“It” ain’t scary – at least, it didn’t scare me. But that doesn’t mean it was a bad movie. Funny thing about this one: It worked better as a drama than it did as a horror movie.
Full disclosure: I think it’s pretty hard to do good horror. Most movies I’ve seen in this genre end up drowning in clichés, cheap gotcha scenes/jump scares and an excess of blood. “It” had all of these things at various points, and it was then that it lost my interest.
On the other hand, it held my attention when it focused on the drama behind the horror – how the kids of the town reacted to it emotionally, how they bonded and how it helped reveal and forge their character.
“It” works best as an allegory. The central message, as I saw it, was inspiring: A group of supposed misfits may be better equipped than two-dimensional heroes to do battle with great evil, because they’ve already experienced great evil/adversity. Of course, this theme is nothing new; it’s been explored in everything from the X-Men to the Rocky series. But it’s done very well here.
The main characters are outcasts, reviled and bullied by peers and mistreated/abused by their parents. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the overweight kid who tries to hide the fact he listens to New Kids on the Block; at one point, he’s physically – and brutally – attacked by the town bully. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) talks with a stutter and feels responsible for the death of his brother. Beverly (Sophia Lillis) has been abused by her father and unfairly branded as “loose” by the mean girls on campus; she finds refuge hanging out with Ben, Bill and their friends.
The true horror in this film is provided by the bullies, Beverly’s father and some of the other adults, all of whom are pretty two-dimensional but work well as a means of developing the younger characters. This is where the film really succeeds. You get to know Bill, Beverly, Ben and their friends, and you get to feel some of what they feel. Few films manage this, and “It” deserves major props for pulling it off.
Bill Skarsgård does a good job of acting psychotic as the villain, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but the film never truly belongs to him. Instead of the villain stealing the show from the hero, as Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson did as The Joker in “Batman” films, the heroes steal “It” from the villain. This is not a knock on Skarsgård, but rather recognition of how well the young characters were written and acted.
(I don’t generally find clowns scary, funny or interesting in general, so that element of the film didn’t connect with me.)
“It” is best at the beginning and the end, when it first develops the young characters and, later, reveals their inner strength. Each of the young actors (particularly Lillis and Taylor) does a great job. Finn Wolfhard provides some fun comic relief as Richie, and Chosen Jacobs is effective as Mike. The middle of the film, however, degenerates into a series of gotcha scenes, a supernatural bloodbath and a haunted house excursion that could have been plucked from pretty much any standard horror movie template. Yawn. There are only so many times the monster can jump out “unexpectedly” from behind the curtain before you start, well, expecting it. At such times, I found myself saying, “Get on with it, already.”
Fortunately, the movie does, and it picks up well from there.
I haven’t read the Stephen King novel on which this was based or seen the 1990 TV production with Tim Curry, so I’m reviewing this film solely on its own merits. Coming in cold, I interpreted the villain allegorically, as a personification of the townspeople’s fear, which I thought made the film even stronger; I was a little disappointed to find out that the clown is, apparently, a real being, but the film still works well based on first-rate acting and, overall, good writing.
While there’s clearly a sequel in the works, "It" stands up well on its own. (One loose end: We find out the monster appears every 27 years, but the film never explains why.)
Although I thought it didn’t really work as a horror flick, “It” more than succeeded as an examination of the human condition … which is a heck of a lot more interesting to me, anyway. I’d give it a B overall, and say it’s definitely worth seeing. Acting: A. Story: B-plus. Horror: D-plus.