October Horrorshow: It (2017)

It, the 1986 novel from Stephen King, clocks in at over 1,100 pages. It’s a massive tome, from a part of King’s career in which it seemed he was abusing his editors. 1,100 pages is a huge commitment for a reader to make — one in which they are prepared to spend weeks or months with a book. How does one translate such an expansive work to the big screen? Peter Jackson might have some thoughts on that.

It, the 2017 film from director Andy Muschietti, is the first in a planned two movies that cover the source material. The novel has two main parts, as well, and this movie covers the first.

It’s 1989 in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. It’s an idyllic place — residing in the fantasyland of small town American bliss. But it’s hardly a peaceful locale. Something about Derry is off. As one of the characters helpfully exposits, the death rate in Derry is about six times higher than the national average. What is killing everyone? To look at the town’s history, it’s just bad luck. An industrial explosion here, a nightclub fire there, and all of a sudden there’s a pile of bodies to add to the tally. But there’s also something else. The adults in the town never seem to notice, but once every generation Derry becomes the child abduction capital of the country. Kids start going missing and are never seen again. Then, that horror stops, only to reappear about 27 years later.

If the adults aren’t going to do anything about the abductions, it falls to the potential victims, the kids, to find out what’s happening and put a stop to it.

The heroes of the film are The Losers Club — a group of middle schoolers who are bullied on a regular basis by their peers. They are Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Stan (Wyatt Oleff), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Bev (Sophia Lillis). All of them have their problems with other kids, and all of them seem to have awful family lives. ItThey find each other because no one else seems to care. The real hard luck cases in the group are Bev, Bill, and Eddie. Bev’s dad is working his way up to sexually abusing his daughter, Eddie’s mother controls him by convincing him he is always sick, and Bill’s little brother was one of the abducted children, an event which has destroyed his parents and left Bill to fend for himself. It is not a film that is strong on family values.

As if the threat of abduction wasn’t enough for these children, it turns out that a supernatural creature, who takes the form of a clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), is responsible. Pennywise is a creature who feeds on fear, and it knows what scares the children it targets. It can’t seem to enjoy a meal unless the kids are scared witless, so it fills their heads with dark visions pulled from their imaginations. For Bill, it’s visions of his deceased little brother. For Eddie, it’s a leprous, infected zombie. Et cetera, et cetera. Part of the film’s setup is seeing how Pennywise primes his prey with their fears, one by one.

The Losers Club figures out Pennywise’s methods, and think they know how to defeat him. The final act of the film is the group putting their plan into action.

It has a bit of a mountain to climb, in that the scares are largely personal to the characters. That means Muschietti had to rely on jump scares to throw fright into the audience. So many jump scares are normally a bad thing — an indication that the filmmakers have a less than ideal grasp of storytelling and tension. That isn’t a problem, here. One would expect jump scares to consist of mirror shots or other similar tropes, but what we get with Pennywise is sort of an animal in disguise. It presents itself as a clown, but then it strikes. It is a clever hunter.

While It is capable of scaring the audience, one thing that is missing is a sense of dread. There’s never the feeling that the children, despite the danger they find themselves in, will ever become Pennywise’s victims. It’s like it’s just messing with them.

Skarsgård is nicely creepy as Pennywise. But I have to question King choosing a clown as the bad guy. Clowns belong at circuses and birthday parties. Seeing one outside of those contexts is odd. Seeing one peeking out of a sewer is a red flag that any 8-year-old would pick up on, so I’ve never understood how a clown could establish enough trust with a potential victim to get close. I guess it’s just cooler that way, and Pennywise is a menacing figure.

As for the kids, they were kids, which is always hit or miss for adult audiences. There wasn’t a dead read among them, which is enough for me, although Wolfhard’s character, through no fault of his own, was written as quite annoying. If I had to give out the Kid Oscar for this flick, it would go to Lillis. The bloody bathroom scene, where she cowers on the floor, sealed the deal. It was a convincing display of abject terror and confusion.

It is a very entertaining film. It is shot well, acted well, overcomes some pacing issues from the first act, and delivers a nice resolution. Yet, it didn’t feel all that memorable. A day after I saw it, the experience was fading away like a wisp of smoke. By the time the sequel comes out, I may forget I saw this first installment at all.

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