Halloween Horror: It (2017)

The smash success of Andy Muschietti’s It, which has recently become the top-grossing horror film of all time (not counting for inflation), came as a surprise back in early September, but now that I’ve finally caught up with the film, its massive popularity doesn’t surprise me. Despite the R-rating, It is a big Hollywood genre film that knows how to hit all the necessary notes required of broad-appealing genre filmmaking. It is an often scary, occasionally funny, and consistently entertaining look at childhood, fear, and friendship in the face of adversity. The film also taps into the recent obsession with eighties nostalgia, best exemplified by Stranger Things, which helps add to the film’s perfect recipe for a hit movie.

Based off the first half of Stephen King’s massive horror opus, It follows a series of childhood outcasts in the town of Derry in the summer of 1989. Ignored by their parents and bullied by their peers, the heroes of It—Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Stan (Wyatt Oleff), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Glazer), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs)—have enough problems to deal with in their lives. Their troubles reach a boiling point with the arrival of a demonic presence, most often embodied by Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), that stalks the town every 27 years, feasting on children and the fear that consumes them. Spurned on by the death of Bill’s little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), which occurs in the terrifying opening scene, and by a rash of childhood disappearances, the so-called “Losers Club” decide to take on the clown and put their fears, both internal and external, to rest.

It is based on one of Stephen King’s most popular novels. Keenly aware of King’s popularity and influence, Andy Muschietti’s film is something of a referential engine, drawing on works both directly adapted from King (Stand By Me) and inspired by him (Stranger Things). The film also plays with many of King’s favourite themes, namely, childhood trauma and fear’s roots in personal experience. It also employs nostalgia to craft a vision of the past (the film updates the book’s past sequences to the 1980s instead of the 1950s), playing with King’s own obsessions with exploring, reframing, and ultimately glorifying the past. Luckily, the film is also a distinctive work in its own right, never depending too heavily on its references to compensate for thematic emptiness—I’m looking in your direction, Stranger Things—nor too slavish to the novel to work as a film in its own right. (Remember, this is based on only half a book and yet manages to provide a satisfying arc to the narrative.)

The film’s key strengths lie in its evocative imagery, which is frequently horrifying. Muschietti employs the horror in a distinctly-modern manner, which makes the film seem of-the-present despite its setting in the past. For instance, he builds with a quiet tease of horror, steadily building the anticipation of something dreadful with slow tracking shots and unsettling sound swells, until he crescendos with a flurry of violent imagery and explosive sound design. This method is undeniably effective, especially in the early scenes where the monster’s methods are entirely unknown.

While some critics have decried the film’s use of jump scares, I take exception to the idea that Muschietti uses jump scares in the pejorative sense. He doesn’t surprise the audience with sound and fury, but instead builds to inevitable scares, signalling with his visuals and the creeping sound design that horror is coming. In fact, the actual arrival of horror on screen is a welcome release from the tension. It’s a method very similar to Sam Raimi’s assaultive approach, especially in Drag Me To Hell.

However, this assaultive approach to horror is not as evocative as some of the more sinister and quiet imagery the film conjures. For instance, there’s a genius moment in a library with an out-of-focus figure in the back frame growing closer to a hero with each cut. Another scene envisions a Modigliani painting come to life to terrorize Stan, lurking in the shadows as a lanky, distorted conception of humanity that’s horrifying to see (especially for me, a person unreasonably terrified of anything tall and inhumanly thin—the Medeiros woman in REC and the tall man in It Follows are in my pantheon of horrifying imagery).

And then there’s the clown himself, which Bill Skarsgard portrays with relish. The costume and makeup design alone are triumphs. Pennywise wears Renaissance-style frills and has vivid red paint running down his face, leading to his cartoonishly-large front teeth. Skarsgard’s lanky frame, emotive face, and squeaking voice play as a cartoon from hell—it’s nice to watch a villain completely unencumbered by humanity or internal angst. The absolute zeal he has when racing towards the children—either twitching inhumanly, as if he’s moving like an image in a projector skipping every second frame, or bouncing back and forth (with the camera moving left and right to his distinct rhythm)—makes him a genuinely scary and memorable villain.

In fact, the whole cast is very good, capturing the subtleties of childhood experience at the same time they’re playing scared at CGI spookies and other Hollywood marvels. Sophia Lillis and Jeremy Ray Taylor are particularly effective as Beverly, the sole girl of the group, and Ben, the overweight new kid in town. Lillis demonstrates a touching maturity in her portrayal of a girl entering the biological terror of puberty, while Taylor manages to portray puppy-love and good-spirited kindness without resorting to creepiness or cheesiness.

It suffers from diminished returns the deeper into the narrative we get. In particular, Pennywise’s methods of scaring the children, and Muschietti’s methods of playing the scare, grow less effective through repetition. Perhaps this is deliberate as the children are supposed to grow more immune to Pennywise’s terror the more they experience it, but you’d hope a filmmaker could amplify horror throughout a film instead of letting it tail off.

As well, there is sag here. The film could lose 20 minutes (why does every blockbuster have to be north of two hours?), and the presence of teen bullies, seemingly transported from Stand By Me and made twice as vicious as Kiefer and his friends there, play as superficial versions of real-life threats.

But all of these elements cannot break the film’s spell. It is a conventional story with enough heart in its characters and creativity in its imagery to compensate for its deficiencies. It is scary and rousing, which is really all you can ask of a film of this type. I can understand why audiences are eating this film up like food after a long fast. A solidly-good Hollywood horror film is rarer than it ought to be, even in the current horror renaissance. We may be living in a golden age of horror, but aside from The Conjuring, the strength of films like The House of the Devil, It Follows, and The Witch have been mostly confined to the arthouse. It is the breakthrough for this mode of referential, clever horror filmmaking and earns the distinction of being the first genuine mega-hit of this current golden age.

7 out of 10

It (2017, USA)

Directed by Andy Muschietti; written by Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King; starring Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott.