won’t be easy with the young cast members largely absent – we could be in for something really special.