Review: "It" is a Treat, but It Could Have Been Timeless

Published September 9th, 2017 - 02:53 GMT
"Hey kid. Wanna buy a balloon?" (Warner Bros. Pictures)
"Hey kid. Wanna buy a balloon?" (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Here’s the heartbreaking thing about It: so many of the elements needed to make it a timeless classic are there, but they’re compounded by questionable decisions. On one end, it is a damn fine film; on the other, there is the sad realization that it could have been a great one.

It, for the uninitiated, is the story of seven adults who return to their hometown to destroy an evil they fought off before as children, largely represented as Pennywise, the Dancing Clown. The story intercuts between both storylines, past and present, before things accelerate in the second half as the two stories intertwine.

The novel was penned by the great writer Stephen King. It was adapted in 1990 into a miniseries starring Tim Curry. Like Pennywise himself, It now resurfaces 27 years after the original, and it’s got teeth.

First, the good: the film is legitimately scary at times, even when it balances the horror with moments of genuine hilarity. Bill Bill Skarsgård’s turn as Pennywise is unnerving, a playful lunatic of a puppet crossed with hints of (get this) a demon bunny. He shifts his voice, appropriately cascading and adjusting his pitch. The Losers, a group of seven kids who decide to kill It, are impeccable: every one of them is extremely well-cast and each brings real nuance to their role. If there is justice, every member of the cast has a bright future ahead. They deserve it.

That’s partially due to the direction of Andrés Muschietti, who also manages the feat of mapping out the world of Derry, Maine, is brave enough to linger when he needs to, and is both slick and subtle about that slickness. I wasn’t aware of Muschietti’s work prior to It, but there’s a stylishness to his work Hollywood directors could learn from, a confidence that never veers into ostentatiousness. He, too, has a bright future ahead.

Muschietti is aided in part by Chung-hoon Chung’s lush cinematography, which seamlessly slips between the golden hue of children’s summers and the dark fairytale of the Pennywise storyline. I saw a clip from the film prior to watching it and wondered by Chung had chosen to move the camera around if the characters were just sitting down, positing that a static camera was less distracting.

I needn’t have worried. The scene is part of a whole, and the camera moves in this scene because of the way the scene before it is shot; props, too, with how the transition into that scene works. It’s always inspiring and gratifying to see someone as masterful as Chung-hoon Chung prove you wrong.

And then there’s the beautiful soundtrack. I went into this hoping for synthwave, but Benjamin Wallfisch’s melancholy piano work evokes the pain and loneliness of the characters, seeping into the horror of the unfolding story. It’s a brave stylistic choice, and it restores some of the sadness so prevalent in the novel but which that the film’s structure shies away from.

Which is too bad.

And this is where things take an unfortunate turn.

The sound is an interesting place to start with for the bad; I’m not a fan of the sound design, which is clichéd. A jump scare has a little thud. There’s the usual slurping and evil laughter. It feels like the studio is edging for safe bets, and it doesn’t work.

But the real problems are more structural:

  1. In moving away from the novel’s dual structure, It loses its nostalgic power. Beneath the scary clown and the Losers’ Club is a tribute to childhood—specifically, the childhood of a man who grew-up loving horror stories in the midst of a wrecked, broken town, but which King then extrapolates to include most childhoods. Consequently, the novel intercuts between the past and present, showing you the characters and the kids they once were, adding a bittersweet tinge; if you know, for example, that a certain character dies in the first chapter of the novel as an adult, their scenes as a child carry subtext. The film ends on the same note as the novel, but the promise made at the end of the book is significantly more powerful because it comes at the end of everything and because we know where this will all lead. It's a scene both reflected on and built up to, and its genius is that the audience, in that moment, knows its significance to the characters better than the characters themselves do. By playing the scene at the end of the first film without the benefit of the adult storyline, the film diminishes the book’s take on remembrance and friendship, reducing from the beautiful (meta) power of the book's epilogue.
  2. In the book, Pennywise is largely symbolic, a manifestation of the horror at the heart of Derry, Maine: misogyny, racism, homophobia. In the film, the tragedies which bring Pennywise along are more personal (albeit with potential to develop into the kind of systemic problems the book discussed). For example, Mike, the sole black member of the group, goes from being haunted by a white supremacist attack on Derry’s black community several decades previously to being an orphan because of a fire. Henry Bowers, the novel’s bully and violent racist, now hates Mike because. His racism, if it is there, becomes subtext, divorcing Pennywise from his essential horror
  3. The novel spends significant time developing the Losers’ Club as a whole, giving us their dynamics and their relationships. Each has something to contribute: Ben, for example, begins gaining confidence by being a good architect. But the film chooses to focus largely on Bill (rightly so), Bev, and Richie (the comic relief) at the cost of sidelining Eddie, Stan, Mike, and Ben, which makes the point in the film where the characters split—with Eddie the one freaking—less powerful. The whole point is that the characters are growing together. Yet at least two of the Losers in the film don’t even have arcs. I’m not even sure what the film is doing with Beverly, reducing her to a stock Aurora character in the last act without giving significance to the act or explaining how its resolution makes sense. (There is a shot of The Frog Prince in the beginning which serves as foreshadowing, but it still doesn’t work.) There is a possibility they’re building-up to something for the second half of the film—and goodness knows when that comes-out—but in this standalone entry, it is a disservice.

The Aurora aspect is interesting in a different way, though. One thing this adaptation did was give “floating” a literal meaning. The book’s Pennywise likes to tell people they’ll float because corpses float on water, and the 2017 adaptation clearly wants to avoid the pitfall of 1990’s and therefore cuts-out the spider-webs. (If you’ve seen the original 1990 version, you’ll understand what I mean.) So the murdered children, in 2017, are floating around a tower built by Pennywise.

Doing so does take away from Pennywise's implication that people will float, but the move does touch on the reason this film is so good when it is successful. It realises it is a dark, modern fairytale, and when it plays to that aspect it succeeds admirably. Do I wish the sewers into which the children descend were as confused and terrifying as the novel’s, mirroring fairytales of children lost in the forest before they find the witch’s hut? Yes. Do I wish there was real danger from some of the secondhand antagonists, as there are in the novel, adding to the pitfalls of Derry that make Pennywise possible? Yes. Do I wish the climax was less of an action scene, even if the novel’s own climax (THE DEADLIGHTS) would never have worked on-screen? Yes. Do I wish some of the fairytale aspects ala Aurora were made less cliché or given some sort of feminist rewrite? Yes. Hell, do I wish that the film had a better genre awareness and avoided some clichés? Yes. But are there genuinely beautiful and tender scenes in there, is the film scary when it wants to be? Yes.

The film is worth a watch. But I'd advise reading the book, too. There’s a reason Stephen King is so beloved, and this particular 1100 page tome is a great way of discovering why. Then maybe catch the film at the cinema. Despite the mistakes both make, It is ultimately a treat.

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