In modern horror, there seems to be a trend of putting all the scary moments of the film into the trailer, making the full movie disappointingly boring. Rest assured, IT is not a data point in this pattern. If anything, the trailers make the movie seem less terrifying than it actually is.
The big question: is IT scary? In a word, yes. The visuals are surreal and incoherent, and their lack of context and seeming randomness make them all the more unsettling. A headless corpse appears in a library. Burning human hands pound on the door of a butcher shop. A woman playing a flute walks out of a painting canvas. The imagery itself is freaky enough, but the tension builds slowly and painfully, and the viewers feels their stomachs tie themselves into knots as they prepare for the inevitable scare. The expert editing also makes good use of limited perspective; in many scenes, something scary makes its way into the shot very slowly with vivid sound effects, and the viewer is forced to sit uncomfortably and imagine how the monster could look in its entirety before the actual entity (which is often much scarier than one would imagine) becomes visible. There are a few cop-out scares that could be annoying, but they generally occur in scenes that aren’t supposed to be scary, so they never really detract from the building tension or diminish the shock of actual scary moments. And when those scary moments arrive, IT is very ambitious in the way it portrays them; as proven by its opening scene, IT doesn’t shy away from graphic violence, even towards young children. The opening murder is pivotal to the plot, so Muschietti, the film’s director, doesn’t hold back, and while that particular scene is excruciating to watch, the brutality of it makes the characters’ reactions seem more genuine than they would if the violence were merely implied.
The unfortunate truth is that even a master director can’t turn a 1500 page, sprawling character-driven novel into a feature-length film. As such, large parts of the novel had to be cut entirely; whereas the novel alternates between the Losers Club as children and as adults, the film focuses exclusively on the seven Losers as preteens. The depiction of these kids is very authentic and realistic; they curse, try to make adult jokes (sometimes funny, sometimes not so much), and deal with the problems before them as best as they are able. At first they seem like character archetypes- the beautiful tomboy, the hopeless romantic, the pacifist- but as the story unfolds, the viewer discovers hidden depths in each of them, and by the end of the film it seems impossible that the movie has developed such complicated and nuanced characters in only two hours of screentime.
The film is almost entirely character-driven, so its success rests on the shoulders of its seven child actors. One bad performance would’ve spoiled the film, but every role was perfectly cast. The three defining performances, though, are Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise the Clown, Jaeden Lierherbehr as Bill Denborough, and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh. Pennywise is a difficult role because a boring villain makes for a boring movie, but Skarsgard hits the perfect note. Pennywise is an off-kilter clown who initially seems almost amusing, but whose glowing eyes and manic grin betray his inner madness. Skarsgard straddles this line between farce and madness perfectly to bring a unique dark humor to the film- a much needed relief from the unrelenting suspense and violence (one particular dance sequence in the vein of McAvoy in Split and Papoulia in Dogtooth had me chuckling at a rather inappropriate moment). Lierherbehr gives a nuanced performance as the grief-stricken, stuttering Bill who has an axe to grind with Pennywise following the murder of his younger brother. His chemistry with Sophia Lillis’s character, Beverly Marsh, is perfect--endearingly sweet but not sickeningly so, avoiding most of the cliches surrounding adolescent romances. As the only girl in the cast, Lillis holds her own, pulling off a strong female character whose headstrong nature masks the battles she faces at home and at school. Credit should also be given to Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) as Richie, whose consistently quotable one-liners bring bursts of humor to a dark and thematically heavy story.
My qualms with this film lie in its soundtrack, uneven mood, occasional cliches, and one rather egregious shaky camera shot. Perhaps this was intentional, but the film switches between brightly lit, cheerful scenes with pop music in the background to darkly lit, violent scenes with creepy string music, seemingly on a whim. There were two scenes in particular that seemed very out-of-place because they didn’t seem to fit the mood of the movie as a whole, and the tonal whiplash I got from those two scenes made the following scenes somewhat confusing. There was also one plot element near the climax that came off as cheesy and unrealistic, and didn’t fit the tone of the movie at all. Maybe some previous scenes that gave it more context were deleted during editing, but for such subtle character development, it felt like something that belonged in a Disney flick rather than a horror movie. Finally, while it may seem like a small detail, there was one shaky camera shot that disrupted the buildup of tension in an otherwise unsettling sequence, diminishing the fear factor and making the viewer rather nauseous.
Overall, IT is a fantastic adaptation of a Stephen King masterpiece that respects its source material while exploring new territory for a new audience. The direction, writing, screenplay, editing, and acting are all excellent. Should Muschietti return for a second installment (which seems more than likely at this point), viewers can only hope it is as good as its prequel. If you haven’t seen IT yet, I strongly suggest you see it in a theatre setting. It’s a truly chilling experience.
Director: Andy Muschietti
Genres: Drama, Horror, Thriller
Runtime: 2 hr 15 min
MPAA Rating: R
Release date: Sept 8, 2017