Movie Review: It
By Matthew Huntley
September 20, 2017

I don't think the Munsters live here.

As a Hollywood horror remake, “It” accomplishes many things, but perhaps the two most surprising are that it: 1) improves upon the original; and 2) it's actually scary. In an ideal world, both of these qualities would be a given, because, if you think about it, the movie is simply doing what it's supposed to do. But, as we all know, Hollywood movies don't always do what they're supposed to do. “It” does, and more.

What's most impressive is just how well made the film is when measured on a scale beyond its genre, which might be hard to imagine given its content. It's well directed and edited; it features strong, nuanced performances from a young, mostly inexperienced cast; and the production values, including the special effects, are atmospheric and convincing. Plus, in addition to horror, it has elements of drama, comedy and romance. In a way, “It” is a horror movie for people who don't go to horror movies, because even they'll find something to take away from it.

The film is, of course, based on Stephen King's best-selling 1986 novel, the first half of which follows a group of grade-school children as they're terrorized by an evil entity in the small Maine town of Derry. The insidious being primarily takes the shape of a hideous clown, although it can manifest itself as any frightful construction, which it does in order to lure the kids to its underground lair, where it “feeds” on their fear and eventually murders them.

One can imagine, given the popularity of King's novel and the beloved TV miniseries from 1990, how much pressure the filmmakers must have felt to deliver a sound, updated adaptation of this material. And one of the ways they prove they're up to the task is by how effectively paced the film is. It's patient and rhythmic, taking its time to build tension and then release it in small sprints before going all out during the exciting climax, which is full-blooded and intense, both physically or dramatically. So often these days horror films attempt to shock and/or gross out the audience over and over again until we become numb and bored. Here, the thrills and scares are spaced out and targeted so they become effectual and disturbing.

The structure of King's novel, unread by me, fortunately allows the screenplay by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman to constantly refresh itself as it introduces and develops each of the child characters. Having essentially seven protagonists could have been too much since there's so much ground to cover, but director Andy Muschietti and editor Jason Ballantine are careful not to let scenes get shortchanged, feel rushed, drawn out, or redundant. They give each of the kids' stories a nice balance of horror and drama, and sometimes romance and comedy. This variety of elements gives the overall film a lot of energy and flow.

It helps too that the young cast is so dedicated and in touch with their characters' dilemmas. They seem genuinely scared and anxious on-screen, which in turn infects us. Their story begins in 1988 when It, taking the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (a very creepy and effective Bill Skarsgard) murders Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), younger brother of Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), a stutterer who becomes the unofficial leader of the kids pack. This incident begins Pennywise's reign of terror over the next year as it invades the lives of Bill and his friends.

The other children include the chubby yet intelligent history buff Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor); the beautiful and daring Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis); the foul-mouthed class clown, Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard); the pragmatic and timid Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff); the paranoid germaphobe, Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer); and the brave and moral Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs). Collectively, they become known as “The Losers' Club” as Pennywise attempts to get inside their heads and exploit their deepest, darkest fears, whether that's being overweight and bullied at school; sexually abused at the hands of a parent; attacked by an evil female portrait in a synagogue; germs and infectious diseases; or the idea you may caused your parents' death. Pennywise, we learn, comes out of hibernation every 27 years and is a staple of Derry's troubling history, which none of the town's adults talk about.

In addition to Pennywise, the Losers must also face ridicule and threats from the school bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and his cronies. Henry proves just as dangerous as the clown, wielding a knife and gun to compensate for his own securities with his police officer-father (Stuart Hughes).

With so many characters, it's remarkable how well divided the film is so that each of the kids gets individualized, not to mention how their scenes as a group, many of which are light and playful and underline the story's theme of friendship, carry real emotion. We come to care about these youngsters and view them as real people, and not just for their survival's sake, but because we can relate to their coming-of-age experiences, which are true and universal. Muschietti knows how fragile, urgent and formative these years are and uses a lot of sensitivity to convey them. This is why “It” is such a good movie beyond its horror aspect—we're not just waiting around for the next scary scene to come along; we're engaged by it on the level of the characters growing and maturing.

Yes, the purpose of a horror film is to scare us, but somewhere along the line, the Hollywood horror film got out of control, becoming a non-stop shock fest and allotting little if no time to the characters' personalities and problems outside the main conflict, thus relegating them as boring, would-be victims. Not here. We care just as much about their budding romances and adolescent insecurities as much as whether or not Pennywise will eat them.

And speaking of scaring us, “It” actually does. The scenes with Pennywise are legitimately horrific and the studio wisely opted for a hard R-rating, allowing the filmmakers to go to town with violence and gore and deliver a truly riveting, frightening experience. This was something the TV miniseries wasn't able to to do, which not only makes this version more faithful to the source but also results in a greater visceral impact. Just like the kids, we fear such things as our limbs being torn off, or being bitten by razor-sharp teeth, or going down into a dark, damp basement alone, or being beaten up by fellow students and having adults drive by idly and not lend help.

“It” is a horror film first and foremost, and a first-rate one at that. We walk out of it genuinely shaken up and disturbed. But it's also a touching human story about pre-adolescent angst, friendship, first romances, childhood tragedy and trauma. These were all prevailing themes in King's novel and Muschietti hasn't allowed any of them to fall by the wayside. Together, they give the movie an unexpected depth and help make the horror elements that much more effective and lasting.