It appears to be one of the most crowd-pleasing horror films in recent memory. But a crowd-pleasing horror film is something of a contradiction in terms. If everyone finds it to their liking, then how unnerving, scary, or boundary-pushing can it possibly be? I’m not saying that every horror film has to have people throwing up in the theaters like The Exorcist or scared out of their wits, but there is something wrong with a horror film feeling so conventional and comfortable.
It does a great deal well, drawing powerful performances from its young actors and giving them reasonable things to be scared of. Frightening images abound, none more iconic than the updated Pennywise the clown, but It is slow to let them breathe. The result is a horror film with an expertly built foundation of atmosphere, mood, and imagery – all of which is traded in for cheap scares.
The opening sequence of It tells you all that you need to know about how the film will unfold. When the young Georgie loses his paper boat down a storm drain, Pennywise (a wonderful Bill Skarsgård) pops up and begins joking around with him. Skarsgård is a nightmare-circus, delighting in the strangest turns of phrase and adopting a real creepshow affect. The weirdness is palpable, and it feels like this is going to be the movie we get to see. Then Georgie says he has to leave, Pennywise bites his arm off and a far too-lound sound cue blares over the soundtrack.
This is It, over and over. A weird, creepy vision sets the mood and starts the skin crawling, and then a formulaic scare blunders the endgame.
Still, one has to appreciate the skillful combinations of characterization, balance of tone, and plotting that makes It even feel like it had something to undermine in the first place. As previously mentioned, some of the most affecting parts of the film involve the friendships between the school children who end up forming the Losers Club. There are genuine moments of care between them, but also plenty of ball-busting and wise-cracks. It all feels very realistic, and none of the performances feel wooden or forced or thin. This is a remarkable accomplishment for a film where there are only about 20 lines spoken by adults.
One also has to be impressed with how the feel draws terror from realistic sources. Bev’s greatest fear is born out of the perverted leers of her father, a point made without any subtlety on the matter. Eddie is afraid of anything that could make him sick, so It attacks him in the guise of a leper stricken with disease. And so it is for the rest of the Losers Club. This makes the climax of the film just a little more thematically resonant. As each member of the club is attacked, It transforms between baddies like the melting T-1000 at the end of the second-best Terminator film. Still, they all stand up to It, smacking the monster around with all the subtlety of a lead pipe.
So yeah, It is not subtle.
Staying on the side of realism – it is perhaps an additional condemnation of It that the most terrifying moments are probably those that have nothing to do with Pennywise and his visions. Those would be the sequences focusing on the bullies who pursue and torture the member of the Losers Club. These are so mindlessly savage and brutal that I seriously felt more scared for the protagonists when they were being attacked by these shitheels than during any of the Scary Clown scenes.
This is the oddity about It. There’s obvious skill and technique behind the film, with a lot of work going into generating the proper mood, tone, ambiance, and unifying the plot and theme into a single coherent statement about facing fear and the strength of friendships. But, along the way, it feels like the film takes a shortcut towards techniques that will make the film as commercially successful as possible – super dark sequences, jump-scares, and a pounding soundtrack meant to drive home just how scary everything is.
There’s an It that exists somewhere where the scares are more lingering, everything is a little brighter and more unnerving and weird, and the themes of sexual abuse, overprotection, and family trauma play out in more subtle ways as the It creature preys on the weakness of individuals and their own specific demons. This It doesn’t make $100 million in its first weekend, though.