It’s been an insanely good year for horror, from Get Out to Raw, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe to Personal Shopper and the massive shock of soon-to-be-released surprise Hatchet sequel Victor Crowley, to name just a few. We, as fans, have been spoiled for choice in 2017 with even the most unnecessary mainstream offerings, such as the ghastly Wish Upon, managing to raise a titter.
Hell, if Annabelle: Creation is the worst this year has to offer, we’re doing well (just kidding, Jigsaw hasn’t come out yet).
IT is the biggest and most anticipated genre release of the year, hands down. It’s a known, and beloved property being tackled by a director with just one previous credit to his name (2013’s Guillermo Del Toro-produced Mama). The biggest name on the cast-list is a kid from Stranger Things. From an inspired, dread-inducing Red band trailer to social media jokes about The Pipe, we’ve run the gamut of pre-release chatter. Now, IT is here. Finally.
The good news is that, for most of us, the flick will have been worth the wait. The story is pretty well-known at this stage (let me tell you something about Steve King) but suffice to say it revolves around a group of kids known as The Losers Club, who find their otherwise dull lives in the town of Derry, Maine thrown into turmoil when, following a number of local disappearances, they are collectively menaced by an unknown, evil entity.
Those scandalised by the casting of someone other than the legendary Tim Curry as Pennywise may wish to ask themselves why his performance is the main talking point from the TV miniseries nearly thirty years later. Fact is, King’s story needed the big screen treatment, both to give it more edge and to bypass some of the less, er, imperative plot points. And for that to happen effectively, a new Pennywise was not just needed, but demanded.
Anyone who’s seen Detroit will yearn for what Will Poulter and his naturally evil eyebrows could have done with the role, but Bill Skarsgård (who was born the year the miniseries was first broadcast, his youth providing a neat twist on the character) makes for an engaging, and super-scary Pennywise. His introduction is all weird vocal intonations, equal parts invitingly childlike and threateningly off-kilter.
It’s in this sequence that IT lets us know what kind of movie it’s going to be, with an impressively rough first kill. Dodgy CG lets it down ever so slightly but this is a minor quibble in service of finding out, right off the bat, that this Pennywise fucks. The film’s currency is violence against children, whether via predatory parents, knife-wielding bullies or the clown. To its immense credit, it never shies away from showing these moments in all their horrid glory.
The bullying is hardcore, with a girl-on-girl moment in a school bathroom a particularly harrowing example. All of the grown-ups in town are complete dicks, and they all somehow look alike too, each sharing a weirdly off grin with absolutely zero warmth. The approaching danger is subtly implied (the red balloons used for marketing the movie pay off in a big way) because it’s actually all around, hiding in every dark corner or back alley.
IT‘s greatest triumph is in capturing that childhood fear of the unknown, whether it’s venturing into a dark basement or passing that dodgy house everyone claims is a crack den. The feeling of foreboding seeps into your pores until you’re back in that same head-space. The kids themselves, all seven of whom get their own distinctive personalities, are easy to root for because they feel just like a real group of outsiders trying to find their places.
Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard gets the most laughs as foul-mouthed Richie, but the only other big name on the bill, Jaden Lieberher (St. Vincent, Midnight Special), does good work too as sputtering hero Bill. At first, it’s a struggle to decide which of them is the cutest, but as the story continues, each makes his or her own mark. Token girl Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is the clear standout, an ass-kicking chick who’s still, you know, a girl (take that, James Cameron).
Hers is arguably the best arc, too, rooted as it is in real-life trauma, but every kid gets their moment to shine and, refreshingly, there isn’t a dud in the bunch performance-wise. It’s important we remain invested in their dynamic, because otherwise moments where Pennywise, for example, taunts one of them face-to-horrifying-face wouldn’t ring as true. If they’re not scared, we’re definitely not going to be scared.
The scene in question is nightmare-inducing in a movie packed with nightmare-inducing moments. IT is almost scarier when Pennywise disappears and we don’t know where he is, but the flick doesn’t rely (despite what you may have heard) on cheap jump scares. It’s genuinely scary, genuinely tense, genuinely unnerving. The intensity alone is disturbing at times. The camera doesn’t look away, almost ever. We always get the money shot.
When the trailer first dropped, one of the biggest talking points was just how great IT looked. In hiring veteran cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, who lensed The Handmaiden and Stoker, among others, the filmmakers have ensured the movie is richly textured, its gorgeous pallette striking you right off the bat with a torrential rainstorm in its opening moments. Considering a lot of mainstream horror movies look terrible, this is a hugely welcome change.
IT is also old-fashioned to a tee, meaning tactility is key, which will either delight, if you grew up watching Spielberg adventure movies, or confuse, if your closest reference point is Stranger Things. The wide shots, of which there are many, are beautiful, capturing the expansive countryside to give us a better understanding of these kids’ small, but seemingly endless world. It’s far removed from The Conjuring 2‘s fake-ass Enfield, let me tell you.
At one point, early on in the movie, a Loser quips “this is not fun, this is scary”. Actually, IT is both. Much darker and nastier than even that fabulous trailer (or its hard-R rating) would suggest, it’s also a bloody good kids’ adventure story, the kind nobody does better than King. The message regarding lifelong friendship and finding your tribe rings true, while the fact that only the children can see certain horrors keeps the focus childlike, the tone urgent.
With any luck, watching IT will become a rite of passage for a whole new generation of kids. While, for us adults, getting back into that head-space is all too terrifyingly easy.
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Andy Muschietti
Writer(s): Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman, Stephen King (novel)
Stars: Finn Wolfhard, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Bill Skarsgård
Release: September 8, 2017
Studio/ Production Co: New Line Cinema
Length: 135 minutes