Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Director: Andrés Muschietti
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
There's a reason Stephen King's 1986 novel, It, has gained such iconic status among the annals of supernatural literature, and this isn't just because clowns are inherently terrifying. Over the decades, King has managed to tap into both subliminal and literal fears, setting many of his stories in the quaint epicenter of small town America. His novella The Body, which was later adapted into the 1986 film Stand By Me, and It, which saw light as a 1990 ABC miniseries, were both distillations of King's obsession with the loss of childhood. Much of his subsequent work has dealt with this idea that adults are the real boogeyman, and that as one grows up, their inability to regain their childhood innocence creates another kind of terror. One could argue that Stand By Me successfully extrapolated these themes into cinematic language, but aside from Tim Curry's iconic performance as Pennywise the clown, It the TV miniseries has not aged well. Now, director Andrés Muschietti has attempted to tackle King's over 1,000 page opus by truncating the book's larger thematic concerns and trotting out an R-rated romp in a somewhat cynical attempt at cashing in on the 80's nostalgia trend. The results are dutifully polished, but somehow unsurprising; barreling along like a haunted house fright-fest without bothering to connect scenes via tension-building, atmosphere, or discernible narrative momentum.
The film begins in 1988, when young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is sent out into a rainstorm by his older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) to float a paper boat down the street. Of course, poor little Georgie meets the sharp-toothed demonic clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) and is dragged into the sewer, vanishing forever. Cut to one summer later, and we are introduced to a rag-tag group of kids (coined the "Loser's Club"), led by Bill, who jet around the small town of Derry, Maine on their bikes investigating the mysterious disappearances of local children. Laid out as a series of character types--the stutterer, foul-mouthed nerd, overweight new kid, lone spunky girl, etc--the young actors are fighting an uphill battle with a screenplay (written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman) that positions them as little more than props for a pandering Amblin-style adventure tale. From the Gremlins bedroom poster, shots of local cinemas playing Lethal Weapon 2, and copious period-specific music cues, It seems more interested in transplanting the novels original 1950's setting to the 1980's in order to further pacify those yearning for tepid nostalgia ala Netflix's Stranger Things.
Of course, the primary draw for most will be the uncanny sight of Pennywise writ large on the big screen, but the interpretation here by Skarsgård is much too campy to truly terrify. Caked in Tim Burton-esque makeup, twirling his eyeballs, and vamping about, Pennywise isn't a projection of childhood fears, but rather, an over-designed product of studio horror movie propaganda. When he taunts the children by morphing into their specific fears--an undead zombie, blurred possessed painting, evil father, etc--the results feel like a product of CGI-enhanced mayhem rather than deep-seated terrors rising up to the surface. For his part, Muschietti shoots everything in a relatively clean style, evoking early Spielberg and Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist in terms of relentlessness pacing. However, the film lacks both the charm of those peak Spielberg adventure films as well as the creeping sense of dread which marks the best King adaptations like The Shining (which King famously despised). Instead, scenes ratchet up without warning; complete with the prerequisite clashing sound effects and strident strings on the soundtrack, and therefore, the film never really feels like it's heading towards a worthwhile destination. Worst of all, Muschietti takes one of the book's creepier lines, "We all float down here..." and pays it off visually, which completely runs against the disturbing nature of the whispered mantra echoing from within nightmarish sink drains.
It fully leans into maximalist horror imagery without stopping to assess just how childhood fear actually works. This is the picture's fundamental flaw. It mistakes loud noises, piercing sound design, and contrived friendship banter for the legitimate pain and helplessness of growing up. Only a few moments, particularly involving Sophia Lillis as the plucky female member and Jeremy Ray Taylor as the awkward new kid in town, ring true. Otherwise, the earnest cast mostly flounders, especially anything involving a roving gang of lame bullies who mercilessly pick on our heroes for no other reason that bullies in movies behave badly. One sequence where the bone-headed leader confronts his abusive police officer father is laughable, especially considering no time has been invested in exploring this relationship. Truthfully, the absence of adults (aside from a few cartoonish parents) is meant to signify the gap between childhood and adulthood, but the film handles this thread in clunky fashion.
The anxiety of growing up--the social foibles, puberty, distrust of adults, the disillusion of friendships--is a powerful way nostalgia can actually haunt us decades later. Pennywise is a phantasmagorical apparition of irrational fears made tantalizing by their proximity to our formative years. However, this latest cinematic incarnation of It loses sight of this resonance by amping up the oppressive set-pieces to the point where you are more likely to be scared into exhaustion than frightened by confronting the very real evil within yourself.