Twenty-seven years have passed since the previous adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, and all those familiar with the source material will know what that means: Pennywise the Dancing Clown has awoken from his slumber.
Taking the form of a heavily dressed-up Bill Skarsgård, this incarnation has quickly gained a similar level of infamy to the Tim Curry original, with a suitably boffo box office debut to match. Beyond the fact that scary clowns are a tremendously easy concept to market, IT also benefits from being a genuinely entertaining (if flawed) horror movie; no small feat as fans of the genre will know all too well.
The film opens with the ill-fated Georgie Denbrough losing his paper boat down a storm drain, ultimately becoming the first child to be taken by the eponymous entity. Months later, his older brother remains obsessed with discovering the circumstances of Georgie’s disappearance, ultimately pulling his friends into the mystery as other local children join the list of missing people.
The ensemble cast of young performers are without a doubt the film’s strongest asset, a group with both genuine acting talent and good chemistry with each other. It is unfortunate that the film unceremoniously sidelines certain characters, most notably Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), who go for significant stretches of the movie with virtually nothing to do. However, the casting does remain an achievement in and of itself.
Stand-outs are Jaeden Lieberher and Sophia Lillis who provide the emotional core of the movie, each dealing with situations that could be deemed nightmarish even in the absence of a clown demon. Jack Dylan Grazer gives a break-out performance as germophobe and hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak, proving to be far more amusing than Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier, who was clearly intended to be the comic relief of the film. This isn’t the fault of Wolfhard, who has proven himself a talent to watch during his turn on Netflix’s Stranger Things, but rather the script that he’s saddled with.
Richie displays the least maturity of all the members of the Losers Club, and his lines are filled with suitably vulgar humour which at times does hit the right notes. The problem arises when the film doesn’t know when to stop, frequently going a step too far by choosing to shoe-horn in such lines where it doesn’t feel appropriate. The argument could be made that this was a conscious character decision, but the way in which it derails the mood of certain scenes suggests otherwise.
Indeed, this general lack of subtlety becomes an issue in other areas of the film as well: chiefly, the scares. IT is undoubtedly a creepy film, but frequently loses opportunities to be truly frightening by what can only be described as trying too hard. The filmmakers fail to understand that their most effective scares are their most understated.
An example of this can be found in one scene set in a library, where young Ben Hanscom (played by Jeremy Ray Taylor) is researching the history of Derry. The lens is set to shallow focus, leaving the background a largely indistinguishable blur, but it is possible to make out the hazy figure of a middle-aged librarian from earlier in the scene. Only, something isn’t right. She isn’t restocking books anymore, she’s standing still near the back wall, staring at the camera with a large, toothy grin.
By the time the camera snaps back into focus, all has returned to normal. That sinister figure in the blurry background is never addressed, nor was it even the focus of the scene meaning it could well be missed by some audience members. And yet, that was one of the most memorable and unnerving moments in the entire movie, simple yet spooky.
In comparison, the more elaborate scares which depend on a generous use of computer-generated images, are less effective for precisely the reason that they are clearly fake. Some moments which could have proved hair-raising in their simplicity are ruined by a lack of restraint, such as one scene which sees Pennywise eating a bloody carcass, partially hidden in the darkness of a dimly lit butcher shop. Holding on this image would have been haunting enough, but the decision to make the clown’s eyes start glowing a bright yellow shatters any illusion of realism, making the scene altogether less disturbing.
Speaking of Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård does an admirable job in the role, delivering a confident and comfortable performance. While it shouldn’t be downplayed just how much of Pennywise was created by the make-up artists and designers that determined his look, Skarsgård also brings a unique physicality to the character that is very fitting with his guise as an early twentieth century circus performer.
There’s a definite feeling that the character was considered the top priority by director Andy Muschietti; the plot occasionally feels disjointed as a result, as if being used to shunt the characters into the next obnoxious scare rather than focusing on developing each of them as fully-formed personas. This doesn’t debilitate the movie by any means, especially as there are some effective frights mixed among the less-inspired, but does become somewhat distracting about halfway through.
Ultimately, IT clearly owes a lot to its young cast who elevate the entire film above recent horror fare. A scary movie with actual characters is a refreshing change of pace from the norm, even if some are better defined than others. With a less accomplished cast, IT could have been another painful disappointment for Stephen King fans. Instead, the film is a competent and mostly entertaining adaptation, only held back by an apparent lack of faith in its own scares.