A Coming of Age in Horror’s Clothing - A Review of It
Let’s get this out of the way first: I don’t like horror movies. Never have. I don’t like the tension of being scared, I don’t like monsters, I especially don’t like the discordant violin sound cliché that every horror movie seems to have to try and scare us. So, against my better judgment, I saw It.
Luckily for me, it’s not a horror movie. Horror elements? Plenty. But It is not a horror movie. Let me explain.
It, directed by Andy Muschietti, is based on the first half of the 1986 Stephen King novel of the same name. The story follows a group of plucky teenagers -- known as the Losers’ Club due to their common status as outcasts in school -- who discover and battle a demonic entity lurking in the sewer system of their town. This, however, is just the backdrop for what the story is really about: a group of kids conquering their biggest fears and learning to deal with a world that treats people like them with about as much contempt as one would expect would be dealt to someone who joins a Losers’ Club.
What It does best is create for the audience an almost oppressive tension throughout, even during the calmer moments. Whereas another director might have been conservative with showing violence, especially towards children, Muschietti makes the decision to not shy away from this kind of graphic imagery, but to display it in all its uncomfortable glory. The opening scene ends with a six year old boy crawling away from the sewers with a bloody stump where his arm once was. While I as a human being would not enjoy nor recommend watching videos of children losing limbs, I felt it was necessary in setting the tone of the film, as well as emphasizing that this would not be a sanitized version of the original story. One little touch I noticed is that in all the scenes where the monster is around, Muschietti slightly yet noticeably tilts the camera, making the audience feel as offset as the movie is in that moment.
Since the emotional impact of the movie rides on the performances of the teen actors, it should be noted that there was not a single weak link in the main cast. The strongest characters were Jaeden Lieberher as club leader Bill Denbrough, a boy with a stutter and a hangup on the loss of his younger brother Georgie to the entity, and Sophia Lillis as Bev Marsh, the only girl in the group, dealing with bullying from the other girls in school and creepy advances from adult males, including her father. Finn Wolfhard - who, curiously enough, also stars in the King-esque Stranger Things, also about a group of young friends fighting an unexplainable otherworldly horror in a small town in the 1980s - Jack Dylan Grazer, and Jeremy Ray Taylor brought much needed comic relief as fellow Losers’ Club members Richie Tozier, Eddie Kaspbrak and Ben Hanscom respectively. Wyatt Olef and Chosen Jacobs held memorable performances as the last two members Stan Uris and Mike Hanlon, although the characters themselves were overshadowed by the rest of the Club.
The main draw of It, though, is the titular It, which usually takes the form of a clown named Pennywise. Bill Skarsgård absolutely delivers all the creepiness that a sewer-dwelling clown would possess. It should be noted, however, that while Pennywise remains the true villain of the film, there exists a surprising but necessary human element to the opposition as well, specifically in the form of Henry Bowers, portrayed by Nicholas Hamilton. Bowers, as the school bully, is to Pennywise what Dolores Umbridge is to Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise -- a much more tangible evil for the children of the film to overcome and for the audience to direct their hate towards, while all the creepy demonic clown action is pushed to the back burner. And it’s pushed there pretty often - I would say this movie is about 65% Stand By Me, 35% Pennywise terrorizing the Losers. While some people who were drawn into the movie by the horror aspect might be disappointed by that ratio, I personally was very relieved. The human drama of the Losers dealing with bullies and their own group dynamic gave It a realism that is missing from most horror movies nowadays, which focus on making the audience soil themselves before making a coherent screenplay.
Is It a perfect adaptation of the novel though? No. Muschietti does make a lot of noticeable departures from the original, mainly by changing the year in which the story takes place from 1958 in the book to 1989 in the film and updating several of Pennywise’s monstrous forms to match the new time. The film also wisely cuts out several scenes from the book that were questionable at best originally - people who have read the book will know what scenes I’m referring to, but suffice it to say that they would not have been suitable to show on screen for various reasons. One more aspect of the book, which goes into the details of the origins and motivations of Pennywise, did not make it into the movie. While I am disappointed that it was removed, Muschietti has expressed that he does want to visit this in a potential sequel, so it may happen yet. Overall though, the changes that he made from the original work do not detract from the story in any meaningful way.
If you like horror - heck, even if you don’t really like horror but are a big fan of watching young teenagers go on adventures, à la The Goonies or Stranger Things - I would implore you to go see It. Horror fans will get the frightening performance they crave from Pennywise, while those like me who just want a good story can follow the Losers’ Club as they grow from scared kids to confident teenagers, albeit with some frights along the way. There’s something in It for everyone, which may be the best thing about it.