by Philip Price
There is something inherently kind of trashy about horror films. If Oscar bait movies are mansions then horror flicks typically reside in the trailer parks. There is a class system to movies that is even less subjective than the constructs applied to actual society and there is almost no arguing that horror movies are always the ones that get relegated to the, "fun, but not actually good or worthwhile" category while time and time again movies with more grounded subject matter can be labeled as good without necessarily being exceptional. One could argue that horror would have to duke it out with comedy as to which genre gets the least amount of respect, but to that point one could argue that at least major studios still take more chances on broad comedies than they do mid-budget horror flicks and not to mention that, despite comedy stars largely being reduced to dancing clowns, there is genuine admiration for those who are able to pull off successful comedy as it has been admittedly more difficult to pull off than reliable drama. It's appreciated when horror is approached with clear skill, just look at what James Wan has done for the genre, but no matter how skillfully the job is done there is hardly ever any real merit awarded to what we might call a "scary movie." And so, when a studio or director decide to approach the horror genre with the objective of being more illustrious than usual there is reason to be excited for what the final product might deliver. Add to this the fact the movie this studio and director are setting out to make is a new adaptation of one of the horror maestro himself, Stephen King's, most talked about works and it is almost unavoidable: the anticipation and thus the expectations. This is where it seems society has landed on director Andy Muschietti's new take on King's magnum opus of a novel that is IT; there is a want for this kind of horrific escapism. This is not because there isn't enough horror in the real world (no, there's plenty of that these days), but because audiences seek a genuine escape back to a time when things seemed simpler while adding a dose of thrills to that nostalgia kick. This new version of IT has come at an opportune time with the implied legacy being that it will take on the mantle of being one of the most disturbing films in recent memory, finally doing justice to the source material, while hopefully living on as such for years to come. So, how does the actual film line up with everything that has come to be expected of it? Fairly well, considering. By no means is IT a transcendent work of horror fiction, but it provides an ample amount of legitimate scares while at the same time capturing this touching tale of friendship and unbreakable bonds that is so endearing it can't help but to make everything else about the movie that much more unnerving. As with all things, “IT” will inevitably be grouped into that set of hierarchical cinema categories, but I must imagine Muschietti's film, while not achieving that upper-class status it so ambitiously seemed to be chasing, works hard and well enough to escape the lows of thoughtless dismissal earning enough admiration without a solid balance of respect to settle into the most comfortable of middle classes.
With the hype that has seemingly surrounded this new film version since the first still of Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise debuted over a year ago it would also seem that the marketing campaign for the film was inescapable. If, by some strange turn of events though, you haven't heard of the new movie or are unaware of King's original, 1986 novel or the 1990 TV miniseries that saw Tim Curry turn Pennywise into a horror icon, then you may not know that “IT” centers around the town of Derry and is about this kind of hell hole town that desires to suck people in, force them down into their meandering lives, and never let them go. We seem to all know a place such as this in one way or another. Derry is a town, especially in 1989, that is disconnected to the world at large-a hub of a community where good and bad things happen, but people rarely ever talk about them for fear of making it even more real. Muschietti emphasizes this notion by only introducing a handful of adults into the narrative. More, “IT” centers on a group of kids, teenagers really, who are on the cusp of that fine line that exists between innocence and experience where society and expectation have told them they're now too old to believe in such fantasies as Santa Clause, but are still of a mindset where monsters can be real. If not for the horrific things some of them have seen and had to deal with, but for the fact they are seeing literal incarnations of their biggest fears come to life-these kids know monsters exist. Led by Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) who is still dealing with the loss of his younger brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), Bill is determined to find out what happened to Georgie as his body was never found and all evidence points to something dealing with the drainage system in town. Bill has best friends in Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) all of which have their own issues as far as parental figures go or lack thereof, but who have stood by Bill through what was no doubt a transformative year in his life and on his psyche. This gang of losers, as they're called by town bully and sheriff's kid Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), soon become friends with new kid in town Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) who is in turn immediately infatuated with Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) who is also drawn to the "Loser's Club" for reasons of circumstance that eventually evolve into a natural desire to be friends with these guys. Lastly, there is the kid who is home schooled in Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), a black boy who is being forced to grow up to fast in the absence of his parents and who also must deal with disgusting racial slurs from Bowers. When each of these kids come to realize they’re all seeing manifestations of their worst fears that culminate in the appearance of Pennywise and that children are disappearing at a strangely rapid rate in Derry they come together to investigate the source of the terror and ultimately take it on.
While the film, with a script from Gary Dauberman that was based on an earlier draft by Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer, doesn't allow for Pennywise to play as the “Freak Show” version of the clown it seemed his character design might make him out to be they ultimately don't allow him to do enough of what comes to be his creepiest of elements. When such elements are most vividly allowed to permeate is in that famous opening sequence where we are introduced to young Georgie as well as Lieberher's Bill who is under the weather, but still willing to make a paper boat for Georgie to sail in the rain waters that are falling heavily outside their suburban home. When Georgie goes outside to do just that he encounters Pennywise in one of the sewage drains setting up a conversation that shows Skarsgård's portrayal of Pennywise isn't all about the over-the-top antics typically associated with clowns, but rather with a kind of shyness and modest quality that is meant to be alluring and, to a certain extent, is. This physical presentation when paired with the friendly inflections Skarsgård utilizes combine to make this facade that is both terrifying to anyone who's mature enough to know anything about how the world works while at the same time helping the audience to understand why a boy of Georgie's age would be attracted to the character. It is when Pennywise reaches a point where he's toyed with his victims long enough to make them vulnerable that he pounces on them making the act of doing so even more startling and even more terrifying because it completely undoes the rather restrained pretense he's carried up until that point. Naturally, this technique can become somewhat exhausting if that's the only trick the director had up his sleeve, but thankfully Muschietti, while indeed utilizing this trick plenty more times, also has a penchant for tone and mood that is not only hard to nail down, but hard to keep consistent. This ability to keep in line such an uneasy tone throughout while building on the atmosphere of Derry with every revelation that comes to pass is arguably the biggest accomplishment of “IT.” That said, while Muschietti strives to make this kind of epic of the horror genre-a prestigious drama with a horror backdrop if you will-he seemingly takes one step forward just to take two steps back in many of these attempts. The cinematography is fantastic-the style of everything is lush and lived-in with just the right amount of grime to have us believe nothing good can come from Derry. Then there are the scary moments, whole scenes even, where Skarsgård is used sparingly and in random inserts to hold this edge of unease over all the other characters. This is effective, this is chilling, and had the director let Skarsgård's performance breathe a little more or even trusted it further we might not have what feels like an intrusion of CGI to seemingly up the ante of the fear Pennywise is meant to induce. Rather than amplify this fear though the addition of special effects simply distracts and cheapens the raw and tangible terror that makes Skarsgård's take on the character so exemplary.
What will ultimately stand to be the most interesting thing about this project is how "Chapter II" will develop and define the arcs that have been set-up in this first feature. Unlike both the book and ‘90s miniseries this adaptation of “IT” doesn't jump back and forth in time from the "Loser's Club" as teenagers to them as adults, but rather it strictly focuses on the perspective of the children. This is brought up not to draw comparisons, but to state that the adult cast and the second film have a lot to live up to as it is the relationships that are documented and developed between this group of kids that are the heart and soul of this film. While the ability to inflict an eerie tone into every frame is certainly an accomplishment such mood would mean nothing if the audience wasn't invested in the going-on's of the characters at the behest of that atmosphere. From the outset that displays the camaraderie between Bill, Richie, Eddie, and Stanley to that first, precious encounter that Ben has with Beverly there is a magic between these actors and their characters that can't be pinned down or captured outside of the luckiest of circumstances Muschietti has found himself in with these young performers. Wolfhard's Richie is a scene-stealer in that he is the comic relief and is funny in a way that any 13-year old boy thinks he's funny-making sex jokes he probably doesn't fully comprehend himself. Grazer's Eddie is in a constant state of neurosis thanks to his over-protective mother. Taylor's Ben may be the most adorable thing seen in a movie this year while his character's love of a certain ‘80s boy band might also provide one of the biggest laughs to be had at the movies this year - two things one likely wouldn't expect to say about a movie that could also be described as one of the more disturbing movie-going experiences in recent memory. There is also this natural development of feelings towards Beverly from a couple of the guys in the group, namely Ben and Bill. Lieberher's Bill is a genuine person and classic protagonist in the qualities he displays that is made humble by the presence of a stutter. He seems to like Beverly because he feels he should, because it feels inevitable whereas Taylor's Ben adores her and has the poetic chops to prove it. It's clear why though as, despite hints at an abusive past with her father (Stephen Bogaert), Beverly is the rock and the confidence that holds this group together and Lillis shines in this role throughout. Of course, what makes “IT” more than just a horror movie is the fact it can take the audience through these kids fears born out of each of their circumstances and how they come together, form these relationships with one another, how those relationships evolve, and how they evolve within themselves by coming face to face with these fears. The natural progression of such dynamics allows for the pacing to feel swift and involved while garnering a large amount of sympathy that is key to the level of fear that is felt when dread does indeed rear its head. Both Jacobs' Mike and Oleff's Stanley get the short end of the stick in terms of development especially based on each of their character's more than intriguing introductions, but this doesn't make their performances any less stellar regarding what role they play in the group at large. Moreover, “IT” is convincing in its play on fear if not devastating enough to stay with you; capturing lightning in a bottle with its young cast while being afraid to fully embrace the terror that lurks inside its grandly cinematic heart.