It’s the great cinematic whodunit of the past few years: who killed mainstream horror? Despite critical darlings from breakout directors like David Eggers (The Witch), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), and David Robert Mitchell (It Follows) — all independent films that scored modest, unimpressive box office returns — the world of big-budget filmmaking has lately seen few horror movies worth their salt. Most of what has been on offer, such as Lights Out, Ouija, and Unfriended, rely on gimmicky premises designed to lure audiences into theaters without much caring if they enjoy the ensuing bloodbath. Gone are the Halloweens and Nightmare on Elm Streets of the world. The best recent mainstream horror has played with the tropes of the genre, fitting them into the framework of better movies: consider Get Out.
Fortunately, It delivers a refreshing take on Hollywood horror. Not only does the film succeed in delivering a steady stream of satisfying scares, but it also tells a coming-of-age story that’s got a bleeding heart of its own — just not the kind you might expect from a horror movie. Director Andy Muschietti — who sharpened his horror chops on his breakout picture Mama — has a keen eye for childhood antics and period detail, resulting in a product that is equal parts sweet and terrifying.
When it comes to Stephen King novels, the word “unadaptable” gets thrown around a lot, and for good reason. His prose is archaic and dense, often relying on the dream-space in the back of the reader’s head to give his imagery a strange, seductive power. For a book-to-screen adaptation to work, the film needs to tell its own story through variances in tone and narrative structure. Some moviegoers may prefer a twisted, nightmarish adaptation of It, but they will be disappointed. Instead, It tells two stories — one of seven children growing up in the small town of Derry, Maine, and one of their fight against evil — and weaves the latter with the former via a collection of bite-sized, thoroughly entertaining horror sequences. This has scored winningly with domestic audiences — with a rare 8.1 user score on IMDB and a staggering opening weekend box office return of more than $117 million, It has handily outclassed every horror debut in history.
It’s rock-solid emotional core lends some irony to this record-breaking distinction. Audiences may be flooding in for the promise of a terrifying clown, but the stars of the show are the kids — likeable, well-acted, and unique. Viewers will probably remember most of their names by the end, and for an ensemble cast, that’s no small feat. The movie maintains a breathless pace throughout its two hour and 15 minute run time while still managing to spend enough time with each character to establish their home lives, fears, and ambitions, all of which ensures that the rousing final act works as well as it does. Special commendation goes to Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard, hilarious at every turn as the larger-than-life Richie, and up-and-coming star Sophia Lillis, whose sweet but hardened Beverly gives the film half of its unusually strong emotional mooring.
The heart of the “Losers Gang,” as the seven kids call themselves, is the determined, stuttering Billy, played ably by Midnight Special star Jaeden Lieberher. When his little brother Georgie is brutally killed in the film’s opening sequence, Billy begins a summer-long quest to discover what happened to his “missing” brother. His refusal to admit that Georgie is dead drives his defiant crusade for answer, even as his friends — and the audience — know the truth. As the summer passes, the other six “Losers” — farmer-in-training Mike, newcomer Ben, germaphobe Eddie, rabbi’s son Stan, jokester Richie, and social outcast Beverly — each have their own encounter with the film’s titular monster, which seems to take the form of their fears. Drawn together in a community where nobody else will listen, they’re forced to confront evils both domestic and alien.
The movie’s scares vary in both style and efficacy. While It displays a creative sense of panache when dealing with the creature’s incarnations, the fact that the “Losers” must face their own deepest fears means that it sometimes seems like the audience is watching the kids get scared rather than having a stake in the action themselves. Some scenes without the infamous clown get by on clever ideas rather than on scare tactics alone. It’s a good thing, then, that the clown itself is truly terrifying.
Pennywise the Dancing Clown — imagine that title uttered with baby-voiced relish by a grown man with buck teeth, and one might come close to approximating its true creepiness — is here to scare the hell out of people. With no backstory established in the film, Pennywise is an invader, both for the quiet town of Derry and for the audiences he delights by appearing unannounced. Pennywise’s tattered, discolored costume and massive head place it squarely in the uncanny valley; it looks like a clown, yes, but not quite like a human. It could be lurking in the corner of every frame, ready to pounce with its rows upon rows of anglerfish-like teeth. If every coming-of-age story could be given the jolt of adrenaline that Pennywise lends It, the genre might be pulled back out of the indie-verse. An unrecognizable Bill Skarsgård doesn’t just embody Pennywise, but creates it, drawing from some deep reserve of depravity to transform his body into something entirely alien. Of course, computer-generated effects help a bit.
It settles right into the hard-R rating and pulls no punches when it comes to the violence Pennywise is capable of exacting, even where children are concerned. That said, this is a far cry from the torture-porn of series like Saw and Hostel. Perhaps It’s most admirable quality is its reverence for storytelling; every drop of blood is shed for a reason, whether to establish Pennywise’s evil nature or to showcase the darkest fears of the characters. Coupled with a surprisingly dramatic soundtrack that’s all strings and piano, emotional undercurrents run through even the most frightening sequences. Unfortunately, these musical cues often undermine the efficacy of the scares, either by making it obvious when something is about to appear or by drowning out the atmosphere with bravura crescendos. At its best, the score punctuates Pennywise’s jerky, erratic movements or turns a frolic in a lake into a powerful narrative beat; at its worst, it robs certain shots of tension, a damning choice for a horror movie.
Still, it is difficult to fault It for showing its hand when the film has such a marvelous sense of self-assurance. Whenever Pennywise’s red balloon — now iconic after a masterful marketing campaign — drifts into the frame, accompanied by the slow melody of a music box and the distant chanting of children, one gets the sense of a story being told exactly the way it should be. This is not King’s novel, nor should it be; the movie has distilled the book’s most recognizable qualities into a format as monumental as it is accessible. For all its plot threads, It is surprisingly focused, rarely straying from the kids’ perspectives and keeping adults in the periphery. Considering that this adaptation of It is but the first chapter of two, it’s fair to see the strong character and plot building here as foundational work in preparation for a much larger-scale sequel.
See It, then, for its soaring grace notes of humor and pathos, for the moments characters share biking through Derry or cleaning a bathroom together. See It, too, for the torrents of blood in which that bathroom is drenched during a brilliantly conceived sequence of psychological terror. But most of all, see It to revel in the raw essence of what horror should be. Muschietti has proven that an R-rated horror movie starring a killer clown can rise to the top of the box office. Join the droves of people lining up for a chance to see Pennywise in action, and you’ll float too.