I think it is important to judge Andy Muschietti’s It on its own merit, rather than making a comparison to the original novel by Stephen King (to which it may or may not be inferior, though I have never read it), nor to the 1990 miniseries (to which it is unfair to compare based on the artistic and technical limitations of the earlier version). Analyzing It as a standalone film is necessary because diehard fans of the original novel will surely find it lacking for a variety of reasons; perhaps it just isn’t as scary as Stephen King’s original work, or maybe the filmmaker has taken one too many creative liberties with the narrative universe that King created. Meanwhile, there is an entire generation who grew up ambivalent (and often fearful) toward clowns, almost exclusively due to, or at the very least exacerbated by Tim Curry’s performance in the 1990 miniseries.
Having watched the entire three hour series in one sitting for the first time a few years ago, I can say without any reservation that it has not aged well, and has had no lasting impact on me. I felt that, for a variety of reasons, the 2017 revival of the killer clown’s story had nowhere to go but up. My initial feelings turned out to be correct, but I’m afraid that this still sets the bar too low to adequately judge Muschietti’s version. The miniseries, directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, is poorly paced, poorly acted, and not all that scary. As I stated before, I have never read the book, though its inclusion as one of the scariest novels of the 20th century is well-known. Thus, I find it, on the one hand, disingenuous for me to try to interpret Muschietti’s It as it relates to a story that I have never personally read, and unfair to compare it to an outdated, low-budget TV miniseries, which itself has developed a kind of cult status, particularly among those who grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s. So, how does It hold up on its own, free from comparison to its predecessors? The answer is two-fold: it is at once a disappointment and a surprising success. While it does venture into scarier territory and the scares frequently work, Muschietti’s It falls back on traditional, cliched storytelling and blockbuster-esque marketing for the sake of sequel development.
For those that saw the original miniseries, Muschietti’s It follows a similar plot. One day, while chasing his paper boat down the street during a rainstorm, a young boy named Georgie is unable to catch his boat before it goes down into a nearby storm drain. When Georgie takes a closer look into the storm drain, he encounters a clown who introduces himself as Pennywise. When Pennywise convinces Georgie to reach in to retrieve his boat, it reveals giant fangs and bites Georgie’s arm off, before dragging him back into the drain and killing him. As time passes, Georgie’s older brother, Bill, becomes obsessed with finding Georgie, whom he insists is simply missing and not dead. Meanwhile, Bill and his friends start experiencing horrific visions that all seem to embody their worst fears. They soon deduce that Pennywise is the cause, and also connect the evil entity to Georgie’s disappearance. When they learn that Pennywise returns to their town every 30 years to feed on children, they team up to to try to defeat the monster once and for all.
While It utilizes a very young cast, it tries very hard to give a dark interpretation of the novel. There are implications of incest and pedophilia, in addition to some frightening encounters with Pennywise and its many horrific transformations. Sadly, these come across as rather gimmicky. Much of what is scary in the film is shown in the trailers, and the rest of the film is bogged down with predictable plot turns, poor acting, and horror genre cliches.
More than anything, It suffers from an over-reliance on being “edgy,” which is at best disingenuous and at worst incredibly annoying. The filmmakers are far too eager to please millennial audience members, whom they believe want to see the film eschew the tameness and family-friendly approach of the previous iteration. As young characters forcefully insert “fuck” and “shit” into random sentences, it never comes across as natural, and at times feels completely absurd. When you combine this with the (very rare) instances of graphic violence, it makes the whole experience a practice in seeing how much condescension you can stand as a moviegoer. No, I am not impressed that 14 year old actors know how to curse. I am not “blown away” (which seems to be the filmmaker’s intention) by mild violence being inflicted upon young, fictional characters. In my experience, the more aware I am of how a film seeks to be edgy or push the envelope, the less effective it is in doing so.
Despite the film’s complete lack of self-awareness, It is very entertaining. There were times when the scares were genuinely scary (the deformed woman in the painting suddenly entering the physical world comes to mind), but these scares are not frequent enough. More importantly, the little hints of dark familial abuse feel forced, and completely unnecessary in the larger story. The clown himself already conjures up images of John Wayne Gacy, and his predatory nature and obsession with stalking children speak for themselves. Sadly, the filmmaker’s had to beat us over the head with the metaphor, making it fall flat in the process.
In addition to these issues, It succumbs to the same problems as most horror films of its kind. The monster is much more interested in tormenting the children (and by extension the audience) than actually fulfilling its supposed objective of kidnapping and killing them. Confrontations with the monster are elongated, with unnecessary exposition that is intended to build tension, but just makes one wonder how everyone in the story world can be so stupid.
It is not a bad film, but a supremely disappointing one. I have to imagine that too much input was given from too many different sources, and the film lost its inherent darkness and creativity in the process. No matter the cause, It is an entertaining and genuinely frightening film that, with a different artistic approach, could have been a truly impressive addition to the horror genre and the canon of Stephen King adaptations.
It is available for purchase via Amazon here.
Rating: ★★★ out of 5