There’s something terribly familiar about It, the new adaptation of Stephen King’s notoriously-voluminous master-class horror novel. It’s not just the legacy of the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation or of Tim Curry’s performance as the demonic clown Pennywise, although that’s certainly there. It’s more that nearly everything in the film seems borrowed or stolen from other works, from its Grand Guignol set pieces to its examination of pre-teen innocence to its meticulously-detailed period decor. That’s fairly ironic, especially seeing as how King’s novel in many ways codified the “evil clown” trope in fiction.
WARNING! WE ALL HAVE MILD SPOILERS DOWN HERE!
Adapting only the first part of the novel’s 1,100-page narrative, It the film follows a group of seven kids who call themselves the Losers Club during the summer of 1989 in Derry, Maine. Aside from dealing with a pack of sadistic bullies and parents who are almost uniformly unfit, all seven also get visited by a demonic entity that disguises itself as the clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). As the kids find out, Pennywise (or “It”) comes to Derry every 27 years, kills a bunch of kids, then goes into hibernation. Blaming It for the death of his brother Georgie a few months earlier, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) leads the Losers Club in a quest to stop It once and for all.
Even before the film properly begins, the studio logos inform the audience exactly what kind of film they’ll be watching. While heavily reverbed children’s voices sing indistinctly in a precisely-edited stereo field, rain falls on the logos themselves, all set in a gray, dreary background. It’s the film in microcosm, with expert audio/visual design incorporating horror film tropes that have been rehashed to death. While it’s supposed to evoke an immediate sense of unease, what it really does is trigger memories of horror films past.
And that’s not something that always does It any favors. There is very little original in the film presented here, whether or not you’re familiar with the source material or earlier adaptation. Every trick, every jump scare, every bloody special effect has been done elsewhere before. The beats of most action sequences are imminently predictable to anyone with the least bit of genre-savvy. There’s a distinct lack of subtlety in any of part of the film that makes the tropes all the more obvious.
What’s interesting about that, though, is that it doesn’t totally detract from the movie itself. Director Andy Muschietti approaches the film like a DJ making a killer mix tape. He knows how to combine the horror elements on hand into an attractive package, and he’s invested in every scene. Freed of the tyranny of network censors that neutered the miniseries, Muschietti indulges his R-rated heart out. To his credit, It never feels mercenary or sloppy. Muschietti clearly gives a damn about how the film is presented, and everything from the creature design to the exquisitely-rendered sound production to the meticulously-detailed 80s references in the setting reflect that. It’s helped along tremendously by Benjamin Wallfish’s stunningly-evocative score, which is equal parts retro and experimental.
But the strength of any It rests firmly on the shoulders of Pennywise, a character that even Stephen King himself has admitted that he’s too terrified of to write about. Tim Curry’s performance in the miniseries is nothing short of a tour de force, one of the actor’s most memorable and iconic performances in a career overflowing with the same.
Bill Skarsgård never tries to duplicate Curry’s mannerisms, wisely finding a new spin on the character while paying respectful homage to his predecessor. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is much more clearly demonic right from the start, a metatextual nod to the character’s cultural saturation. After all, we all know Pennywise is evil, so why waste our time or insult our intelligence by pretending otherwise? Skarsgård is by far one of the best parts of the film, an uncanny and insidious presence that gets under the skin when the rest of the film can’t. His over-enunciated plea of “Take it…” when offering Georgie a balloon in the prologue has more menace and darkness in it than the rest of the film in total.
When the focus isn’t on Pennywise, it’s on the Losers Club, and that’s often to mixed results. While Muschietti excels at showing the development and relationships between the characters as well as how they battle their own personal demons, these scenes also lay bare the film’s uneven pace and clunky script. Only a few of the Losers have their own subplots, and those vary wildly in quality and narrative heft. There’s a lot of build-up and very little payoff except for the subplot about lone female Loser Beverly (Sophia Lillis) and her abusive father Alvin (Stephen Bogaert).
It’s through this, though, that Lillis shines as one of the most confident and sure-footed actors among the Losers Club, most of whom get little chance to stand out or create a character of their own. Except for Jack Dylan Grazer’s appealing performance as the hypochondriac Eddie, most of the Losers’ actors define their roles with one or two characteristics to the point where it becomes difficult to remember their proper names. I was referring to Finn Wolfhard’s Richie as “the mouthy one I want to slap” for most of the film. Sadly, this is also reflected in Jaeden Lierberher as ostensible main character Bill, with the young actor leaning on Bill’s stutter to color his performance. Lierberher seems to have a lot of potential, but it seems he simply wasn’t given the right direction, as if Muschietti was more concerned with the setting around Bill than the character himself.
In the end, while It is visually stunning, the sound beyond reproach, and Skarsgård’s performance a selling point in and of itself, there’s little weight and impact to the overall film. Muschietti wisely dials back the more ridiculous cosmology details of King’s novel, but that also fails to give the infernal presence at its center any real depth and the horrors it brings any metaphorical heft. It seems to be a horror film for horror film’s sake, and while that’s sometimes enough, it isn’t enough to help this one float to the top of the heap.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-