I remember visiting the home of my mother’s friend when I was very young and seeing a VHS copy of the Stephen King’s It miniseries sitting on the shelf, Tim Curry‘s sinister smile looking back at me and peering into my soul. I was intrigued, but, as much of a horror fan as I am now, my mother wisely directed me away from the evil clown beckoning from the gutter (God knows what kind of nightmares would have followed). That’s about as much exposure to It as I’d had prior to seeing the new cinematic reinterpretation of King’s classic novel, and yet I still found myself in eager anticipation against my better judgment. There have been a series of excellently crafted horror films over the last few years (I’ve seen no less than three gems so far in 2017), and the indications I got from the trailers leading up to It seemed to give it a chance to follow suit. Yet in spite of my minimal attachment to the material, what was once one of my most anticipated pictures of autumn quickly became one of my most frustrating cinematic experiences of the year.
I really love the premise behind It, which features a group of misfit kids who form a bond through their mutual experiences of extreme bullying – and torment from a shapeshifting, child-eating monster that usually manifests itself in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. There’s so much potential in this setup, especially with the varied backgrounds of the children involved, to explore the terrors of coming-of-age and the sufferings faced as a child. Pennywise is a brilliantly horrific stand-in for a child predator, one who literally drools at the sight of his prey. It’s unfathomably twisted, even more so because its rooted in reality. This is what good horror should do, and, even if I found the execution lacking, I have to credit King for positing some excellent ideas that still linger in the mind in spite of delivery.
Where I primarily take issue with the film is that the horror elements are terribly implemented and lack any impact. The real meat of the themes are explored in the kids’ relationships outside of supernatural terrorisation. Relationships with varying types of parents are poignant and revealing, the banter between the children is entertaining and engaging, and everyone (even some of the “villains,” like the chief bully Henry Bowers) is afforded a humanising level of complexity. Most of the thematic material is explored without heavy-handedness, though sometimes the film is heavy-handed in its avoidance of heavy-handedness, Beverly’s deplorable relationship with her father being a particularly awkward blip in some moments. These scenes of kids interacting with family and friends offer so much charm, gravitas, and dread in their own right that I would have thought the film compelling with Pennywise completely pruned out.
Unfortunately Pennywise is still present, and his presence seems like an afterthought. Spooky sequences (apart from a couple of inspired scenes like the opening conversation between a young boy and Pennywise via a storm drain) are conventional and dull, relying on the same, tiresome elements of hiding danger out of frame, slowly panning around, and drawing out the tension with a string-filled score that quiets just before the big crescendo into a jump scare meant to make you soil your trousers, elements that were run into the ground by the mid-80s let alone thirty years later. The biggest problem with this approach is that these moments are almost entirely divorced from what the film is meant to be communicating. It almost never uses Pennywise to explore why child predators, bullies, disease, sexual maturity, the teenage life, and reading the Torah for your bar mitzvah are scary, but instead puts the weight of fear into the element of surprise. It’s an exasperatingly low approach to material with so much potential, and it makes me more upset the more I think about it.
This is without considering that the scenes are also riddled with terribly integrated CGI and obnoxious cinematography that overuses dutch angles and flyover swooping shots. Worse yet, the first half of the film is little more than a series of these scenes aimlessly strung together, and I was bored to tears by the time we hit the sixty minute mark. A cohesive narrative does form around that time, and, while the film does become more engaging at that point, it never succeeds at improving on its other aforementioned shortcomings.
There are a barrage of other minor flaws that build up into a formidable thorn. Tonal shifts are nothing short of jarring and highlight director Andy Muschietti’s inability to blend, balance, and reign in his concepts. The flow is disjointed and maladroit, stumbling along from beginning to end. Simple aspects of the production design are absurd and out of place, most egregiously the exterior of the well house, which looks ripped out of a Tim Burton flick in its placement along a quiet, unassuming residential street. It’s a mess of a film, and, if I watched it again (which I have no intention of doing), I could probably pick out a hundred more things that drive me bananas.
The thing that’s most frustrating about It is that I could also pick out a hundred more things that I love, giving me this vision of what could have been had it been in the hands of someone more adept. When this film works, it works. The ensemble cast of child actors is phenomenal across the board and deserving of the highest praise, and Bill Skarsgård is stupendous as Pennywise when given the chance to act. Scenes with the kids just hanging out and enjoying summer or just bonding over their experiences with Pennywise are when the film is at its best. Certainly a couple of the scares work too, such as a scene involving a slide projector in a garage and another with a switchblade and a neck, but these work because the audience isn’t being manipulated into cheap frights. When It inevitably returns to such affairs, it feels even more transgressive than before; I got a momentary glimpse of something really special, only to be immediately reminded of the hot mess that’s actually in front of me. What a waste.