‘It’ Review

Milo Garner reviews Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name.

The echoed singing of a nursery rhyme is a troubling opening to any horror film. If one were to guess the content of the following feature based on that first impression, the assumption would be a predictable, forced, and generic attempt at cheap scares. The next 135 minutes of It go on, unfortunately, to confirm these fears. That probably wasn’t the kind of fright Warner Brothers were counting on.

It, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Stephen King, is a flat, cliché-ridden attempt to jump on the ‘Retro 80s zeitgeist of recent times. Set in 1988-9, it centres on Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), an evil and otherworldly clown who haunts the young denizens of Derry every twenty-seven years. The films open with its best sequence: a child following his paper boat down a rainy kerb as it falls down a drain. Peering into the dark, he encounters Pennywise; they talk for a while, creating an extended moment of suspense which concludes in a moment of shocking violence (and the film’s only effective scare).

Even in this scene, some of the elements that will come to haunt It are apparent. Central to these is Pennywise himself. His voice is a little too growly to be unnerving in a clowny sense, yet too wacky to be purely intimidating. His general design also feels a little too exuberant – the often-furrowed brow, drifting eyes, and well-groomed hair are over-egging what might be a scary image. The design of Pennywise in the 1990s miniseries, while also flawed, was far more effective in its simplicity and, ironically, cheapness. The trouble with Pennywise only grows as the film moves along – in this early scene he has an unnerving presence, with a sinister yet reticent intention for his young prey, but in later scenes these attempts to build tension are dropped entirely. Pennywise is witnessed incredibly often as a speeding demon, rushing teeth-first to his quarry. Limiting the visual presence of the monster in a horror film can often increase its effectiveness when they do appear, as what we imagine in the shadows is undoubtedly worse than the real thing, but It gives us no such chance. This is also felt with various of the other supernatural villains featured in the film. An eldritch surrealist picture comes to life, for example, but quickly moves from the shadows to reveal a fang-filled grin, missing the point about what made such an unusual image so discomforting. Another moment features a zombie-like leper, whose features belong more in Scooby Doo: Monsters Unleashed (specifically) than any genuine horror – in fact, most of the post-production and effects in It are severely lacking.

This merely ties into a far more worrying problem with It’s horror. It simply isn’t scary. At all. This is partly based on what kind of horror it’s trying to be – some horror goes for an atmosphere of dread (think Vampyr), others try to get into the viewers’ head (The VVitch), while this is of the kind that attempts to get as many scares in as possible. That’s not inherently bad, but it does mean the scares have to be good, especially when the film has a strong enough comedic counterpoint to essentially destroy a sustained feeling of unease (more on that later). Unfortunately, It relies on the fairly basic jump-scare for the vast majority of its fear-factor, often forgoing the build-up such a payoff typically demands. These are, more often than not, dominated not by the visuals of the film but by the soundtrack. Overbearing audio cues, in the score and the soundtrack otherwise, seek to jolt us with sudden changes as soon as anything sudden happens. The film overplays its hand here, even trying to make innocuous knocks and bangs shocking moments by simply making them really loud. It isn’t the content that’s making us jump, just the volume. This isn’t to say auditory horror is to be discarded, only that in this lazy application it fails to amount to much. Consider Black Swan in comparison – many of its unnerving moments are deeply augmented by Clint Mansell’s sharp interventions on the soundtrack, but it never feels overdone or inauthentic. In It, the opposite is true.

Other than the inherently ineffectual horror, It doesn’t help itself through its general tone. Outside of its many set pieces, the film transforms into a Goonies-like high school comedy, with foul-mouthed wise-cracking archetypes riffing off each other to the sound of 80s hits. The gang’s all here: the dutiful leader, the nervy Jewish kid, the germaphobe, the fat funny one and smart glasses one (wait, switch those descriptions to change it up a little), the cool and quirky girl who doesn’t really belong in the group, and one who’s black (that being his only notable feature in a film that decides not to actually give him much of a character, despite his importance in the novel). Not to mention some of the clichés they dutifully fulfil, such as the shot of the love interest wreathed in golden light matched by a reverse of our protagonist, slack-jawed as the camera pushes in; the best pals having a scuffle at the climax of the second act followed by a montage of them living their separate lives; even True Love’s Kiss makes a bizarre appearance for some reason. To It’s credit, the child-acting (and so, necessarily, their director) is excellent in a way unusual of Hollywood films, though it does suffer from the common trope of kids not acting much like kids, but little adults. But that’s hardly uncommon, especially in the genre. The characters, while obvious templates as shown above, do work fairly well and are generally likable, most having small arcs to fulfil and progressing a little from titles to credits. They also don’t belong in this film – a John Hughes flick on high school maybe, but this many ‘your mom’ jokes in a film that genuinely wants to scare its audience? Maybe that itself is the horror. While the comedy is decent (not that funny, but also not as obnoxious as it could have been), it compromises any sense of dread that It might have hoped to build between set pieces, especially when it becomes ridiculous, such as a moment where the Losers’ Club fights a group of bullies in a ‘rock fight!’ (as one of the kids declares) to the sound of 80s punk. The leader of said bullies is another of the film’s ridiculous features. Bullies do bad stuff, sure, but carving his name into a kid with a knife? That can’t be taken half as seriously as the film would like us to.

This clearly isn’t a film for seriousness, nor would it have to be. But it does try, for whatever reason, to shoehorn some in, such as a subplot about an incestuous rapist father which felt far more out of place than any of the low-brow comedy. Under the thematic basis of It, genuine real-life fear always triggers the appearance of Pennywise’s red balloon, and so his terrible psychological torment; but the film’s approach is muddle. The abovementioned father has far better potential to be scary than the blood-spurting sink the film decides to follow up one of his appearances with, for one.

The general plot beyond this theme is fairly uninteresting. A hackneyed ancient-haunting trope plays out, with the gang needing to go to the position of an old well now built within a haunted house at the edge of town. It’s entirely predictable, and the character development follows a formulaic three-act structure impossible not to second-guess. This plot only really exists to facilitate the meat of It, which is in scaring its audience, but given it fails there the whole thing falls flat. Not only that, but it’s a film that overstays its welcome – the first two acts go by fairly quickly, but the third begins to drag, with a very messy finale. Before the screening we were told the two hours fifteen would go by like eighty minutes. This is far from the case. With that said, It does save its biggest scare for the very last moment. After the screen has gone dark we see the film’s true title – It: Chapter One. May we all be spared.

3/10

It is out now in UK cinemas. Trailer below.

4 thoughts on “‘It’ Review

  1. Firstly, please proof read your reviews, it’s very difficult to understand what you are trying to say when so many sentences are incoherent.

    Secondly, it feels like you have not even watched the film. You contradict yourself so many times and your points don’t actually match up to what happens in the film, did you just watch a youtube clip of the film?

    This is so negative, I can’t help but wonder if this society cares about movies or just pretend to with the hope that one day their hipster-mentality will lead them one step closer to being like Christopher Nolan. Anyways, please find my comments to your review below:

    – Please remember this is a film and not a documentary – have fun, stop crying.
    – I honestly can’t believe you have reduced a character to just being the ‘black one’, when he has just as much, if not more of a character arch than any of the other kids (being the new kid in town and an outsider, his family being burnt in his home, having to kill animals for a living, not having any friends, etc.)
    – I don’t know if you think this is how adult behave (spitting over cliffs, stealing plasters from pharmacies, riding bmx’s in the road, exploring the sewers, making paper boats, etc), but if you do, I am worried for you.
    – Most importantly, a horror is not a horror film dependant on you finding it scary, Good for you if your not afraid of anything. The movie is about what kids are afraid of and shows horrific images that are traumatising for them and to most normal humans watching.
    – Are you serious that this Pennywise looks WORSE than the Tim Curry version in the 90s? Really?
    – Your description of the archetypes also don’t match any of the kids in the film. Ben wasn’t the fat funny one? The smart glasses one? Are you referring to Ritchie because that makes no sense, he was the funny one if any. Eddie was way more than just a germaphobe and since when has this been an 80s archetype? Please, just name me one film in the 80s where there is a character who is a germaphobe and nothing else. And there were two Jewish kids btw.
    – I will agree with you on one thing, the story was a bit predictable but maybe thats because I read the book – you know that one you reference at the beginning? Pretty much all the plot point you complain about are from that book. Fair enough if you don’t like the story of IT but why make up reason to not like it that don’t really make any sense?

    I’ll stop here because honestly I cannot even list half of the issues I had with your review. But mainly I just feel like it is such a negative approach. Tons of people work hard on a movie for you to just call it trash. You don’t even try to find the positive and when you do it is all negative. This is such a common theme with all UCLU Film Society reviews – good luck with getting into the industry. You guys are the real Losers Club.

    1. Hey Jerry, glad you got in touch.

      On your first point, I apologize for any incoherence you might have encountered reading this review, and will be glad to make plainer any areas you had difficulty with if you’d care to point them out to me.

      On your next, I can assure you that I did have the misfortune of enduring the film.

      And on the review being negative, I confess, it is. But that’s because the film is bad. If you’d care to peruse my other reviews you’d notice that the vast majority are positive. But I must admit that by adopting a ‘hipster-mentality’, i.e. giving a bad film a bad notice, I am veering dangerously close to emulating Christopher Nolan, whose broad and mainstream appeal really defines what it means to be a hipster.

      Onto your further comments:

      – Documentaries are films, and a good many are a lot more fun than this one.

      – I didn’t reduce him to that, the film did. I only have a cursory knowledge of the novel, but know that much of his plot didn’t make it into the film, with some of his roles in the story being transposed to other characters. In the film he spends much of his time offscreen, with some of the key themes from the original story being reduced to incredibly vague references, such as the racial theme that defines his background. Giving him the skeleton of an arc, with appropriate beats, doesn’t equate to fleshing out the character and the story, something missing from the script.

      – Oh, sure, there are child-like actions thrown in the mix, don’t get me wrong, but the dialogue and delivery for the children is not at all how kids speak or interact. Hollywood inundates us with this image, but watch something like Tomboy (2011) and the difference will strike you. I’m not saying that this film should try and be totally realistic, just pointing out a trend.

      – Here I disagree – this film is not trying to communicate the fear of the children and hoping its audience will be frightened at the same time, but the other way around. Consider when Georgie is first chasing the boat, and he runs into an obstacle – the loud audio cue and sudden cut are here designed to scare the audience by exploiting the tension of the scene. There’s nothing about running into a plank of wood that is attempting to communicate the psychology of terrified children. And I didn’t imply that I’m not scared of anything. Just not this, though I will say there is obviously a good level of subjectivity in what frightens someone. But despite that, it was still sloppy.

      – Absolutely serious, I even mentioned the irony in saying that, and explained why. Gloss and production value are not the key to effective design, though I will reiterate that Curry’s version was far from great itself.

      – Re-read that part of the review – when describing Ben and Richie I added ‘wait, switch those descriptions to change it up a little’, implying that in this film the fat guy is the smart one and glasses is funny. Glad to clear that up. And as for the germaphobe trope, it’s definitely a thing: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TerrifiedOfGerms. Your last point here is true, but I wonder why you said it.

      – It is unsurprising that much of the plot in the film adaptation of It originate in the novel. That in no way defends the film – I haven’t read the book, but if this film is anything to go by, I don’t think I’d be much a fan. I’m not too sure what made up reasons you’re referring to at the end of this paragraph.

      And regarding the snarky wrap-up, almost every film ever made has required tons of people to work hard, but that has no inherent bearing on the quality of the finished product. And I did look for the positives, they were just mostly missing, or obscured by the more pressing issues the film had. And is it a common theme with the UCL Film & Television Society reviews? Most are very positive, including my own as mentioned above, but if you want to substantiate that it would make me feel kinda warm so please do.

      Thanks for getting in touch, hope to hear back soon!

      Losers’ Club HQ

    2. As the man who gave a positive review of “The Book of Henry” on this very website I have to disagree with the idea that we don’t try to find the positive. Hell, I even wrote a whole editorial about it (http://www.uclfilmsociety.co.uk/blog/open-letter-cynics/).

      And whilst I haven’t seen “It” yet, I’m sincerely hoping and expecting that I will disagree with Milo when I do. I do however, have to refute the claim that this review isn’t coherently written, it argues a fair point.

      Keep up the debate!

      Loser archetype #3 (probably the geeky ginger one)

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