Director: Andy Muschietti
Genre: Horror/ Thriller
Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Wyatt Oleff.
In an America plagued with gun violence and racial tensions and fake news, it’s clear we’ve created our own monsters, yet we refuse to reckon with them. If the evils of society could manifest themselves as literal monsters, then you’d have It, the new film based on Stephen King’s 1986 bestseller. Pennywise, a creature that preys on the children of Derry, Maine, takes the shape of whatever it is that scares us, feeding off our fear. Mostly though, he dons the appearance of a menacing circus clown. (Because what could be scarier?) The novel is King’s most glaringly cynical picture of the rot of small-town America, a rot so deep and so pernicious that it’s allowed something evil to fester and thrive, literally in the bowels of the town.
The complacency of the adults, who seem incapable of facing the mounting body count in their community, suggests a society overwhelmed by the insurmountable problems of life, and unable or unwilling to deal. This is a world of dead-end lives and abusive fathers and pill-popping mothers, of ramshackle houses lapsing into decay because there simply isn’t enough money, of history inexorably repeating itself. And so it happens that a group of misfit kids, united by their status as outcasts and their shared torment at the hands of “It”, band together to destroy the monstrous thing living in the sewers. But the director of It, Andy Muschietti (Mama), mostly ignores the themes at work in Stephen King’s admittedly problematic novel (which has moments of greatness and just as many moments of amateurish padding and poor authorial judgment). He’s committed to making It as scary as possible, but in grinding us through this disturbing tale, he loses sight of the bigger picture, and the result is a movie that’s repetitive and hopelessly mediocre.
The film is set in the late 1980s, and Muschietti takes his cues from any number of 1980s kid-adventure films, not to mention Netflix’s popular 2016 series Stranger Things (itself a throwback to 80s nostalgia), and then doubles down in his quest to magnify the book’s sadistic tone. When the movie opens on a rainy afternoon in Derry, we see Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) painting wax on a paper boat for his little brother, Georgie. Downstairs, their mother plays something grim on the piano (in the novel it’s “Für Elise”), and of course by now we know that Georgie is going to get it: we’ve seen the trailer, or read the book, or possibly we grew up with the 1990 mini-series of It. The scene of Georgie in his yellow slicker, chasing after the little boat as it sails the rain-soaked streets of his neighborhood, is sadistically well-filmed, clear, and pretty: Muschietti has an eye for visual beauty, but it’s all calculated filmmaking, designed to put the screws on us in the most unpleasant fashion possible.
We get the sense that Muschietti relishes the carnage. Pennywise rips Georgie’s arm out of its socket, and we get to experience the gushing blood and the look of agony on the little boy’s face as he lies bleeding to death in the rain, just before “It” pulls Georgie down into the sewer with his retractable mouth and his endless layers of sharp teeth. (Muschietti shows it all; one cue he hasn’t taken from other horror films is the old adage about revealing as little of the monster as possible.)
George’s murder torments Bill, who cannot get over his little brother’s death, but it also drives him to catch and destroy this creature, especially because Pennywise keeps toying with Bill, appearing several times as Georgie, with that bloody stub of an arm. The other child-heroes of the movie are terrorized in equally horrific ways, and after a while, we begin to feel fatigued, and finally, annoyed, with the movie’s unpleasantness. Muschietti and the screenwriters (Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman) will do just about anything to make us queasy.
This film isn’t very smart; it’s just loud and forceful, like the bully who terrorizes the kids relentlessly. The film’s impressive budget lends it the air of respectability (a status most horror movies are right to shun), but a glossy horror movie needs, more than anything, the eye of a thoughtful, visionary director. Take the original Carrie, (based on Stephen King’s first novel). Brian De Palma’s use of gaudy colors and fancy camera-work (particular in the infamous prom sequence) elevate the trashiness of the Gothic Cinderella-on-Acid plot: the high school prom becomes a hellscape, the crazy fundamentalist mother becomes Medusa, and Carrie herself, drenched in pig’s blood, transforms into a demonic child-victim, her eyes big and piercing like a scared rabbit as she unleashes her fury on the teenagers who’ve mocked her. With Muschietti’s It, the panache only points up the film’s mediocrity. There’s nothing going on here visually or thematically that we haven’t already seen before, nothing to excite or move us unless we’re easily spooked.
Muschietti has paid attention to all the great horror movies, yet learned nothing from them in terms of style. When the children enter a dilapidated Victorian mansion (a portal, of sorts, for the demonic clown), we might as well be going through the motions of a haunted house at a carnival. Or, take the scene in which blood spews out of a bathroom faucet and soaks Beverly (Sophia Lillis). These scenes don’t register, they repel. In Carrie, the pig’s blood scene is fraught with meaning. The blood is a catalyst, the final blow that awakens Carrie’s full wrath. The only scene in It that has any real power of that kind is when the kids fight back against the bullies, throwing stones at them in the Derry River. It’s a moment of triumph.
The kids somewhat redeem It from being a complete waste. But even their relationships and the camaraderie they form feel routine for those of us who have watched Stand By Me and Stranger Things, this film’s primary inspirations. (One of the boys from Stranger Things, Finn Wolfhard, appears here as Richie, the “mouth” of the group.) The popular culture has become so regressive and indulgent, that movies like It don’t have to do anything new, so long as the director is in the business of planting little nostalgia tokens for the audience. (The film is set in 1988 and 1989: a poster for Beetle Juice hangs in Bill’s room; a cinema marquee displays the titles for Lethal Weapon 3 and Halloween 4 and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5.) Muschietti, it seems, is a filmmaker with a lengthy checklist, but no vision.