In the summer of 1989, a group of high school social outcasts in the Americana town of Derry, Maine are brought together by vicious bullying and uncaring adults to investigate a rash of missing children taken by a demon who appears in the form of a clown and uses their worst fears against them. From Super 8 to Stranger Things, the pop culture of late has been ripe with a generation of filmmakers who were inspired by the Spielberg/Amblin Entertainment films of the 80’s in their childhood and seek to pay homage to, and recreate, those films in adulthood. It has all those hallmarks, set in a real-world pre-Stranger Danger time when kids rode their bikes around town, played outside, and a movie world that puts them in actual life-threatening harm’s way instead of coddled PG-13 comic book dangers. It, however, feels more authentic than most, partly because the source material is genuinely from that period and partly because the movie feels like such an excited labor of love by director Andy Muschietti.
The novel, It, is Stephen King at his best. An opus of pure omnipresent fear directed at the weakest and most fragile among us. It is as campy, nihilistic, and all over the road as King usually is but with real teeth to it; both about its monster and the real-life bullies and parents that kids suffer under. It’s amazing to think this is the first time this book has been brought to the big screen and the 2nd time across all mediums (a cheap and cheesy 90’s TV movie has been elevated from best-we-could-do to the gold standard by some serious rose-colored nostalgia goggles recently). Muschietti’s It is a red-blooded, barnstormer of a movie that embraces all of King’s silliness to make one of the top-tier adaptions of the prolific author’s work to date (along with Frank Darabont’s The Mist.)
It is not exactly subtle work. It’s loud and obvious, like a bull in a horror movie shop bucking around, breaking everything while guys like James Wan and Ti West dive around trying to keep their slow-burn 70’s horror aesthetic just as alive. It’s also not a particularly scary movie. Uninterested in mining tension from a darkly lit set piece or working with shot composition to misdirect the audience, instead the movie cocks back and fires jump scare after jump scare at us. Every scare in the film is exactly what it seems. Every adult is some pervert or degenerate. Every bully is a sadist in the making. The film doesn’t hold back on the reality of being a teenage outcast, threatening to swing the pendulum all the way to hyperbole. If you’re looking for a tense, atmospheric horror film that plays with the visual language of cinema to create goosebumps, this isn’t it, but the movie’s lack of interest in that is also part of its charm. It plays better as a coming-of-age adventure of likable little heroes fighting their own internal and external demons.
One of the things that vaporizes any suspense is how unclear and arbitrary the limits of the demon’s power seem from minute to minute. One minute, it can take any form and be everywhere, the next it’s being beaten up by a group of kids. One minute, it draws strength from your collective fear, the next it just goes after anyone in front of it. One minute, he can be anything, the next he’s just a clown, the next he’s got some beast underneath that (the way this movie ultimately visualizes that is the creepiest thing in it.) He goes after the kids and kills them, or he just lets them run away. This is the kind of stuff that would ordinarily sink a movie, but It is an effective carnival ride. Sure, it doesn’t quite feel on the up and up, but it is too robust and fun to make me care.
Muschietti (whose only other film is the solidly weird Mama) puts the focus in the right places. It isn’t a story about Pennywise the clown, but about a group of pre-teen outcasts and its group of young heroes is realized wonderfully. The performances are all very good, their characters are clearly defined personalities instead of just quirks, their relationships feel authentic and their back-and-forth banter is often hilarious. It’s refreshing to hear teenage boys in a movie talk like real teenage boys in all its dick joke, sex-posturing, R-rated glory. Muschietti doesn’t hang a lantern on their one-liners either, framing the group with room to breathe and letting them talk in a way that feels natural. It is, ironically, one of the funniest movies of the year. Didn’t see that coming.
It announces its gruesome intentions in a daring first sequence and, along the way, has a few other gems. There is a bully rising from bad kid to full-blown villain with a gift from Pennywise (my favorite scene, that nails that mix of pulpy macabre violence and twisted humor the entire movie has aimed for) and a Nightmare on Elm Street style blood-bath where young Beverly’s (Sophia Lillis, who is terrific at handling the responsibility of being the sole girl in a group of unabashedly horny teenage boys) most vulnerable shame is used against her in the most insidious way. The film even has one of my favorite adventure movie tropes: the “one shot left” in Chekhov’s gun. The movie lets its CGI flag fly and is composed almost entirely out of the special effects blow-outs, more than most other studio horror films. The visual effects are cleverly realized, conjuring up gonzo images of bone-cracking, form-contorting Pennywise, but they are just used to service new ways for the fanged clown to jump out of things.
Muschietti has wrestled the tentacles of King’s crazy book into a terrifically entertaining picture that crams a lot in, but doesn’t feel aimless or over-stuffed. It hits its beats just right and is leaps and bounds over this year’s The Dark Tower or The Mist TV series. What It does well, it does very well, and it’s a worthy, juiced-up, fully realized call-back to when tales of kids on bikes fighting monsters weren’t just homages.
Before I leave you to your own devices, let me say this: if Krusty the Clown from the Simpsons TV series is the extent to which you can stand clowns, perhaps consider playing the bench on this one. If, however, that isn’t the case for you, then go for it and, in the words of the King himself, “Enjoy… if you can.”