This review assumes that you have either already seen the film, are knowledgeable of the events of the film, or just don’t care about spoilers. If you want to get an idea of the film without spoilers, check out the Quick Review here. Otherwise, carry on with the review.
For the most part, modern horror films are not very good.
Many of them use the same clichés and tropes and many of them are indistinguishable from one another. The only “scary” thing in them are an assortment of jump scares which are not actually scary at all. Being startled by a loud noise and something popping up on screen is not the same as being scared. These films are more annoying than they are scary. As with any statement such as this, there will be exceptions. One doesn’t even have to go too far to find one with Get Out releasing earlier this year to both critical and commercial success. But those kind of success stories feel very far apart for the horror genre.
Instead of getting a steady dose of films with the amount of creativity and effort of Get Out, we are treated like a bunch of mindless consumers much of the time while we are force fed what feels like the same film over and over again wearing a different pair. Seemingly every studio horror film follows the same trends that have been around since the turn of the century until a new film comes along which sets new trends for the rest of the mainstream horror films to follow. From remakes of South Korean films, to the Saw-like-gore-fests, to the jump scare extravaganzas following Paranormal Activity, to the current crop of, “based on true stories” horror trash such as The Conjuring, modern mainstream horror films are defined by whatever trend they are chasing. Instead of providing audiences with something of actual quality with talented people creating something with great care at every step of the process, we are force fed the same garbage every time we go to the theaters.
Gone is the charm of Tim Curry, but in it’s place is a much more sinister Pennywise played by Bill Skarsgård.
And thus we arrive at It. When thinking about it critically, there is not a whole lot that It seems to accomplish that is truly groundbreaking. It is not a mainstream film with deep psychological scares in place of jump scares, it is not a breakthrough in film structure, design or even marketing (The Blair Witch Project is the last horror film to check all of those boxes), and it isn’t even an original concept with it being an adaptation of a Steven King novel- and it isn’t even the first one of those. What It does accomplish is that it is just damn good. From the direction, to the narrative and dialogue, to the acting, and the implementation of the scares, It is a film that is very well made at every level from beginning to end. With a record setting opening weekend, It could very well start its own trend of horror films actually being well made. That would be a trend that I am sure that we would all be in favor of.
For those who have seen the “original” adaptation from 1990, there are a few differences to be prepared for. First and foremost, this film is rated R, while the first adaptation was a made-for-TV special that appeared on network television. This film is a lot more graphic, has much more adult language, and is much more frightening as a result of the freedoms allowed by an R rating. The final boon of the R rating is that is has allowed this new iteration of Steven King’s story to be good, unlike the TV special, which is very poor outside of Tim Curry.
Second, the film only follows the journey of the protagonists as children, and not their return to Derry as adults. Having a little over two hours dedicated to one story, rather than splitting a three hour film into two stories creates for better pacing, and for a far more fleshed out and focused film. Anyone out there who may be disappointed by the lack of the adult storyline, there is good news there two: Once the film ends, it is revealed that this is only part one of the story with the adult half of the tale surely coming out in just a couple of years.
The third major difference also brings us to the focal point of this review: Pennywise. Tim Curry’s turn as Pennywise is the most well-known aspect of the original special, and for good reason as he is the best part of the special. Being on network television, Pennywise was not visually scary. Instead, we got a Pennywise that was very talkative and who gleefully tormented the children of this town. Also, it turns out he is some sort of freaky space spider who feeds off the fear of children, but that isn’t nearly as creepy as a clown who can show up through a shower drain.
Our new Pennywise is played by Bill Skarsgård, and he has a very different portrayal of the dancing clown. First off, this new Pennywise is far more gruesome and physically frightening than Curry’s. With a higher budget and an R rating, Skarsgård’s Pennywise feels much more monstrous than Curry’s- and he doesn’t even have to turn into a weirdo-space-spider. Skarsgård’s Pennywise also is not as talkative as Curry’s, with much of his on screen time being spent with him being far more visually intimidating than psychologically. Ultimately this is where the only real fault of the film comes in; actually, don’t think of it as a fault, but more of a missed opportunity.. The option was available to the creators of this film to have Pennywise begin a truly nightmarish villain who would not only torment the children by running towards them like a lunatic, but by haunting them on a more psychological level simply by speaking to them more. Allowing Pennywise to really get into the heads of the kids- and thus, the audience- would have taken this film to a completely different level, and may have even altered the entire tone of the film. This does not detract from the film at all, as Skarsgård’s Pennywise is the highlight of the entire film, but it feels like much of his depiction was dictated by the need for the film to have a more mainstream appeal.
Watching the new Pennywise scare the pants off these kids is some of the most fun a film has provided this year.
The other major aspect of the film that stands out are the kids, affectionately known as the losers. The actors in this film all do a dynamite job, as they each provide a great performance. So often a film can be held back if not ruined due to the poor performance of a young actor. That is most certainly not the case with It as each of the actors begins personality, realism and charm to their roles. Their quality not only avoids one of the largest potential pitfalls for the film, but they become a major factor as to why this film is able to reach its full potential.
Additionally, the kids play a key role in allowing the film to achieve something more significant than the average horror flick. It is about more than just a creepy-killer clown; it is a film about losing one’s innocence and being forced into adulthood before one is ready. Each of the kids loses their innocence during the film, and some of them are more explicate than others. Bill has to face the reality that his little brother is dead and can never come back. Sophia has to address the changes in her body, and her burgeoning sexuality which is not-so-subtly symbolized by her and her bathroom begin covered in blood. Mike must accept his role on his family’s farm by killing the livestock which he is initially hesitant to do; he does not only kill livestock, he is forced to kill lambs in another bit not-so-subtle imagery. Being Jewish, Stanley goes through his bar mitzvah during the film also signifying his progress towards adulthood. The other children’s progression into adulthood is less explicate, but each of the kids in the film goes through the same process, and are far different at the end of the film than they were at the beginning. It is more than just a horror film; it is also a coming of age story for these kids. The only things that separates these kids from the ones in Stand by Me is that Kiefer Sutherland is replaced by a murderous supernatural clown.
Pennywise will dominate the headlines, but these kids each carry their own weight and add significant value to the film to aid in its separation from the rest of the chaff out there in the horror genre.
These kids are also critical for the jump scares in the film. For those of you out there that are like me, then I am sure that you are sick to death of jump scares passing for horror right now. No, jump scares are not scary, and telegraphing them with absolute silence is not tension. Those are lazy, and the films that rely on those are equally lazy. And yes, It does have jump scares, but they are executed about as well as they possibly can be. A major reason for that is because of Pennywise and the kids. We care so much about the kids, and fear Pennywise so much that the jump scares actually have weight and meaning to them. It also helps tremendously that these jump scares are executed well and don’t follow the same boring formula that most others due. While having more psychologically fearful elements in the film would have been preferred, It does jump scares about as well as they can be done.
Outside of the missed opportunity with Pennywise and additional mind-bending horror, there is one other additional factor in this film that stands out as a potential flaw. After being tormented by this monster clown for so long, and after one of their own is kidnapped by Pennywise and taken into the sewers, the kids decide it is time to take the fight to him. They set out to kill Pennywise and free Derry from his terror. The conclusion begins with great potential with Pennywise taking his time in terrorizing Beverly, the lone girl among the group. Once the rest of the losers arrive, a battle ensues as they each take shots at Pennywise until they bludgeon him to death. Given that there is a lot of action in this sequence, there is not a lot to fear. It is slightly anticlimactic to have this being who literally feeds on the fear of children to be beaten by a baseball bat.
If one wants to really read heavily into the film, the argument could be made that the lack of fear the audience feel in the conclusion symbolizes the victory the children have over Pennywise by overcoming their own fears. Yeah, I guess I can see that. However, I would warn anyone from buying into that too much, and simply accepting that there is no easy way to end a film like this. At least it is more satisfying that having Pennywise die after having the kids slingshot a chunk of silver at his dome.
It is one of the most enjoyable film experiences I have had this year, if not the most enjoyable film experience of the year. Contrary to his intent, I could not have been happier each time Pennywise was on screen; I have never been so delighted to witness children getting tormented and killed. In place of a review score, I conclude with this: of all the films that I have seen so far this year, I have never been so anxious to return to the theater for a repeat viewing as I am right now for It. At this very moment, I am checking out film times to see if I can squeeze another viewing in this week. I haven’t felt this type of enthusiasm for a film in a long time, but it has come through to deliver the sort of genuine experience that I crave from going to the theater to check out a film. It may not be perfect, but it is the most fun that I have had at a theater in a long time.