The biggest problem with “It” (an adaptation of horror master Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name) is that it’s, well, not very scary, which is disappointing considering the premise involves a shape shifting supernatural being (who primarily takes the form of a demonic looking clown called Pennywise) that torments and feeds on children.
The prologue is admittedly terrific—a tense, drawn out scene that takes place on a dark and stormy afternoon and involves a doomed little boy and his paper boat. Its juxtaposition of imagined, childhood terror (being afraid of the basement) and absurd but very real terror (a demonic clown in a sewer) is ominously unsettling and the scene culminates in one of the most shocking, gruesome movie moments of the year. You may have seen a condensed version of this scene before “Annabelle: Origins” a few weeks ago but trust me you didn’t see the pay off.
After that, however, most of the remaining scares don’t quite match the intensity of the opening. Instead of using subtlety and the gradual building up of dread, “It” wants to immediately grab and shake you scene after scene. The terror sequences (particularly the nightmare visions that Pennywise concocts to taunt and frighten his kid victims) often feel overblown and strained. There’s a heavy reliance on gore and gross out, too much ear shattering horror movie bass and an overbearing score by Benjamin Wallfisch. The film’s scares eventually become exhausting and repetitive.
The lack of real terror in “It” is partly due to the fact that the screenplay (by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman) balances nostalgic, “Goonies”-esque adventure and gnarly R rated horror with mixed results. The plot revolves around the lives of seven kids in the town of Derry, Maine. Right on the cusp of puberty, the group consists of: Bill, (Jaeden Lieberher) Ben, (Jeremy Ray Taylor) Beverly, (Sophia Lillies) Richie, (Finn Wolfhard) Mike (Chosen Jacobs) Eddie, (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff). Stalked by Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) the kids join forces to defeat the demonic clown before “it” kills them.
Along the way, they learn to appreciate their friendship with one another, come to terms with their growing, changing bodies and overcome their deep seeded fears/personal traumas. Adults in the film are nonexistent, inconsequential or outright abusive. So, it’s up to the kiddies to take care of their own problems. Overall, director Andy Muschietti captures the childishness of the central septet extremely well. They sound and act like naïve, stupid kids; the immature trash talking and ribbing between the boys is embarrassingly authentic. In his overly talkative, cocky ways, the character of Richie will drive you crazy until you remember that you probably had a friend like him who thought he was funnier than he really was (and in actuality, very insecure). Or, perhaps you were that person in your friend group.
Also appreciated is the film’s focus on character. Over the course of the two hour and fifteen minute run time, each kid is sufficiently fleshed out, making the group’s climactic battle with Pennywise absorbing and their subsequent cheesy bonding moment feel earned. They’ve all got some kind of substantial personal trauma to beat, (whether it be guilt over a loved ones death, sexual abuse or hypochondria) which sounds a little contrived but Muschietti handles these traumas with honesty and sensitivity. In a genre that often takes characterization for granted, I appreciate that Muscietti and co. take the time to develop likable, relatable young characters.
Ultimately, as a comic-horror coming of age adventure, “It” can be quite fun and heartfelt. But the film also wants to scare you like a straightforward horror movie. There are a handful of creepy and disturbing moments yet nothing gets under your skin or haunts your psyche the way great horror films do. Outside of the opening, I was never shaken or tense. The film didn’t make me dread going to sleep afterwards. There’s a lot more comedy in the film than I expected, which is fine but it also undercuts the attempts at legitimate horror, creating a sense of safety and distance rather than unease.
For what its worth, Skarsgard is menacing and demented as Pennywise. He’s not in the movie as much as you’d expect, keeping the character mysterious and therefore more terrifying. Thankfully, the film avoids going into extensive background on Pennywise and actually leaves a great deal out from King’s original novel, preventing the narrative from being overstuffed.
In the end, I walked out of “It” feeling both satisfied and underwhelmed: pleased with the coming of age material and characters but disappointed with the execution of the horror elements.