Spoiler Warning: This It 2017 movie review contains some spoilers
I rarely make it to the movie theater nowadays. Partially that’s financial, partially it’s schedule. But it’s also lack of interest in most of the fare offered at the cinema. But the end of summer 2017 offered the rare treat: two adaptations of Stephen King works. The Dark Tower was less than stellar, that was pretty much expected of a 95 minute movie that attempted to contain seven novels (or around 5,000 pages in total) that form the backbone of Stephen King’s entire oeuvre. Meanwhile, the 2017 movie version of It faces its own challenge. Not only does it have to live up to the novel, it has to live up to the 1990 mini-series starring Tim Curry as Pennywise.
It’s been a decade since I read Stephen King’s novel, It. But I did just watch the beloved mini-series. So many of my comparison points come from the mini-series rather than the book. But, man, this movie made me want to reread all 1,000 pages! I have not been as entertained by a horror movie in a long time.
The first thing everyone will compare is the evil clown itself, the infamous Pennywise. I’ve always wondered how prevalent coulrophobia was prior to It. For me, this new Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgård, is superior. But in a way, that’s unfair. Of course a 2017 major motion picture is going to be capable of offering a far scarier version than a 1990 television miniseries. And while the special effects and movie theater atmosphere certainly enhance the intensity, Skarsgård’s performance itself can’t be discounted. He doesn’t play Pennywise for nearly as many laughs as Curry did. His speech patterns and body language are much creepier. And, to me, that’s the original intent of It. It’s similar to comparing all other Jokers to Heath Ledger.
After Pennywise, the group of kids comprising the Losers’ Club is the most important facet of It. Even in the book and miniseries, the kids are more interesting than the adults. While the adults have the usual tangled relationships and neuroses excepted of people that grew up after facing such trauma, the kids are easier to empathize with. Everything is scarier to a kid. Watching Georgie struggle to take the stairs down to a dark cellar immediately takes you back to your own childhood fears of the dark, the unknown. The new Bill, Ben, Bev, Richie, Eddie, Mike and Stan are all expertly portrayed. The patter is believable. The immature relationships, especially the love triangle between Bill, Ben, and Bev, are totally relatable. Each kid has a defining characteristic that makes them easily identifiable, so the ensemble never feels crowded.
However, one detriment to It is that I knew all the members of the Losers’ Club live. Of course, I only knew this from reading the novel and seeing the mini-series. I suspect a movie goer unfamiliar with the source material would have even more anxiety during all the tense scenes. So it was a wise move to focus solely on the kids. Including the adults and using flashbacks to the kids exposes the fact the kids live, otherwise they obviously couldn’t be in the adult scenes. Keeping the reveal of “Chapter 1” until the very end was a deft stroke as well. And it doesn’t feel cheap leaving the door open for the sequel. The sense of dread and foreboding left with the audience is a nice contrast with the victory over Pennywise.
It’s not clear to me whether all the adults in Derry simply can’t see all the evil stuff going on around them or they’re just purposefully ignoring it. The biggest clue to the adults being incapable of seeing Pennywise’s handiwork is Beverly’s dad’s obliviousness to all the blood in the bathroom. But it’s not just a figment of Bev’s imagination, or if it is then it’s a shared hallucination with all the boys. The adults ignoring Ben’s roadside pleas could be seen as either scenario, although the balloon in the backseat certainly seems to indicate some shenanigans on Pennywise’s part. These unanswered/unconfirmed questions leave plenty of room for discussion and pondering without detracting from the movie’s plot.
(An aside about the blood in Bev’s bathroom. Dear Lord that was so much blood. I remember other kids freaking out about this scene when the mini-series came out. But comparing the two scenes is ludicrous. The updated version puts even Johnny Depp’s blood geyser in the original Nightmare on Elm Street to shame. The best touch, though, is Bev’s attempt at an explanation to her father. For some reason, her blubbering was reminiscent of Carrie experiencing her first period in the school shower. And it’s surely no coincidence that Bev buys her first box of tampons earlier in the movie. So the metaphor is staggering.)
One thing I have to ask: what is the point of Stanley’s character in this story? He’s the most forgettable member of the Losers’ Club. His sole defining characteristic is being Jewish (or being a Boy Scout in the mini-series). But he appears to serve no real purpose except to be the first casualty of the crew as adults (which of course isn’t even in this movie). I know it’s unlikely to have all seven members of an ensemble get equal screen time or characterization. But Stanley especially stands out. Mike also falls into this category a bit, but he at least winds up sending Bowers down the well. Bowers and his gang are all entirely one note characters whose main purpose is to drive the members of the Losers’ Club together; but two of them are entirely forgotten once Bowers finds his knife and goes after the losers.
The rest of the Losers’ Club more than makes up for those shortcomings. Bill’s stubborn conviction to find his lost brother Georgie provides all the impetus for the plot, yet his stuttering speech holds him back from being an overbearing leader. Ben’s studious awkwardness is instantly endearing. Bev starts as a bit of a stereotype but her Molly Ringwald looks house some truly dark interior emotions. Richie’s jocular nature provides all the levity needed throughout all the scares, yet he provides one of the strongest, most emotional moments during the climax. And Eddie provides the voice of reason while learning his sense of insecurity might not be as warranted as mommy insists.
During the final battle, Richie shouts the spectacular line “And now I have to kill this fucking clown!” I immediately envisioned millions of memes being created and online debates ending with a recounting of points leading into this fantastic line. Kudos to the writer that came up with that one and the cinematographer for perfectly capturing the baseball bat in frame. The moment provides a final moment of levity before the brutal climax of the fight against Pennywise.
One request I have to make for the climax of chapter, though: Please, for the love of God, let there be better special effects for It’s “true” form in Chapter 2. When I originally read It, I remember being let down that all this madness and evil turned out to be a giant spider from space. That began my love/hate affair with Stephen King endings. Then watching the mini-series, the special effects are so dated the entire scene is laughable nowadays. We got a hint of the spider when Pennywise morphs during the final confrontation, and based on the other spectacular effects I think they’ll manage to do It justice. But I also wish the reveal could be more Lovecraftian, with a creeping horror that’s never truly glimpsed (lest we all go insane). The scariest “monsters” in Stephen King’s works always turn out to be human, anyway.
And while I never wish 3D effects on any movie, I could see many scenes in It potentially being even more terrifying with images jumping off the screen. Pennywise coming out of the wall after the slide show already felt three dimensional (and scary as hell). But I’m glad the filmmakers stayed away from any such gimmicks. The lady sitting two seats down from me already literally jumped out of her seat at least twice, so I can’t imagine what would happen in three dimensions. The constant loud crashes and musical crescendos to evoke “jump” scares can get a little tiring, though. But the fact each scene is tailored for the victim keeps it unique. Instead of the same Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers each time, it’s more like Freddy Krueger’s multiple forms and incarnations. But Pennywise doesn’t crack jokes (at least not funny ones) like good old Freddy had a penchant for doing.
The whole movie is a wild ride. There are just enough “down” scenes between all the scary “jump” scenes. It did feel like there was a stretch where it was just scare after scare after scare, but the fact that the scares could continue to be effective is testament to the quality of the movie. I loved the way circus music was woven into the scenes, sometimes blaring but just as often a subtle creepy background.
I have no idea when chapter two will be released, but let the anticipation begin for the second half of this terrifying story. Hopefully it has just as many scares with just as much heart and levity.