IT (2017) Review

IT seemed like a terrible idea.

To adapt a Steven King album can go one of two ways: It will either be one of the worst movies to exist, or it will be critically acclaimed and well-regarded by most everyone. As soon as I saw that there would be a new movie based on IT, I feared the worst. I thought it was going to be something in the vein of the Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street remakes. What further buried my expectations for this film was the original, which wasn’t particularly impressive to begin with. Then, the reviews started coming in.

I became interested.

IT centers around a group of middle-school outcasts in a group self-deprecatingly called “The Losers,” and the terrifying encounters they have with a creepy clown monster. The movie opens with one of these encounters, which is probably one of the more disturbing moments in the film. IT pulls no punches, and they want to make that abundantly clear from the start. Despite the gruesome violence, this film is not a slasher flick. It focuses on psychological scares and raw terror more than anything else. Or it would, if it weren’t for one thing: Jumpscare noises.

Jumpscare noises, by themselves, aren’t bad things. They can be used to great effect if the noise is coming from the environment and it’s not just an orchestral hit to scare the audience. The effectiveness of this tactic is dependent on how frequently it’s used, but it can be well-done with some skill. This movie uses an unfortunate abundance of scare devices, like rising violins, orchestral jumpscare noises, quieting everything down right before a scare to startle the audience, those kinds of things. A film like IT doesn’t need these things. Most people are already afraid of clowns, and the setups for the scares were already terrifying enough on their own (the projector setup is a great example of this.) The decision to include these tactics was misguided at best, and distracting at worst.

While we’re on the subject of negatives, let’s talk about recurring tropes in Stephen King stories. Some of these tropes include the story happening in a small town in Maine, the small town in Maine being terrorized by an unknown, unexplained force of evil, some antagonistic religious person spouting talk of morals when they themselves are morally reprehensible, a school bully who borders on or actively engages in psychopathic behaviors, those kinds of things. There aren’t as many of these in IT as there are in, say, the other IT, but they’re present enough. The most obvious is the psycho bully, who, in one of his early scenes, etches his first initial into a kid’s stomach. The most he had done before was lick his hand and smush it into a kid’s face.  This type of unrealistic disregard for human life, while it may have been somewhat effective at the start of the film, spiraled into the ridiculous, when the bully goes from needing intense therapy to needing execution. I could have bought a change like this if the bully got more than ten minutes of screen time in the movie. Changes like this have been successfully made many times, just look at Fight Club. They simply didn’t give enough time to effectively develop him from petty to insane.

While the development of the bully wasn’t well done, he seems to be the exception. The development of the story and lead characters is actually quite good. The introductions to the kids, their encounters with Pennywise, and eventual meet up is done very well. If this had been a lesser horror film, they would have spent half the movie showing unnecessary gore and relegated the development to a five minute montage. This movie is two hours and fifteen minutes long, and none of those minutes are wasted. In a genre notorious for under-developed plots and half-baked characters, it was a miracle that they took the time to ensure that you cared. Caring is the key to fright. You can have the scariest monster, the most terrifying setups, and all of the scares you want, but if the audience doesn’t care, they will not be scared. IT made my cold, dead heart care. In a horror movie. That’s one heck of an achievement.

But how do you care about characters? Well, in addition to good writing, you also have to have good acting. How do you get good actors, you ask? You don’t settle for kids who look like they would fit the role but aren’t that good at all (Anakin Skywalker.) The casting in this film is exceptional. Not only do the kids all look the part they’re playing, but they also act better than a great deal of adults in the horror genre. The adults in this movie are great, too, most notably Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise. Pennywise is one of the most terrifying horror monsters in years. He is the perfect amalgamation of well-calculated design, a knockout performance, and a proper handle on how to strike fear into the hearts of your audience with the mere sight of your monster.

You might not think it, but this movie is hilarious. The main source of humor in this film is from Finn Wolfhard’s character, Ritchie. Ritchie is a shining example of how to handle profanity in an adolescent setting. Most of the swearing was confined to Ritchie, who also happens to be the comic relief. None of the other characters really wear that much, and I’m pretty sure some of them don’t even swear throughout the entire film. This is very good. Meanwhile, a show like 13 Reasons Why has everyone swearing left and right, numbing the use of such words and leaving me to think the writers weren’t skilled enough to write good dialogue. IT knows that the key to relating to a young audience isn’t through obscenity, but through common struggles. Through realistic actions. Through making the characters feel like actual people.

IT, for being such a bad idea, was surprisingly well-executed on most fronts. I was happy that I didn’t waste two hours in a sterilized, stale, uninspired schlock-fest like I was expecting. The people behind this movie could have very easily made a half-done flick meant to cash in on a well-known name, but they chose to have some artistic integrity and make a good movie instead. It honors the source material, it’s actually scary, it’s funny, it’s well-acted, and had the jumpscare noises not been so prevalent, my score would definitely be a point higher.


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