Stephen King could not control himself with It, a 1,200-page novel about interdimensional demons, abusive fathers, apathetic middle America, growing up in the 50s, sexual awakenings, and a giant turtle that barfed up the galaxy at the beginning of time. It is a work of blatant daring, so diffuse and nutty that adapting it is like trying to wad the snake back into the peanut brittle. This 2017 adaptation wisely adapts only one of the film’s time periods, focusing solely on the childhood segment (now set in the 80s), in which a group of young people face off against each other in a passive-aggressive Spielbergian sex comedy about rebelling against their parents. Also, a monster shows up and goes, “BOO!”
It isn’t a badly made film. It breezily adapts the 80s-era nostalgia popular right now with Stranger Things into a competent coming-of-age movie about kids bickering, threatening to fuck each other’s sisters, and riding a lot of bicycles. These are foul-mouthed little kids, all acted with that spunky relatability that recalls E.T. and Stand by Me, “realistic” in the sense that real life is pretty messed up and so they are too. Their interplay is exciting and maturely acted. Their plight is most keenly felt in the aspect that is most immediate: they all deal with abusive or negligent parents on a daily basis. As Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) says of the literal haunted house that contains the monster, “It’s easier for me to walk through this door than my own.” The film’s most dread-inducing sequences involve Beverly’s (Sophia Lillis, at times recalling a young Kirsten Dunst) father, who is eerily possessive, saying “My girl” with a voice that smells sour and invasive. He’s upset that there’s a rumor around town that Bev is a little whore, not because he wants his daughter to behave, but because he wants her to stay his girl. As Bill predicts, the film is more terrifying when Bev goes home than when she goes down into It’s lair.
There’s something in this story that is enchantingly horrifying, something about how the little town ignores the atrocities that happen in it and about how parents neglect their children even in protecting them (Eddie’s mom is shown as a sweaty, possessive housewife squeezed into a tracksuit, on loan from Pink Flamingos, snarling at her son to stay home with her). Adapting this part of the story in its entirety would result in something David Lynch could be proud of, something like Blue Velvet for twelve-year-olds. The monster just seems to get in the way, like it’s the original idea for a story that outgrew it. It (2017) keeps its head above the water that drowned the horror films around it (it came out in the middle of other such modern classics as Friend Request and The Snowman). But it’s far from effective.
There’s something about scary things that modern horror doesn’t seem to comprehend. Since cheap horror has hit the mainstream, its application of the “scares” keeps getting lower in IQ, by which I mean less ideological and more sensory. Not only are the scares themselves always accompanied by loud crashes of music and recorded screams but they are telegraphed in the music as well: I found myself counting down to the scares in It and was right a lot of the time. Music will escalate to a false scare, the music will disappear, the film will wait two beats, and then the real scare will pop out (observe the scene in which Finn Wolfhard’s Richie tip-toes through a room full of dolls in a literal haunted house, with all the scares spring-loaded). It’s clear that this form of horror comes from a guarded recipe to produce the broadest amount of surprise and the least amount of lasting terror, which is much more difficult to digest. General audiences seem to find it as engrossing as a jack-in-the-box (which at some point you’d think would stop being manufactured). It amounts to a lot of monsters with arms outstretched, chasing kids down hallways as they look back into the camera in fear, or things jumping at them and screaming. This is predictable stuff, better than the regrettable 1990 miniseries that is remembered, I suspect, only for Tim Curry. But in proportion to how well It (2017) establishes the drama, I find the cheap horror regrettable.
Bill Skarsgård plays Pennywise the Dancing Clown with wicked sweetness, like an NC-17 Mickey Mouse, which I don't mean as a criticism, in contrast to Tim Curry’s gravelly sneers (he played him like the uncle no one could keep from coming to the family reunions, and that was somewhat more appropriate). I wouldn’t compare them too much except to say that there’s too much playful emotion in both of them for my taste; Pennywise always threatens to be the most likable part of these movies. If I had the guestbook of history at my disposal, I’d have to agree with David Kajganich, who was writing this film back when it was supposed to be developed in 2009. He wanted to cast someone like Buster Keaton, a stone-face that could smash your imagination with a smile (I've read that Tilda Swinton was considered for this part and I would have jumped to see that). But in any case, the real problem with Skarsgård isn’t the performance but just how much of him there is in It. Like a surprising jump scare or a prescription medication, he becomes ineffective through overuse.
I’m especially not fond of the way they filmed him rushing the camera, shaking his head wildly on sped-up film accompanied by loud crashes (it only makes good trailers). I think it’s supposed to simulate how scary things look when you’re in the moment of seeing them. But that’s not what a nightmare feels like. Nightmares slink in from the corner of your eye, with silent, fluid precision. Running at you with arms outstretched or popping out of a dresser would be an improvement. The closest that It comes to adapting a real fright to the screen is in a scene without the clown, in which Stan (Wyatt Oleff) sees a painting come to life. A woman with an unearthly, misshapen face (like a blurry Modigliani) can be seen standing within the frame behind him, out of focus, playing a flute. Her cruel silhouette is the most I ever got scared in It, the only impression of a nightmare I got for the overlong 134 minutes. Usually, the entity just seems amused with itself, like it can’t get over how good a job it did sewing this Pennywise costume for its big entrance.
No less so, I imagine, than New Line Cinema. They released It at a time when it’s the type of movie guaranteed to make bank, and someone’s super proud of themselves that they got it in twenty-seven years after the TV movie (this is how long Pennywise sleeps before returning to town to feed). The children excel where the monster is predictable and mushy. It captures a time when the world is full of fears: twelve or fourteen years old is when parents feel most restrictive and the world most unknown, because you’re just starting to know how little of it you understand. It’s the time when being a boy is really scary, when the girls your age are ahead of you in development and seem like little adults, arousing unknowable emotions that make the whole world seem aloof. I know why the new It did not adapt the book’s most controversial scene, in which the kids decide that in order to confront Pennywise they have to lose their virginity and do so in excruciatingly awkward (and consensual) detail, one at a time, in Pennywise's lair, with Bev. But there’s still something of the fragile, inappropriate emotions of young people in this movie and that is absolutely its best aspect.
This scene could not be adapted and I don’t want it to be. But without the safe adult morality that makes such a thing unacceptable, a child’s fairytale logic could justify such an act. It is the culmination of their togetherness, a version of love in the process of growing up, and it strengthens them to face a monster which represents how adult morality has always left them behind. It couldn’t survive this scene at the box office (Eddie’s mom would have come crashing through the internet in protest), but these movies need more of King’s weird honesty and imagination, more of the mind that conceived such a scene, even if not that scene particularly. Without the underage sex and the world turtles, It doesn’t even feel like it needs the horror elements at all, like the Rob Reiner-esque core is the better film and the monster could have just stayed out of it. It positively strains to get all the scares in, reduces big ideas to approachable horror scenes ready to be smashed into a trailer, and leaves some characters completely out to dry (Chosen Jacob’s Michael Hanlon isn’t even needed in this version, since his abilities are stripped out of him and given to the other kids).
Within It, a story shines, though I don't know if that's why people like it. It’s a "boo movie," to use Pauline Kael's phrase, full of effort and no insight, which is a billion-dollar idea for people that don’t want any. Many critics have become like Stephen King’s cynical middle-American adults, letting bad things pass them by because it’s useless to protest when that’s just how things are. Works of true terror like The Witch and The Babadook make It feel like what it is: a spirited remake of something that wasn’t scary in the 90s either. If that sounds good enough for you, I have some peanut brittle you might like.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Stephen King (book)
|Bill Denbrough||Jaeden Lieberher|
|It/Pennywise The Dancing Clown/Bob Gray||Bill Skarsgård|
|Ben Hanscom||Jeremy Ray Taylor|
|Beverly Marsh||Sophia Lillis|
|Richie Tozier||Finn Wolfhard|
|Stanley Uris||Wyatt Oleff|
|Mike Hanlon||Chosen Jacobs|
|Eddie Kaspbrak||Jack Dylan Grazer|