Very few films have the capacity to affect the collective social consciousness. The ability to resonate with an audience on a level so intense that an entire society changes is the real coveted prize of pretty much every piece of artistic media ever produced.
Stephen King’s horror novel “It” was a primary reason why an amazingly large swath of the American population developed a deep and crippling fear of clowns.
This was intensely amplified with the release of the two-part 1990 TV film starring Tim Curry. The original take on Pennywise the Dancing Clown was either revered or revolted depending on whom you ask.
The 1990’s “It” holds a special or terrifying place in many people’s hearts, so this year’s theatrical take on the Stephen King novel had a lot to live up to. On every level, 2017’s “It” surpasses its 1990 counterpart and additionally ranks among one of my top films of the year.
For those of you who haven’t read the book or seen the 1990 film, Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert), a 7-year-old boy from Derry, Maine, takes his paper boat out to sail along the roadside during a rainstorm. He comes across a mysterious clown in the sewer drain who drags Georgie down below. A year later, Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is still obsessed with finding his brother, skeptically hopeful he might be alive.
Bill and his six friends, named The Losers Club, investigate the disappearance of Georgie and an ever growing list of children. They all independently come across the clown, named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). The Losers Club eventually teams up to take the fight down to the sewers and straight to the mystical Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
The strengths of this film are almost impossible to list in this short review, so I am going to try and point out the things that stood out the most. The first, and subjectively most important, is the characters. “It” centers around a group of children, so it is important that the characters are written well and competent child actors are cast in the roles to allow the film to succeed. The children in “It” are absolutely marvelous.
Each child in The Losers Club gets enough attention in the story that we get a good understanding them, and each one has elements of his or her character that we can relate to, or they are at least characters that we fundamentally understand. Whether it is the emotionally tortured Beverly (Sophia Lillis), heartbroken Bill, the introvert Mike (Chosen Jacobs) or any of the other characters of this film, each child comes across as authentic and fully realized.
I don’t have enough time or space to specify why each child character is great, but I’ll spotlight two. The first is Eddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Eddie is a hypochondriac, and Grazer’s performance of the character is truly fantastic. Eddy is fast talking, overly cautious and quick to grab his inhaler. His character embodies the terror presented in the film. It is through Eddy, I think, that the audience really feels the fear of the film.
As great as Eddy and the rest of the characters are, the best of them is Richie Tozier, played by “Stranger Things’” Finn Wolfhard. Richie is the comedic relief in this horror film. He is a foul-mouthed child, cracking “your momma” jokes pretty much throughout the film.
Normally, that type of comedy gets tiresome after a few lines, but Wolfhard embodies the character so well and his comedic timing is so perfect that I laughed nearly every time he cracked a joke.
“It” is fundamentally a horror film. This version of Pennywise has to rank high on the list for scariest monsters in film. Pennywise is a layered character, and the horror he presents to the rest of the characters in the film and the audience watching on the other side of the screen is multi-faceted. Some of his scares come visually, some audibly and other tense and thrilling moments created by Pennywise occur through his absence.
What is truly amazing about this film is the way it employs its scare tactics. The creative team is aware that a massive portion of the population is unnerved by clowns, so they play with that fear in unique ways. Pennywise comes off a bit like Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” because he is an ever-present specter and even when he isn’t on screen, the audience is always reeling and cautiously anticipating his return.
The film really subverts our modern understanding of horror films. “It” is successful in thrilling its audience because it doesn’t rely on the cheap scare tactics that have plagued nearly all “scary movies” that have come out in the last 20 years. It keeps the audio-based jump scares to a minimum and really delves into more interesting psychological methods of frightening the audience.
The film creates a situation in which Pennywise, while the most frightening of the characters, is not the only monster of this film. “It” really tries to fuse the mystical with the realistic in that it sets out to prove that humans can be monsters, too. We see that come through with a couple other characters in the film, and this really leaves the audience and the characters within the story with no escape. Danger comes from all corners, yet Pennywise guides them to his.
As for negatives, I only have a couple, and the first is nitpicky. Some of the VFX weren’t as crisp as they should be and pulled me out of the moment a bit. “It” had a budget of $35 million, so I understand the limitations with a budget that small, but it still pulled me out nonetheless. The second is the pacing of the film. While the story flows really well, a few times in the film I lost my sense of time.
Some characters of the Losers Club come into the fold later in the movie, and the group is very cohesive at all times. The problem I had with that was we never really got to see the integration process for those characters, so I had a bit of a hard time believing that some of the newer members of the group would stick around once the real thrills started to kick in. It wasn’t a massive problem, but it was something I was cognizant of later in the film.
Those negatives aside, “It” was a truly entertaining and thrilling film. That really says something coming from me because I generally do not like horror films. I don’t find them scary. While I wouldn’t say I was scared by “It,” I was unnerved, and the immersion of the film was spectacular.
And while I never screamed out in fear, the audience in the pretty packed theater I was in did — a lot. Many people jumped with fear or screamed and followed that up with nervous laughter as they couldn’t believe what just happened.
I recommend “It” to any person who hasn’t been impressed by recent thriller films. It’s a callback to old Stephen King, John Carpenter and Wes Craven films. Even with those obvious and fitting influences, “It” employs some updated and revolutionary methods of its own to make it a film that stands out all on its own.
I give “It” 9.5 out of 10.