Vampires can’t go near garlic, they can’t go out in the day, and they are killed with a stake in the heart. Zombies are slow and you shoot them in the head. For werewolves, you’ll need a silver bullet, but they only transform during a full moon. For an “It”? It can appear as anything, anywhere. It can morph the perception of the universe around it. And how do you kill It? Who knows?
It’s omni-presence was what really defined its movie: It (or, as it will probably be called in a few years if this weekend box office is any indication: It: Chapter One). Unlike most horror movies, which have a slow boil, It is pervasive throughout the entire film – we see it in the very first scene (or at least sequence) and then It is in almost every scene after that, even if only waving ominously waving from behind a bush while munching on a decaying child’s arm.
Full disclosure, before we get too deep: I am not a horror movie buff. I scare easily, and though I’ve been trying to face my fears if the film looks artistically interesting enough (It and It Comes at Night being the two films so far I’ve gritted my teeth through) I only saw about 3/4th of It, having to cover my ears and sort of slant my eyes to only catch the screen in the periphery of my vision for the remaining 1/4th. So maybe I’m not the right person to tell people this, but It was terrifying. Perhaps horror champs will disagree, but I felt like I was in a nightmare from beginning to end.
The film centers on the town of Derry in Maine (have I mentioned yet this is Stephen King? This is Stephen King). The town is, obviously, haunted by the eponymous creature, known only as It. It loves preying on children, and the opening sequences focuses on a rainy day during which It drags young Georgie Denbrough into the sewers after nipping off his arm. The following year Georgie’s brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and his gang of outcasts, known as The Losers Club, all have run-ins with It and decide to team up to figure out what the heck is going on with their town.
Like I said earlier, the movie is so effective because it feels like an unholy nightmare. After the first scene I leaned over to my friend Jesse (who also spent the movie deadening his senses) and said “don’t worry, I think we’re safe for a while” but I was dead wrong. It doggedly chases the Losers, taking on different forms and popping up out of sewers but also sinks, dark shadows, projectors, anything. The CGI is sometimes weirdly bad, but this is also strangely effective: the otherworldliness of the warped CGI adds to the feeling of a nightmare, where things don’t look exactly how they should.
Most of the weirdness of the movie, either intentionally or unintentionally, adds to that feeling. It isn’t the only horror: the Loser’s parents are also a threat, though a much more mundane and real world one. They are angry, abusive, and delusional, and this more mundane threats alleviates one of the big issues a lot of horror movies face: why don’t these kids simply tell their parents they are being hunted? We don’t see everyone’s parents, but we see enough to understand why the thought doesn’t ever cross their mind. The near-cartoonishly evil parents add another dimension of the other-world horror, and further confuse the amount of influence It can assert: almost every time we see a parent they are snoring in front a television program that looks like it’s aimed at 3 year-olds, with a woman in a sunny dress gleefully telling the viewer that the sewers are a fun place for children to play. No one reacts to this strangely, and no parents steps in to stop the final element of grounded horror: a gang of psychotic bullies who go as far as carving their initials into the stomach of one of the losers, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor). When a car with adults drive by Ben screams for help, and when the car passes by Ben spots the red balloon often associated with It floating in the backseat. Is It taking the form of ignorant adults? Is It influencing them? Or is It hunting them? As with a nightmare, it is simply hard to tell.
Even the moments without any of the horror add to the phantasmagoric effect. They are radical shifts, shockingly light and upbeat. They feature poppy fun songs, visual gags, right sunshine, and cool fun montages of summer fun. I found it bizarre in the theater, but walking out I felt it actually ended up aiding the film, the whiplash making the whole thing more unsettling and mirage-like. Unfortunately, the whiplash was also often associated with strange pacing. This is a long movie, and perhaps overly so. It takes the Losers far too long to get together, and then they are never properly developed as a group (late addition Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) ends up particularly underserved). The movie also spends a strange amount of time developing the bullies in the third act before brushing that development off as a non-threat. The zigs and zags weren’t necessarily bad, it’s where they zigged and zagged that bothered me.
And, in the end, I wasn’t all that scared while I was hanging out at home that night. Part of it was because I think I was just exhausted: I was so scared during the movie it felt like all my fear had left me. But the other part is that the It of the movie doesn’t stand for anything. In the book (which I’ve never read, but which I read the Wikipedia page for obsessively in preparation for the movie) It is a cosmic being, not quite known but not quite unknown. The It of the movie is simply… bad? Loves eating children? It remains unknown, but not in a cosmic “unkowable way” but rather an unexplored sense. Horror is haunting when it speaks to something deep, but It didn’t quite ever get there. It was about growing up, and it was about murdering a murderous clown, but those two things never intersected in a horrific or allegorical or even literal way, other than the very old fashion “we need to take charge” which could be about anything. Still, It was well acted, well shot, truly horrifying and more transporting into the realm of dream in the way it operated than a lot of movies I’ve seen, and I was high on fear every second of it.
It scores 8 Pennywise the Dancing Clowns out of 10 ghost Georgies.
- This movie almost didn’t have any damsel in distress moments for its very well acted single female role, Bev (Sophia Lillis). It did have one, but it almost made it all the way through without one! B for effort.
- I am usually the most scared person in a theater, but this movie was scary enough that I was not alone in nervous laughter after some scenes. Great crowd.
- Pennywise the Dancing Clown is the main form It takes, and he is played by Bill Skarsgård. Skarsgård brings a whole lot of menace to the role (love the way he says his “t”s) but, equally or more important, he makes It seem like it’s really having a blast scaring the life out of the children. It never quite embodies anything specific, but you do get some sense of what it’s after: it needs to do what it does to survive, but it also has a good time surviving.