Synopsis: “A group of bullied kids band together when a shapeshifting demon, taking the appearance of clown, begins hunting children.”
Andy Muschietti (director) had a tall task when taking on the 90’s Stephen King classic IT. Nostalgia is a heady elixir and while the original miniseries wasn’t exactly a technical masterpiece, the fear-consuming Pennywise became a part of the cultural landscape. The 2017 update doesn’t try to out-scare/out-creep its predecessor, but instead falls closer to Stand By Me on the Stephen King spectrum by focusing a great deal more on the cadre known as the Losers Club.
For those of you aren’t in-the-know, this is Chapter One of the IT story – focusing solely on the Losers Club as children in creepy town of Derry. This really allowed Muschietti to side-step a lot of the common problems with remakes; instead of modernizing/updating the tone, story, characters, he leaned into the nostalgia of the 80’s. Feeling more like Stand By Me, Super 8 or the Goonies, IT spends a great deal of time submerging the audience into the small-town/throwback flavor of Stephen King’s fictional Derry, Indiana (though he delivers on the horror very early on in the film). We see the Losers Club in relation to their parents, school bullies and other adults in town. Muschietti methodically creates the sense of being an outsider for each character, forcing them to become a tight-knit group. Even without the looming Pennywise, the emotionally-driven coming-of-age story for these characters is strong enough to get you invested in the story.
Those characters are portrayed by some very talented young actors who all knock it out of the park. Muschietti understands the importance of group dynamics and giving each character their own strengths/weakness to justify their place in the Club. Ultimately it is the direction and the cohesiveness of the cast that makes the movie work. As a conventional horror film, it’s not bringing anything new to the table. The best shots are the non-horror shots; kids traipsing through an open field or riding their bikes down the back-roads of Anytown, USA. There’s an especially nice throwback crane shot of Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) running down three flights of a fire escape to rendezvous with the rest of the Losers Club. It felt like something out of your very own cinematic childhood.
The same can also be said for the sequences and shots designed to scare or shock. There’s an almost safe, familiarity (although they are all very well executed) to many of Pennywise’s scare tactics. It’s nothing hard-core horror fans haven’t seen before and doesn’t really have the punch you’d expect. The characters of Beverly’s father and Henry Bower instill a stronger sense of dread and terror throughout the film than the clown did. That’s not to downgrade Bill Skarsgård’s performance whatsoever because he completely nailed the perfect tone for this kind of character. His portrayal of Pennywise really did capture the idea of something inhuman pretending to be human as bait. Even without seeing Pennywise’s true form, Skarsgård is able to convey the idea that this creature is emulating aspects of the humans its seen in the past with that eerie feeling of the uncanny valley (emotionally speaking). It is a deceptively difficult character to play.
The best part about IT is that even though it has an R-Rating, it is a film 13+ kids could easily watch (there’s a little gore and a few f-bombs) and be legitimately freighted by. Adult members of the audience who are accustomed to more gore will probably be let down a bit that it wasn’t scarier, but from a psychological/emotional standpoint, Muschietti’s IT adds a bit of nostalgic sophistication (both in terms of the filmmaker’s technical prowess and overall storytelling) to a genre that primarily relies on foregoing story/characters in favor of elaborate jump-scares and horror-porn sensibilities (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
As a straight-up horror film it won’t have the genre influence or staying power as some of King’s other adapted works, but it was a very strong major directorial outing (Mama notwithstanding) for Muschietti and makes us very interested in seeing what he’ll do with It: Chapter TWO and the Shadow of the Colossus adaptation he’s set to direct.
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