It’s been a long time coming (no pun intended), but finally cinemagoers can watch another adaptation of Stephen King’s IT!
The last time was a forgettable TV mini-series of 1990, noteworthy only for the portrayal of the menacing clown Pennywise by cult actor Tim Curry. In that adaptation the filmmakers attempted to adapt King’s massive horror novel about a group of adults slowly remembering how they battled a shape-shifting monster as kids.
The book is huge and distils all of Stephen King’s work into one story. Everything is here as King literally throws the bathroom sink at us: monsters, kids, the small town with a curse etc etc. It’s a masterpiece of horror fiction, spanning two generations with multiple time shifts. Which is perhaps why it has proven so difficult to film.
In the latest version, the action is shifted from the 1950s to 1988. The film opens with a atmospheric sequence in which young Bill’s brother Georgie encounters Pennywise in the storm drain. It’s a powerful scene, horrific and violent. It does what some of the best horror movies do, which is make us wonder just how far is this film prepared to go?
But does IT (2017) have what it takes us thoroughly scare us? Is it destined to become another classic Stephen King adaptation in the footsteps of Brian de Palma’s Carrie, the infamous Tobe Hooper TV series ‘Salem’s Lot, or Stanley Kubrik’s The Shining?
First, the scares: yes, it is scary. Horror fans rejoice! Pennywise played by Bill Skargard is the creepiest clown imaginable. The way the character moved was downright unsettling and truly suggested something unnatural. Kudos to the filmmakers for making the worn-out trope of the killer clown scary again!
The child actors are all very believable, especially hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), motor-mouth Richie (Stranger Thing’s Finn Wolfhard) and girl next door Beverley (Sophie Lillis). A very important consideration that was mostly missing from the 1990 miniseries and, in fact, many films involving children. The kids all played their parts exceedingly well.
The action is set in 1988 instead of decades earlier – presumably so that younger audiences can “relate” more. A dubious choice but it doesn’t hamper the story much, except that some of the novel’s best moments stem from IT assuming the form of 1950s B-movie monsters. But it’s easy to overlook such things because the movie looks gorgeous. And the opening scene establishes the tone so perfectly.
The film has some amazing visuals. When Pennywise attacks it was genuinely unsettling. There were some great original moments also, which came as a nice surprise to those of us who had read the book. In fact there were so many scares that the audience kept jumping in their seats all night, followed by nervous laughter.
However… and this is a big however… the film falls flat in several places. These weaknesses hampered my enjoyment of the film because they were so glaring. These were mainly questions of plot logic and unbelievably stupid choices by the main characters. And it was frustrating because it could all have been put right so easily.
King’s novel is quite daring in its realistic depiction of childhood. I didn’t really get that from the movie. We never see the kids being kids. Instead they become rather shallow characterisations of children (the motor mouth, the quiet leader, the skeptic, the hypochondriac). We get one scene of Bill’s father being annoyed after Georgie’s death. Other than that, nothing. We get one scene of Stan being put under pressure by his rabbi father. Then nothing. We get one scene of Mike’s life. We get no scenes whatsoever of Richie’s home life. Only Eddie and Bev have an arc. The filmmakers boil the kids down to their bare essence. They could have lost a few of the “montage” sequences instead and made up for this with actually meaningful moments. Instead it feels like a “paint by the numbers” approach to character.
More unforgivably, the kids have a habit of going “slowly towards” an unimaginable horror, presumably so we the audience can get a closer look, rather than turning tail and trying to escape. I found myself groaning inwardly every time someone walked slowly towards yet another life-threatening manifestation of IT. One would have thought that the filmmakers would have learned such lessons in the 1980s themselves!
The annoying thing is that all this is perfectly dealt with in the book. There were plenty of added scenes which didn’t really serve any purpose other than to provide another flashy visual. The writer and director could have used those scenes (scare as they were) to provide some more meaningful storytelling. Carrie has very few scares, but the ones that are there stick in the mind long after the film is over.
The directing style itself was a bit clumsy in places. Plot clues tended to “THUD” onto camera – sometimes literally. There were far too many “Jump scares” that weren’t really needed when the film did so well in setting up an atmosphere of terror. LOUD NOISES also proliferated (see what I did there?) and again, they were unnecessary.
As mentioned earlier, the movie is set in 1988. The problem with this time shift is that all through the movie I was asking myself: why choose 1988? The back end of the 80s had little of quality. Why not set it in 1985 or even earlier? (like Stranger Things – a series to which IT clearly owes a great deal) At least that way we could get some great 1980s soundtracks, hilarious fashions and great movie references. Instead we get a montage to… The Cure (?) and a couple of shots of a movie theatre advertising Lethal Weapon 2. Really? Why not choose some better material from a decade that had so much? It didn’t really feel like the 80s.
The film tries hard to get that Stand By Me vibe. But for me, it lacked the innocence and playfulness of childhood. The kids ogle Beverley for a few minutes, but that’s about it. Ritchie is funny in places but his “antics” get ridiculous, like trying to steal a bandplayer’s French horn in the background of a scene. We don’t see any authentic scenes of them playing as children. For me this was a major flaw. Especially when King’s novel deals with this so well. It could easily have been rectified by adding a few little moments to existing scenes, such as the kids building a dam in the Barrens. The novel is terrific at depicting the terror of childhood. But apart from a nice scene with Eddie and his momma, there was little of this in the movie. A little more attention to the source material would have helped.
As stated there were many plot holes. I won’t elaborate on these save that two very big ones occur near the end of the movie, leaving a huge incident involving the missing children completely unresolved. Again, a little more care with the script would have helped. I’m not solely blaming the screenwriters as they are often just doing what they are told (or have the decision taken away from them altogether by the production team), but the criticism stands.
However, for all these problems, there was a lot to like in IT. The film is genuinely frightening. Special effects often delivered the scares. There were some great ones too. The opening scene, an incident involving a movie projector, and a moment involving a headless corpse were all terrific moments.
But good moments do not a great movie make. King’s novel is more than just fodder for a Friday night scare. IT is a very complex novel about childhood. This film wanted nothing more than to be a popcorn horror movie. In that the filmmakers succeeded. But IT could have been so much more! This was a shame, as with a little more work this film could easily have been a classic instead of an instant payout.
Having said all that, I did enjoy the movie a lot. The scares are so well done and there are so many of them that I could almost forgive the other mistakes. The best horror films make you feel like you’re experiencing a world out of a nightmare. In this, IT did not disappoint. The whole thing feels like a fever dream with some great, surreal imagery. It is certainly a slick, well-oiled fear machine.
So is IT a classic?
The novel deals with some difficult childhood issues (bulling, abuse, first love, isolation) which are only alluded to in the movie. Undoubtedly IT has enough genuinely scary, gruesome moments to satisfy any horror lover. But the film lacks depth and characterisation, and the filmmakers themselves generate several major plot holes. However, IT is still a very watchable horror movie. I would say that IT is worth seeing just for the slick Hollywood effects and the many scary moments.
Still curious? Go see IT and judge for yourselves. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you…