Seven pre-teen outcasts overcome their fears to confront a shape-shifting creature that takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown and awakens every 27 years to feed on children in It (2017), the latest film adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name.
Written by Chase Palmer and Cary Fukunaga and directed by Andy Muschietti, It was filmed on a budget of $35 million and grossed over $117 million in its opening weekend. It revives classic American horror by delivering more than just jump scares. It was genuinely scary, but also at times heartfelt, funny, and sincere.
It‘s success is even more surprising given its director’s lack of experience. Andy Muschietti, an Argentine screenwriter, has only directed one other full-length feature. To entrust the long-anticipated reboot of one of Stephen King’s most iconic horror tales to an inexperienced director is, well, incredible. That he actually pulled off making It into a blockbuster will ensure a long career. It‘s opening box office earnings completely eclipse The Sixth Sense‘s and that film made director M. Night Shyamalan a household name.
I’m not a Stephen King fan and I don’t get the fascination with clowns. I never read the novel or saw the 1990 TV mini series staring Tim Curry, so I came to the theater without any preconceptions aside from bits and pieces of things I’ve heard about It over the years. Like most Stephen King novels, the horror element is a vehicle for exploring other issues, issues related to family, coming of age, bullying, confronting mortality, etc., all of which appear in this story.
It’s those other elements that make this film so good. A great horror film doesn’t just scare the audience. If you take the scary clown out of It, it’s still a compelling movie. The characters learn to deal with fears, bullies, rejection, first love, flawed adults, and most importantly learn to rely on each other to confront the ugly side of life. Pennywise the Clown is just a personification of adolescent anxieties. So many contemporary horror film makers forget this.
Unlike the book and miniseries (which open in 1957 and 1960), this film was set in 1989, so it does capitalize on ’80s nostalgia, but It doesn’t bash you over the head with it. The 1980s references are purposeful. In one scene, there are posters advertising A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, which came out in 1989. I thought it was fitting to make reference to that franchise because many of the effects in It are reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street, especially when the hair comes out of the sink and pulls Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) toward the drain.
It stumbles by introducing too many protagonists. I realize the film is just copying the number of characters in the book, but it’s difficult to become attached to the characters when there are so many. There is William “Bill” Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Benjamin “Ben” Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly “Bev” Marsh, Richard “Richie” Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley “Stan” Uris (Wyatt Oleff), Michael “Mike” Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and Edward “Eddie” Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer). Together, they form the “Losers’ Club,” who are terrorized by both Pennywise and the Bowers Gang.
All the child actors in this movie are great. In a film that pits children against adults, the children are funny, relatable, and courageous, while the adults are creepy, sadistic, and often indifferent. But I can’t help wondering if the movie would have been improved by condensing the group into three or four memorable characters. Are all seven really essential to the plot? Not really. Eddie, Stan, and Richie are basically the same person and play interchangeable roles.
Thankfully, the film makers cut some of the more graphic scenes involving the preteen characters. Stephen King, who is truly a sick individual, included an orgy among the protagonists in his original book. I’m all for horror films shocking audiences and pushing the envelope, but this was intended to be a mainstream movie, not some back alley grindhouse flick. Audiences would have rightfully walked out of the theater in disgust.
Overall, It (part one) is a great horror movie and a decent movie in general. After years of terrible American horror films, I hope the success of It inspires a more creative, intelligent approach to the genre.