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.
It is out now in UK cinemas. Trailer below.