Warning: This review alludes to aspects of the plot. Don’t clown around and read on if you want to know naught.
If you’ll allow a rare moment of self-reflection, and even if you won’t, it’s hard for this reviewer not to feel some affinity with the child heroes of It. The movie’s set in the summer of 1989, not a bad summer cinematically if you were 12, which I was, and something I share with the likable losers assembled for this adaptation.
Andy Muschietti’s long-gestating version of Stephen King’s brick of a novel, successfully captures what it was to be a kid in a small town at that time – the excoriating, expletive strewn competitive raillery, the burgeoning obsession with sex, and killing time during that long summer break. It wouldn’t have been out of place in that cinematic year either – it’s brashly entertaining and character focused. In fact, the kids are so engaging, it’s almost a shame the early portions have to be broken up with interventions by Pennywise the Clown. Having established both him and his M.O in a taunt and atmospheric prologue, Muschietti might have held him back, like Spielberg’s shark, teasing the threat and scaling the tension; a Hitchcockian solution to a problem that blights so many horror movies, and maybe King’s novel too – less being more. I don’t know, I’ll be damned if I’m going to pick it up his tome now – it’s a thousand pages for fuck’s sake.
Indeed, It Part One, would have been a more accurate title, as this is just half King’s narrative, time-shifted a generation, so the adult reprise of the story can take place in the modern era, box office permitting. The problem in condensing the story into a single movie, evidently one that defeated Muschietti, who wisely looked for a sensible cut off point with a view to returning later, like the kids, to finish the job, is that it only underlines how much better television now is at artistically handling this sort of time-spanning narrative; quality long form storytelling being the medium’s contemporary trademark.
When It was adapted as a mini-series in 1990 – yes, 27 years ago, the constraints, both budgetary and censorship wise, made a faithful retelling problematic. But those problems no longer exist, indeed the talent working on TV often seems superior to that on the big screen – the creatives in that medium given the latitude to think and experiment.
It’s impossible therefore, not to think of Netflix’s Stranger Things when watching It – not least because that show’s Finn Wolfhard (a name that guarantees a long career in show business) features here; a transfer from one King-inspired gang to another. The Duffer Brothers, denied the It gig on account of then low name recognition, went on to make an 8-hour homage that proved to be as exciting, brutal and nightmarish as anything the best-selling author has written – the best TV novel he never wrote. One wonders if a multi-part adaptation of It, enjoying greater scope, would have worked better than this truncated effort. Two movies will do it, but just as well? We’ll never know.
What we do know is that It is a solid if unexceptional horror movie that only stumbles when trying to scare up original ways of terrifying its audience. Its best sequence, the malevolent takeover of a slide projection in gang leader Bill’s garage, works because it’s inventive and unusual – a break from traditional jump scare tactics – characters backing into the monster or staring into dark corners. Elsewhere, Muschietti doesn’t have much up his scare-sleeves, resorting to the James Wan playbook for inspiration. Bill Skarsgård deserves a lot of credit for his turn as the child-eating monster; it’s suitably sinister; but less of him and more suggestion would have made for a less heavy-handed and cliché strewn mix.
But It works well as a roll call of childhood fears. There’s a fascinating idea teased here, though never explicit, that the once-in-a-generation nature of Pennywise’s attacks on Derry’s residents, has produced a town of monstrous adults – perhaps damaged on account of a near-miss in childhood, or the loss of friends/parents, that in turn torment their offspring, producing a malevolent cycle – a suitable breeding ground for a supernatural predator.
The grown-ups shown here are comprised of bullies, hypochondriacs, disciplinarians and pedophiles – all of whom would have been about the kids’ ages when the Clown was last in town. If the next movie pulls on this thread and explores the effect of the first film’s events on its now adult characters (and their kids), that might make for a fascinating conclusion. After all, they say we become our parents, don’t they?