Movie Review: IT (Spoiler Free.)
IT is an unabashed 80’s horror movie love letter that gets nearly every aspect down perfectly.
Stephen King novels, for as often as they are adapted, are finicky creatures. King excels at creating atmosphere and evoking a time and a place. His characters can be a bit thin, and his dialogue leaves a lot to be desired, but he is a master at hitting you in the lizard brain and making your skin crawl with raw visceral feelings. Director Andres Muschietti distills the nostalgia and terror of King’s IT, aided by a strong cast and a fantastic villain in Bill Skarsgard. Instead of trying to develop the massive book scene for scene, he takes the atmosphere and emotional thrust of the story and creates a pitch perfect 80’s supernatural horror flick for a modern audience.
Derry is a small Maine town haunted by its past. A depressed factory town with a history of tragedy, Derry is particularly dangerous for children. A group of middle school kids who are forced together by their misfit status awaken to the fact that the myriad missing children and gruesome murders are connected to one figure: a horrifying clown that appears at will to young people, showing them their deepest, darkest fears.
Stranger (and Scarier) Things.
Much like the hit TV show, Stranger Things, IT is a love letter to films from the 1980’s. While the TV show focuses on supernatural sci-fi, IT pens love poetry to the horror films of the era. The film is quite overt about its influences, showing movie posters and marquees from iconic films of the decade and including numerous homages to iconic horror sequences, like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. For fans of classic slasher flicks, this film not only calls back to those films but perfects them. The pacing, the use of sound, the way the camera moves to capture lurid images, even the lighting and color tones are all adopted from classics and given an update using seamless CG and scare tactics from modern “jump scare” films in a way that feels satisfying and organic.
Be warned that this film earns its R rating, though. This isn’t a campy throwback film. From the first sequence you know that this film is not going to pull any punches and is not afraid to brutalize either it’s young protagonists or the audience. The scares are constant and unrelenting, creating a constant feeling of dread. This town is messed up, and no place or time is safe.
A Nightmare on Main Street.
Andres Muschietti takes his love of old horror flicks and blends them with King’s wonderful sense of place. Derry feels like a small New England town in the 1980’s, down to its roots. The structure of school life and summer vacation, the ebb and flow of recreation and childhood responsibility, and the familiar characters and events that populate the lives of children in small New England towns are all present. The town of Derry and its daily life are intimate and familiar, making the horror all the more specific and effective when every aspect of life is turned into a waking nightmare for our protagonists.
The Winner’s Club.
Our young social outcasts, dubbed The Loser’s Club, are portrayed by a strong central cast. Stock characters like the reluctant leader, the foulmouthed jokester, the mama’s boy, and the rebellious girl are summoned from every coming of age story from the 80’s, but rarely feel like thin archetypes. A few characters are given short-shrift, but the three or four main characters are given enough time and weight to feel like a realization of their character types instead of simple touchstones. Beverly, in particular, is given a fantastic screen presence by Sophia Lillis. Her scenes are full of tension made possible by her strong performance, and clearly the director recognized her ability when he gave Beverly a lion’s share of the scenes.
What a Monster!
As wonderful as the kids are in this flick, it takes a great villain to make a horror film like this work. Bill Skarsgard gives a performance as Pennywise the Clown that is an instant classic. His Pennywise is a monstrous facsimile of a clown, an eldritch abomination wearing a man-suit. His mannerisms, his facial expressions, his voice work and his sheer physicality combine with some excellent CGI to create something perfectly horrific and memorable. Think Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger. As soon as you see it, you know its a keeper and that you couldn’t imagine the character any other way.
This is even more impressive given that Skarsgard had to fill some big clown shoes. Tim Curry played Pennywise with such gusto in the TV version that many regard that show as a classic just because of Curry. Skarsgard puts his own stamp on Pennywise and leaves a lasting impression. It’s a rare case where I love each interpretation equally, and that shows that King wrote one hell of a villain.
One last point of praise for IT is in the visuals. There are several monsters in the film, each tailor made to speak to the inner terror of each child. Most of these are a mix of computer imagery and practical effects. They look amazing. The digital effects enhance aspects of each scene, from lighting Skarsgard’s eyes with a faint glow or making them tilt at odd angles, to allowing the screen to jitter and shake. I walked out musing that this film must have cost 60-70 million to make because the effects were so well done. It cost 35 million. I’m flabbergasted that this film got so much mileage out of such a small budget.
A Palpable Hit.
IT is a horror movie that works on almost every level. The characters feel real and engaging. The villain is mesmerizing and terrific. The visuals, whether aiming for nostalgia or outright terror, work fantastically. The movie creates such a pervading dread early that I actually was uncomfortable. The scares were solid, even if they tended to always end with a jump scare. The trailers for this film did the film justice: this is a scary movie that wears its R rating proudly and will make you squirm and clench your seat. As much as my sensible brain avoids horror movies, my primal instincts long for a fear movies like IT delivers. This is damn good horror movie that I want to see again.