There hasn’t been very much in the way of blockbuster horror lately.
Instead it’s been a tale of two extremes for the genre; either we’ve had the student film-esque, cheap scare formula made popular by Paranormal Activity that resides in cheese territory, or arthouse offerings like It Follows and The Witch with subtext that is sometimes scarier than anything manifested onscreen.
The Conjuring comes closest to representing a compromise of the two sub-genres, with its sense of bigger-scale, crowd-pleasing terror that doesn’t forget about the importance of character.
Enter: IT, Stephen King’s iconic (aren’t they all?) story of a killer clown preying on the children of Small Town, USA, and the group of Losers who take it upon themselves to destroy him.
King’s novel is a dense opus spanning decades, but director Andy Muschietti, along with the film’s four writers, deserve credit for telling a concise, first chapter of a tale that is also the most entertaining horror offering of the year.
The chemistry between the aforementioned Losers – a ragtag group of outcast teens with their own distinct personalities – is a marvel. The story revolves around their conflict with Pennywise, but the minutiae of their relationships with each other is as close as Hollywood has come to reviving the spirit Stand By Me. Jaeden Liberher is particularly excellent as the stuttering de-facto leader Bill, while Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame is a riot as living, breathing comic relief.
Sophia Lillis also puts in a breakthrough turn as Bev Marsh, though her story gets underwhelming when she becomes just another damsel in distress.
When Pennywise isn’t dominating the screen, it’s these kids we’re with, and it’s company that we’re more than happy to be a part of. They’re written adequately, bouncing back and forth between the typical teen angst and dealing with a killer clown. It’s a faithful compromise, so long as you can get past the occasional overindulgence on dick jokes and vulgar quips (the film’s R-rating isn’t solely for the scares).
They also all have their respective baggage that elevates their respective roles from would-be heroes to we-just-want-to-find-a-way-to-prove-ourselves-ers.
And then there’s Bill Skarsgård, who updates Tim Curry’s iconic turn as Pennywise with his own dastardly interpretation that is as creepy as it is addicting to witness. You can choose to cover your eyes if you want, but you’d be missing out on the movie’s best scenes.
The very best of those scenes might just be his introduction, a first greeting with the paper sailboat-toating Georgie – Bill’s younger brother who catapults the story into motion – that is equal parts tantalizing and brilliant. In about 90 seconds Skarsgård goes through the gamut of his sinister clown’s personality, from the cutesie-creepy laugh to glaring eyes that scream, “Hey, Georgie, get the hell out of there.”
Everything about those 90 seconds is perfect; from the “innocent” hello to its jaw-dropping ending, it’s a standout sequence of any film this year.
And unfortunately it’s Skarsgård’s only real opportunity at acting the part. From there on (until the final showdown), the CGI takes over, and Skarsgård – now having established Pennywise’s one bloodthirsty goal – is relegated to leering out from behind corners and whispering his victim’s names as if we are supposed to mistake the sound for wind.
It’s a bit of a frustrating turn, but doesn’t detract completely from the impact of when he is on screen. The most fun parts of the film are when he’s stalking the kids behind blood-red balloons, stalking his prey before pouncing on them in a standout haunted house thrill ride that proves the time is ripe for a live-action Monster House.
IT isn’t keep-you-awake-all-night frightening, but what it makes up for in sheer, Conjuring-esque terror it makes up for in visual flair and creativity, like a Jack-in-a-box that reveals a puppet much larger than anything the contraption is expected to hold.
Where IT really thrives, though, is in bringing to life the world of the homely-but-threatening town of Derry, Maine. Never before has a Stephen King world been brought to life so faithfully on an aesthetic level, right down to the sense that someone is always watching our lovable Losers.
When a theater marque advertising “The Nightmare on Elm Street 5” makes an appearance, you have to wonder if any other movie ever screens there.
That atmosphere only serves to heighten the sense of dread and stakes for the kids, who connect the dots in the town’s history en route to confronting whatever “it” is that is making children go missing. There’s an enticing bit of mythos that is teased, if not gently established, that hopefully is explored further in the sequel so that we can get a clearer picture of how much a force of evil Pennywise has been for years.
While the world of Derry is threaded with morbid undertones, it’s the occasional lapse in writing that keeps it from being one of the top three or four Stephen King adaptations (just being in the conversation is probably enough with how much the author has contributed to the genre). While the film for the most part balances its scares and humor well, at a handful of points the tonal shift is so jarring it’s as if the audience has entered the world of parody.
Aside from that, the ending leaves a little to be desired. It’s an entertaining confrontation between the kids and Pennywise, one enhanced by the aforementioned cinematic flair that helps make it a legitimate horror blockbuster. But when the stakes have been raised so high at various points in the previous hour-and-a-half, you can’t help but feel like the writers missed an opportunity to go for a dynamic, go-for-broke finish.
As a result, once the credits roll, it feels like perhaps the ride has been over for longer than we thought; we’ve just been sitting in the car waiting, craving another drop.
Still, those are minor complaints for what is entertaining big-budget horror. IT doesn’t worry about treading any lines between cheap thrills and story because it understands there doesn’t have to be a territorial divide, and its world-building is so brilliantly enticing – a wonder to see played out onscreen – that it makes the wait for the sequel worth it.