Sunday, 10 September 2017


In the small town of Derry, Maine, a group of kids who call themselves the Losers have begun to notice something strange going on. Kids are going missing. And whatever is behind the disappearances is after them too...

I have never read the book this is based on, nor the 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown. It improves the viewing experience if I don't having anything to compare it to, and allows the movie to stand on its own feet.

The original novel switches between the Losers facing Pennywise as kids, and later as adults. The filmmakers here have made the choice to seperate the two narratives - this movie ends with a tag rebranding itself as It: Chapter 1.

The biggest part of the movie's success is the young cast. They are all terrific - as soon as they are together onscreen, the Losers feel like a group of friends.

The standouts are Finn Wolfhard as the clownish Richie, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben and Sophia Lillis as Bev. Already known for his role in last year's Stranger Things, Wolfhard has a lion's share of the film's comedy. As the one female of the group, Lillis would stand out, but she gives her role such a weight and sense of pain that it almost feels like she is in her own movie. It helps that the script basically makes her a co-lead with the group, as she tries to evade tormentors at school and home. Honestly, Lillis had such a gravitas to her performance that I thought she was a 20-something playing a teen. 

As the new kid in town who has a crush on Bev, Taylor is the most relatable character in the movie. Within the ensemble context, his story feels a little compressed - there is a beat during the climax that does not quite translate. I wish he had more screen time.

And now onto the title menace. It is a great antagonist, and It's main incarnation as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) is pretty creepy. The old fashioned design is interesting (I particularly liked the unfocused eyes). I have more comments on the villain which I will save for a little later.

Andres Muschietti's direction is good when it comes to the scares and the atmosphere, and he handles the relationship and comedic elements competently. The scenes where It confronts the kids with their fears are highlights (the lady in the painting is terrifying). And while the movie is R rated, it never feels gratuitous. Despite having kids as the main characters, the movie has a nice take-no-prisoners approach to its violence which I appreciated. Pennywise's attack on Georgie was surprisingly brutal, and sets the tone immediately in a neat way. I also liked the set piece in which a fire-obsessed bully comes to a nasty end in a sewer pipe, and the sequence in the library.

While the scares are good, what elevates this movie is the tonal balance it strikes. The movie has a great sense of humour (the Gazebo line killed me), and it really helps glue the Losers together as a group of people that you can grow attached to. Movies are always better when the characters feel vaguely like human beings, and It boasts a really terrific ensemble.

The movie does have its flaws, mainly in the script. For one thing, a few members of the Losers feel superfluous. There are a few points where it feels like the movie's emotional beats are not tied together in a believable way. I have a feeling that it might be a case of there being too many kids - with not enough development for their stories (the book is over a 1000 pages long). As the story develops, it feels like we are rushing through set pieces, and the scares became a little repetitive. And because of the focus on the group, Bill's emotional arc (dealing with his brother's death) feels a little undercooked. The one element I could have done without is Benjamin Wallfisch's score, which is a little overbearing and cuts into the film's impact.

As the movie progressed, I began to feel like my own taste in horror and the movie's choices became a bit at odds. My big thing was how much time Pennywise is onscreen. With horror, I've always felt it is scarier when you can not rationalise what it is you're seeing (compare the murderous phantom  of the original Alien with its flaccid return in this year's Alien Covenant).

This idea is one that Stephen King himself dealt with in his book-length essay Dance Macabre, using the example of a monster behind the door. When the only information you have is the sound of claws and a silhouette under the doorframe, your mind runs wild (think of Mel Gibson trying to catch sight of the alien trapped in the pantry in Signs). But once the door is opened, and the monster is revealed as a vampire/zombie/Godzilla etc, your mind is able to comprehend it, and the fear - to whatever degree - is reduced.

For me, while he was effective for the most part, by the end of the movie Pennywise had lost his novelty. Thanks to modern filmmaking (and the use of modern special effects), there were times where I felt like he was not disconcerting enough. By the finale, when he is morphing into all of the kids' fears, it felt like the tension drained away. The ending still works, but having such a firm grasp on what the character looks like and It's modus operandi took away from the tension a bit.

Final thoughts? It is a really good movie, which boasts enough characterisation and humour to match the scares. I chalk up my own criticisms to a certain amount of over-hype. Hopefully with a few more viewings I will be more onboard with the raves the movie has been getting. I'm definitely in the bag for the sequel. For anyone reading this review, It is definitely worth checking out. 

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