Odds are that something in It will scare you silly. The film spits out enough ghastliness, ghouls, and gore to guarantee it. By the time the movie was over, I felt as if I had walked through the world’s creepiest haunted house—15 times in a row. Thankfully that repetitiveness, while wearying by the end, is ultimately in service of a potent exploration of a particular fear: the childhood distrust of adults.
Adapted from the Stephen King novel of the same name, It takes place in the late 1980s in Derry, Maine, a small town suffering a rash of child disappearances. Thanks to a series of terrifying visions they’ve been suffering—all of which involve a killer clown with lolling eyes and rows and rows of teeth—a bunch of misfit kids band together to unravel the mystery.
It is directed by Andy Muschietti, who proves to be a master of unnerving imagery. Shots of smoldering Easter eggs, hair clogging a sink, and hands reaching out from the cracks of a bolted door could easily fuel a week’s worth of nightmares, especially in the context of their given scene. The film’s masterstroke might be the moment Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), one of the kids, straightens a crooked painting of a disfigured woman that hangs in his father’s office. As Stanley adjusts the frame, Muschietti cuts to the painting’s POV—a Dutch angle shot of the office that shifts into a perpendicular position. A few moments later, when the woman in the painting emerges to attack Stanley, we understand that we were seeing things from her nightmarish perspective.
As It accumulates more and more of such scares, however, the movie ironically loses some of its power. Muschietti and editor Jason Ballantine crank up the pacing, leaving us little time to breathe. By the time the kids make a second trip to the same abandoned house to face off against Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgard) in a series of gruesome, gross-out confrontations, the haunted-house metaphor began to feel like it was becoming a reality.
I suppose what I’m describing is desensitization, which I often experience with movies drawn from books by King. Yes, masterful horror films have been made from his material (The Shining, Carrie), but especially in the 1980s—with the likes of Maximum Overdrive, Pet Sematary, Cujo, and Children of the Corn—a King movie, more often than not, seemed interested in nastiness simply because it was nasty. It flirts with that sort of shallow, perverse gleefulness, but becomes something better by tapping into the aforementioned fear.
The adults in Derry fall into one of three basic categories: indifferent, grotesque, or abusive.
The adults in Derry fall into one of three basic categories: indifferent, grotesque, or abusive. What unites the kids at the movie’s core—apart from their nightmarish visions—is their uneasiness around, if not outright hatred of, the grownups they know. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), the group’s leader, can’t believe his parents have given up on searching for his little brother, who disappeared a few months earlier. Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) can barely escape the overprotective (and over-medicating) arms of his looming mother (Molly Atkinson, made up to look slightly like Pennywise on one occasion). And then there is Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the sole girl of the group and the only daughter of a leering (and possibly worse) father.
As if their home lives weren’t precarious enough, these kids also have to deal with a pack of omnipresent bullies, who cruise around town in a muscle car looking for easy targets on bicycles. As in most movies, the bullying sequences are cartoonishly staged, yet it’s interesting to note how the younger kids see the bullies as both tormentors and traitors. Part of their corruption is that they’re on the verge of becoming adults.
Among the young cast, Lillis is a particular standout as Beverly, especially in her quiet scenes with Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben. New to town and an instant target for the bullies because of his weight, Ben is taken under Beverly’s wing in a way that is sweetly, innocently flirtatious. The movie never pushes their relationship too far or wrings it for easy sentiment, and the two actors bring notes of shyness and yearning to their scenes that are just perfect.
And what of Skarsgard as Pennywise? The clown has always been this story’s mascot, from the novel’s publication in 1986 to the 1990 television adaptation (with Tim Curry in the role) to this new iteration. While Skarsgard ably carries the baton—helped by gruesomely inventive makeup work and sinister special effects—Pennywise is also emblematic of the movie’s limitations. He’s scary, but also a vague threat, a bogeyman that ultimately taps into little more than the notion of fear itself as he giggles from one fright gag to the next. If It is a haunted house, it’s also a haunted carousel, a rotating ride of random horrors that threatens to never end.