It (2017) by Andrés Muschietti
Review by Andrew Swafford
I don’t know how far back in history the fear of clowns goes, but in today’s world, the number-one reference point for the phobia is Stephen King’s It -- or, more specifically, the 1990 miniseries adaptation, which starred Tim Curry as Pennywise, a clown-faced force of primordial evil who lives in the sewers of a small American town and haunts a group of seven children well into their adulthood. Having watched all 192 long minutes of the original It just a few weeks ago, I can attest with clear mind that it is astoundingly bad, and the experience has perhaps forever scrubbed my brain of any lingering coulrophobia that may have laid dormant.
Structural problems aside (which include grueling length, tedious flashbacks-upon-flashbacks, and the commercial-break-ridden television format), the It miniseries continually breaks the horror genre’s cardinal “don’t show the monster” rule with such harebrained relish that Pennywise ceases being scary within the first five minutes and just keeps spiraling further into the realm of annoyance for over three hours. In an attempt to make the audience feel that he could be around any corner, he practically is. After dozens of scenes predictably interrupted by seemingly all manner of evil clowning, the slog reaches its nadir when Pennywise’s shapeshifting forces of evil literally jump out of fortune cookies to attack unsuspecting patrons in a Chinese restaurant. It is...difficult to fathom watching this and feeling anything approaching “terror.”
All of this is to say that our collective cultural fear of Tim Curry’s iconic chalk-white face and red poofy wig is a testament to the fact that most people haven’t actually watched It since it came out (or ever -- I imagine an entire generation of people my age grew up with a lingering uneasiness with the VHS cover alone). However (or perhaps, unsurprisingly), America’s half-remembered childhood memories have proved very profitable. Andrés Mischietti’s new film adaptation of It has made about $117 million dollars in its opening weekend, which is currently the most profitable opening for a horror film ever. Hearing this, I feel compelled to pull myself out of my elitist sewer of snot to fulfill my long-standing duty of bursting bubbles about that new horror film people like. Mischietti’s film undoubtedly improves upon the last iteration in countless ways, but its inherited flaws run deep.
First, a major positive: the 2017 adaptation of It cuts a lot of the original’s dead weight by ignoring the adult half of the narrative altogether, effectively trimming over an hour from the runtime and eliminating many of the miniseries’s most befuddling scenes. Focusing on the children’s experience in the 1980s rather than switching back and forth between timelines adds an invaluable structural integrity to Mischietti’s film, and it allows its greatest strength to shine through: it’s child actors. Spearheaded by Jaeden Lieberher from The Book of Henry, Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things, and definite star-in-the-making Sophia Lillis, this group of seven kids bring the story to life with humor, chemistry, and appropriately inappropriate dialogue.
The fact that this film is rated R allows for an authenticity rarely granted to children’s stories: namely by showing how fucking problematic they are. Both bullies and losers in It regularly throw around words like “faggot” and “retarded” in between slutshaming comments and boasts about dick sizes -- and (speaking from experience here) that’s exactly how boys of their age are socialized to talk. This is not to say that the film itself is endorsing the boys’ language: K. Austin Collins astutely points out in his essay how the film is rife with “politically incorrect details we tend to airbrush from our memories of the [80s] era...[Therefore] Much of It plays like a soft rebuke to the PG-ified boyishness of Stranger Things” and other 80s throwbacks. From this perspective, 2017’s version of It knowingly deploys politically charged vulgarity to show casual cruelty being ignored in plain sight.
Because like the seedy underbelly of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the primordial evil of It is a reflection of the darker side of Americana in a small town in which violent bullying goes unchecked, incest and pedophilia goes unnoticed, and, yes, dehumanizing language is completely commonplace. (The new version does cut out the miniseries’s singular iteration of the N-word, however, which perhaps Muschietti felt would be a bridge too far.) Part of me is worried that certain audiences will watch the film with nostalgic fondness for how people used to be able to talk in the good old days when America was capital-G "Great,” but I suspect that these folks will be missing the point. Regardless, I can praise the young cast unequivocally: when Pennywise is nowhere to be seen, the banter and mundane drama between the self-proclaimed “Losers Club” is not only rightfully troubling, but also often endearing and hilarious (I watched this with Cinematary contributors Jordan Collier and Paige Taylor, who both lovingly called it the funniest movie of the year).
Although the kids fight bravely to make this movie work, Pennywise is the antagonist in more ways than one. Bill Skarsgård is certainly a more subtle Pennywise than Curry was -- and the costume is certainly superior -- but the character's intrusions into the world of the kids occur like clockwork, interrupting scene after scene until, like Curry, he scares less than he annoys. This is a problem inherited from the miniseries, of course, but it is ultimately symptomatic of the nature of Stephen King’s story structure and monster concept.
Because Pennywise appears to the children in the form of what they fear most before morphing into his clown form, each new character introduced must be given a unique scare scene for exposition’s sake. The hypochondriac kid is confronted with a sore-ridden leper; a grieving boy is confronted with demonic visions of his dead brother; a girl having her first period is confronted with a bathroom that vomits blood. Good films teach you how to watch them, so It sets expectations for how characters will be introduced early and sticks to the formula. The problem here is the sheer number of kids to introduce. In Scott Tobias’s essay for NPR titled “‘It’ Happens, Again and Again,” Tobias writes:
“It's a simple case of mathematics: There are seven kids in "The Losers Club"...and all seven require their own individual hauntings, on top of the multiple times they try to confront the threat as a group. That adds up to a relentless succession of nerve-shredding sequences, but the effect is fatiguing over the long run”
Tobias is absolutely right: although the camaraderie between the kids is enjoyable when the mood is light, there are still far too many characters for the film to pull off it’s juggling act of mundanity-puncturing scare tactics. Maybe having seven different exposition scenes all operating with the same basic mechanic works in a 1,000+ page novel (though I imagine this might be even more tedious, given the increased mental energy required to trudge through it), the experience of cycling through one predictable scene after the next is simply boring.
It does not help matters that a few of the young characters feel utterly neglected (most of all, the one black member of the Losers Club), and therefore one is tempted to say they should have been cut altogether. Additionally, many of the childhood fears on display feel arbitrary, placed for the sake of fun setpieces rather than adding to a cumulative sense of dread (“dread” being a word one cannot use to describe the fear of Pennywise, as he is sure to jump back into frame before you’re able to notice he’s gone). I’m thinking specifically of the Jewish boy whose fear is a painting of a woman with a flute and a deformed face -- when Pennywise appears in the form of this woman, his presence seems like just a holdover from the creature from Muschietti’s previous film, Mama. How does the presence of this painting, however creepy, add to a story about a small town willfully ignorant of its own dark history?
My only guess is to communicate to viewers the idea that the Pennywise monster can be literally anything, anywhere, anytime. This is a monster mechanic inherited from Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series (the fifth installment of which is given a direct, by-name callout here), whose iconic villain Freddy Kreuger appears from the receivers of phones and the insides of walls and the depths of bubble baths, defying all physics and logic. I respect Nightmare and it’s place in the horror canon, but the concept of a monster who has no internal logic and no established rules does not make for tense horror (as I argued at length in my Conjuring 2 review last year). When there is no rational limit to what we know a monster can and cannot do, there is nothing for the audience to worry about. Instead, we simply wait for the next jump. Hitchcock once said that the difference between surprise and suspense was the difference between watching a bomb go off and knowing it’s under the table. The latter is what great, proverbial edge-of-your-seat horror is made of; It opts for surprise every time, letting said bomb transform into a clown that transforms into a spider because reasons. I'm not a huge fan of Carpenter's Halloween either, but I'll take Michael Meyers and his big-ass real knife over the ridiculous illusory tedium of Kreuger or Pennywise any day.
It’s also terribly difficult to thoughtfully resolve a conflict between seven small children and an abstract force of primordial evil without resorting to an dour non-ending that would surely leave audiences unsatisfied. When the logical end-point for such a strange premise is off the table, all that’s left is to go through the motions. The Girl is damselled, the boys save her by hitting primordial evil with big sticks, an obligatory reward kiss is exchanged, and the seeds for a sequel are planted. What’s there to say about such a tired conclusion?
The fact that It has broken the horror genre’s weekend box-office record is somewhat unsurprising -- the original property is something that almost everyone has a passing knowledge of but very few have gone out of their way to experience. A new, flashy version of such a nostalgia earworm tweaked to appeal to modern horror audiences was bound to do well. In many ways, I’m glad: this carries much more of the horror canon's essence than the previous champion (Paranormal Activity 3) did, and the film’s R-rating really does allow it a sense of personality through it’s true-to-life young characters. Must that damn clown ruin everything?