First off, I have never read Stephen King’s doorstop of a novel, and I didn’t see the 1990 TV miniseries until I was already an adult, so it didn’t leave a huge impression on me. Which is basically a long way of saying that I don’t have any special investment in Andy Muschietti’s 2017 version of It besides that it’s a big budget horror movie and I like horror movies, and also that I don’t know, beyond the broadest strokes, what elements are unique to the movie and what belong to the book.
I was excited to see It less because of anything I knew or had heard about the movie itself–though the trailer looked fine (sans one really dumb scene) and I’d heard mostly good stuff–than because I have been too sick to go anywhere, even to a dumb monster movie, for two weeks, and I had promised myself a trip to the theatre once I was finally feeling up to leaving the house. Luckily, It was a fine enough way to spend most of three hours (once you factor in the obligatory 20 minutes of trailers).
That’s maybe not a very compelling review, but for a movie that is being hailed as the highest grossing horror film of all time (which depends both on how you do your math and what you count as a horror film) and garnering a whole lot of praise, It is mostly just that: fine. For everything that It does great, there’s something else it does that’s lousy, but for each thing that It does that’s lousy, there’s something else that it does great. And in between there’s mostly a bunch of good ideas that it doesn’t completely carry off, that sit somewhere in the acceptable middle ground between great and lousy, which is the ground that most of the movie occupies, to be honest, made notable mainly by the times it ventures into the territory to either side.
Really, the whole film is kind of a seesaw of contradictions. Much has been made of how great the child actors are, which is accurate, they’re pretty fantastic, and they need to be, because their characters are all pretty thinly drawn, so that the actors have to do all the heavy lifting to get any kind of meat on their bones. (And that’s not even getting into the problematic elements of Beverly’s role, which others have covered better than I would.)
There are scare scenes that work wonderfully (whether you find them scary or not), while others fall flat. Even if you don’t have my distaste for the “scary thing rushes haphazardly toward the camera while shrieking” technique that shows up in the trailer, after the 90th time that it happens in two hours, you’ll probably have developed a callus. You get the idea.
In a lot of ways, the ridiculous cartoon haunted house that would sit at the center of the movie if the movie’s structure allowed it to have a center (it doesn’t, really, just an episodic series of similar-feeling scares that cascade more than they flow into a necessarily anticlmactic climax), is unintentionally emblematic of both what’s right and wrong in the film. The house is too perfectly stylized (I really loved the sunflowers in the yard), looking like a Halloween haunted attraction, like the backlot construct that it is and not like something that’s connected to the rest of the town that we see.
Similarly, even when the film’s set pieces work, they often feel orphaned in the midst of its coming of age storyline, while that story feels thin; stretched, as it has to be, across so many characters and around so many scares.
There’s a lot that doesn’t gel in It, but those moments that do work sometimes really work, including the entire sequence with the slide projector in the garage. (It works pretty well in the trailer, too, but the movie, happily, takes it quite a bit farther.) I’ll talk more about that scene some other time, because that kind of playing with scope and scale is something that horror needs a lot more of, and it was a welcome addition to the trappings here.
Also welcome is Bill Skarsgard’s jittery, animalistic portrayal of Pennywise. I’ve been vocally critical of the basic design of the new Pennywise, which looks, in still photos, like a Joker henchman, even while also appearing more accurate to what I remember of the character’s turn-of-the-century roots, at least as portrayed in the miniseries. I know that Tim Curry’s turn as Pennywise is beloved by those who saw it when they were young, but I don’t recall it leaving a huge impression on me. Skarsgard’s Pennywise, helped along by the occasional rolling eyes and maw of ragged needle teeth, is almost always unnerving once set in motion, and really sells the idea of a monster that is just wearing a person-shaped disguise.
The decision to move the action of the film to roughly the era in which the novel was released was probably a good one, though it is executed with Stranger Things subtlety, making it clear time and again that the movie really, really, really, really wants you to be very clear when it is taking place. (Weirdly enough, the action begins in 1988, the exact same year as the inciting events in Channel Zero: Candle Cove, which I had just watched while I was too sick to go see It.)
So that’s It: A fun enough way to spend a couple of hours, with a solid central monster and set pieces that work almost as often as they don’t. It’s a pretty good movie, and one that seems to get better with distance, as the parts I liked stick with me while the parts I didn’t fade from memory. It made all the money in the world, which really isn’t all that surprising, all things considered, and I’ll be curious to see what they do with the sequel. More importantly, though, I’m happy for its success, and hope that it means we’ll start seeing more big-budget (for a horror movie, anyway) horror movies at the multiplex.
But if you are one of the many people I’ve seen who say that they love this version of It but hate movies like Insidious or The Conjuring or what-have-you, then you may want to reexamine one or the other, because they are really not all that different, except some of them are a lot less uneven.