Stephen King is why I love horror. I was a big old wuss for the first 12 or 13 years of my life, afraid of stuff like Jumanji and The Shaggy Dog (JUST BECAUSE IT’S A MOVIE FOR KIDS DOESN’T MEAN IT ISN’T A WEREWOLF, GUYS!) until I picked up a Stephen King short story collection in my 8th grade English class and read “The Boogeyman,” a story about a monster hiding in a closet and then in plain sight. And then I was hooked. I read literally every Stephen King story I could get my hands on, with It following closely on the heels of The Shining and Cujo. While I was able to follow those two books up with a viewing of the film based on them which began my obsession with horror films, It lived in my mind for a good while. I eventually caught up with the mediocre 90’s TV adaptation of the gigantic book, but other than Tim Curry, there’s really nothing to recommend in that. This new cinematic version, then, had a chance to bring something great to the table. It could have recaptured that first burst of love for a new genre. It could have been a new favorite. It isn’t, but it’s still pretty darn good.
The story of It feels like something everybody knows, due in part to stuff like Stranger Things having been heavily influenced by its mix of coming-of-age anxieties and full-on horror. This is still the best version of that combination, as the menacing monster is able to take the form of whatever scares its victims while King deftly mixes real-world horror with the supernatural stuff. As the 7 kids that make up the Loser’s Club spend their summer vacation looking for dead kids and trying to survive bullies, they discover that there’s something supremely evil in the town of Derry and they’re the only ones who can stop it. It’s all become standard horror stuff by now with movies like Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and the aforementioned Stranger Things taking heavy cues from the book. None have quite nailed the sense that the kids are distinct entities with complicated relationships to each other and their families, nor have they matched King’s impressive world-building which really sells the idea that the whole town is rotten thanks to the corrupting force that is It. This movie almost reaches the book’s level, but misses in key ways that keep this from being the masterpiece it could have been.
Let’s start with the good things first. The kids are all great actors and when they’re given room to have some fun or do things that aren’t scream in terror, they’re fantastic to watch. When I re-read the book, these kids will be the faces I see in my head. Bev, the group’s only girl, is probably the best of them thanks to Sophia Lillis’s spectacular performance. She also gets the most characterization and there are layers to her that are revealed through her interactions with her new friends and pervy father as the film goes on. While most of the kids get a good scare in before they all reveal to each other that they’re having similar experiences, Bev’s is the most visually and thematically interesting. Her relationship with her father and her new friends could have been really uncomfortable and off-putting in what is, after all, a fun horror film, but it’s done just right here. Jack Dylan Grazer’s Eddie hypochondriac Eddie and Jeremy Ray Taylor’s romantic history buff are also highlights and, unsurprisingly, have the other great scares in the early goings.
Bill Skarsgård has the unenviable position of trying to play a character that already has one iconic cinematic version in Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise, the most common form It takes. Skarsgård nails it, though, always dancing along the line between funny and creepy. If you’re worried you saw all the scares in the superb trailer for the film, fear not. There’s almost always a level of escalation that wasn’t shown plus plenty of other scary moments. Pennywise is a talkative baddie, and Skarsgård always manages to put an emphasis on a weird word or take a strange pause to up the creep factor just a bit. His voice goes guttural often and his loose body implies that when It looks in a mirror it doesn’t see a human figure. Even though the film doesn’t go quite as far as the book does into the entity’s cosmic multidimensionality, Skarsgård’s hints at it to add a truly scary component to the character. Director Andy Muschietti also plays some clever tricks with special effects and filming techniques to create a sense that everything is happening in a slightly shifted version of reality that has been warped by It’s malevolence.
One of the biggest changes from the book is structural. While the book and the 90’s TV version intercut between the kids’ story and their return to Derry 27 years later, this one sticks entirely to the kids and it works really well. The conclusion is meaningful because it not only wraps up the fight between the Losers’ Club and It but also serves as a conclusion to the thematic throughlines for the kids as they grow up, perhaps too early. The movie also excises the one thing everybody talks about from the book and replaces it with a gentle-but-tainted kiss. This is a definite positive. There’s a lot left to be explored in the inevitable sequel (did you see how much money this thing made over the past two weekends? Nuts!) and the film does a pretty great job of planting those seeds without feeling like it’s missing anything for not cultivating them more here. I am confident that we’ll see some pretty fucked up shit when the adults take over, and not just from a creepy clown, either.
There are, however, quite a few things that keep this from being a new horror masterpiece. Even though it’s 2h 15m long, there’s still not quite enough characterization for my liking. Though Bev feels like a full character, and many of the other members of the Losers’ Club are fun to watch, there are seven of them and a few just feel like warmed up leftovers from their novel versions. Wyatt Oleff’s Stanley Uris is, um, Jewish and slightly more afraid than the others. Chosen Jacobs’ Mike Hanlon is the black kid and joins up with the others too late to get much development. That’s kind of true in the book, too, but he still spends a good amount of time with the other Losers to at least feel like part of the team. Here it feels like he’s there to give them a weapon and serve as a target for a bully. There’s no way that the people behind this film could have known about what would happen in Charlottesville earlier this summer, but the film unfortunately suffers from not investigating the racism it touches on a little more thoroughly. If that had gotten as much attention as Bev’s sexual maturity and accompanying abuse, it might have been really powerful now. The other kid who gets the short end of the stick is Finn Wolfhard’s Richie Tozier, who is just a joke machine here. His personal fear is just clowns, so he doesn’t get a full scare scene and therefore he feels less personally connected. His jokes are funny, though, and I guess that’s something.
The movie also misses a lot of opportunities from the book to make a greater impact on the audience. The menace that pervades the town is just kind of there, mostly. We get a few mundane creeps, usually parents of the kids, and the bullies are too underdeveloped to be a real menace. I get it, there’s just too much to fit in even a pretty long horror film, and I was already complaining about the kids being a little two-dimensional for my taste, so spending more time on the rest of the town would be wasted when compared to those other missing elements. But they are missing nonetheless. Perhaps the biggest miss is the interlude chapters from the book which feature either a mundane evil or an example of It terrorizing and then consuming yet another child. Outside of the first half-hour or so, the movie features very few deaths on screen and therefore It’s potency as a baddie is diminished. Here’s a shapeshifting manifestation of fear who eats its victims after scaring them enough to give them the proper flavor and we get almost none of that on screen. The opening scene is so freaking scary because the kid dies at the end. The stakes are there. But the next two kids who go missing are seen only on posters around town and then one of the bullies gets killed offscreen. And that’s about it. In the book kids are dying left and right, and King spends just enough time giving them some characterization before killing them off that you feel it, and then the peril that the heroes are facing becomes all the more real and dangerous. Much of that is lost in this adaptation and it’s probably the greatest sin in terms of scariness.
My last complaint is that the ending–while much better than most horror films that falter as the monster becomes more familiar–loses a bit from the novel in the mechanics of how the Losers fight It. Where the book favors the use of imagination to attack the embodiment of that imagination, here the attacks are mostly physical. This is the only time I felt that the movie was holding back in a way that hurt it. To really do the ending justice, there’d have to be some pretty crazy shit in it, and I loved the glimpses we got of it, so I feel like it is a missed opportunity. It again makes the movie feel a little less special. These criticisms don’t discount the immense enjoyment I got from my time with these old friends, but I’m still waiting for the amazing version. Maybe 27 years from now we’ll get something spectacular. Very good’ll do for now.