MOVIE REVIEW: ‘It’ has every element of great modern horror boiled down to single film

With sublime direction and a focus away from traditional scares, Andy Muschietti's adaption of Stephen King's classic novel gives you more to fear than just a clown

| September 6, 2017

I’m not afraid of clowns, really. Sure, they’re a little unsettling, but they’ve never outright scared me. So I never really got the appeal around the 1990 mini-series “It” when I was a child. I got that it was about a clown that terrorized children, but I never understood why that was supposed to scare me as much as my peers were getting scared by it. I never actually watched the mini-series because of it, not because I was scared of it, but because I was pretty disinterested. That being said, when the teaser trailer for a new adaption of “It” dropped in late March, I was shown a new side of this source material. The clown in this trailer didn’t scare me because he was a clown, he scared me because he was actively trying to be scary, and to play up the inherent unsettling nature of clowns in that way gave “It” an entirely new meaning to me, one that made me somewhat understand why people were so afraid of clowns in the first place. The trailer blended one part Spielberg, one part X-Files, two parts raw, unadulterated terror, “It” looked killer.

And what a killer indeed.

Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) is a 13 year-old boy living in Derry, Maine during the summer of 1989. Bill is recovering from the death of his 6 year-old brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) the previous year, after going missing racing a paper sailboat during a downpour. While Bill doesn’t know what happened to Georgie, the audience knows good and well from the opening scene that Georgie was killed at the hands of Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skaragård), a demonic force that haunts Derry every 27 years in the form of what scares his victims most. When Bill and his friends, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs) all begin to be terrorized by their worst fears, all centering around the presence of Pennywise, the group must band together to find the source of the terror and destroy it.

“It” isn’t the type of film you might think it is, since it doesn’t rely on jump-scares and manipulative music to get the audience in the mood. This is a film that takes its time building the characters so that when the terror does finally begin, you’re invested in not only how scary it is, but the well-being of the characters involved. That being said, “It” is scary as shit. The opening scene of the film, a pleasant opening credits sequence set to the construction of Georgie’s paper sailboat, might lead you to believe this is a much more pleasant film than it ends up being, but before long, director Andy Muschietti pulls the rug out from under the audience and lets them know exactly what type of film “It” is before a title card even appears. While the opening scene with Georgie is possibly the most recognizable scene from the 1990 mini-series (a mini-series I never finished because I thought it sucked), Muschietti finds a way to still keep it fresh and scary without having to change the scene in any way. Introducing us to the new Pennywise this way was a great appetizer to what “It” delivers on, and it sets the scene beautifully.

Still, recognition factor aside, “It” only gets scarier from its opening scene. While the film does take its time in building its characters and their respective arts, that doesn’t mean the film still isn’t filled to the brim with terror, but it’s more sporadic in the first two acts than the trailer might lead you to believe. Each scene builds each character’s respective fears that follow them throughout the film, and each are scary in their own respective ways. But I know what you all are thinking: “Sure, they might be scary, but get to the goddamn clown already. Is the clown scary?” to which I would say: yes, yes he is. Looking at Skaragård’s previous work and at his general appearance, he looks like any other Swedish pretty boy, but damn can this pretty boy turn on the terror. I was surprised when producers elected to cast such a young actor in the role of Pennywise, but now I can see exactly why. While Tim Curry’s take on Pennywise in the mini-series is iconic since it scarred children at the time, now, it’s not quite as frightening. While Curry has the charm and the talent, Skarsgård brings a sense of immaturity to the character that really makes Pennywise, however smart he is, feel a few steps behind each character, only to get right in front of the characters to ruin all of their fun. There’s still a wonderful sense of humor in Pennywise that really makes him an unsettling villain, as he doesn’t really ever mix the two tones together, making the change from unsettlingly funny to full-on horrifying all the more effective.

While Skarsgård does do a wonderful job as Pennywise, the group of children in the film, known as the “Losers Club” are just as charming, even if they aren’t as horrifying. Lieberher does fine work as Bill, a character that gets a lot of emotional range, given the horrifying events he has recently gone through. Lillis is incredibly likable and super charming as Beverly, the sole female in the Losers Club. Wolfhard, making a 180 from his “Stranger Things” role, pairs really nicely with Grazer as the two major comic reliefs in the film. Altogether, every single one of the actors placed in the Losers Club brings a fresh and unpretentious take to these children, and the best part is that they get to feel and act like real children. This, unlike many other films with children at the lead, feels like real kids at that age, and not like some 40 year-old white dude writing characters off of what he thinks kids act like. These are kids that feel organic, act like little delinquents, have legitimate, dark, heavy issues in their home lives, and in spite of all the horror they face, still have a good degree of fun with themselves.

And this is where “It” might surprise a lot of people: it’s funny as hell. This is a film that could feel heavy had it played itself with a straight face constantly, but the film luckily uses its charm of its cast and the inherent nature of middle school kids to its advantage. Wolfhard and Grazer are both absolutely hilarious in their respective roles that rely heavily on comedic relief. Even in some of the scarier scenes, Grazer can still be seen cracking a joke at his own expense at some inconvenience Pennywise might cause him. The film also gets to poke fun at the time period it takes place in and the many guilty pleasures each of the characters indulges in. But most of all, and perhaps it might not be the funniest part of “It,” but the film knows how to embody the type of film it is in a charming, sometimes funny fashion. It uses montages with happy music to clean up a blood covered bathroom, it uses sly pop culture references that aren’t held in front of the audience to get off the bat, and it uses a childlike wonder about it that makes the film feel more on the level of the children, rather than taking the film from a more omnipresent view of things.

“It” is also an incredibly beautiful film too. Shot by Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, the film gets to do a lot of different aesthetic things with “It” that all mesh together wonderfully. First, Chung gets to use his own personal style that we’ve seen over the years in many of Park Chan-wook’s films, most recently “The Handmaiden.” Chung loves to use unique camera angles and camera movements that make the film feel far more kinetic than a typical film of its nature, making it feel far more unpredictable than a typical horror film. He also embodies a lot of classic ’80s cinema into his aesthetic here, channeling a lot of Spielberg in the process of it, with a hint of “Stand by Me” in there a bit too. He rounds out his visual journey with a semblance of surrealism in the film, not letting the audience really know if things are supposed to feel real or not. This rounds out to a classic feeling, if completely modern take on old cinema.

The visual effects of “It” are also quite good for a horror film. Ambitious in nature, the film uses a great blend of practical and computer-generated effects and makes something really cool out of it. Thanks to Chung’s visual style, the film awarded the opportunity to make some of the things in the film look a bit less realistic and feel more fantastical in nature, which the visual effects artists pull off wonderfully in execution.

“It” is also bolstered heavily on Benjamin Wallfisch’s wondrously restrained score. While the score is swelling and orchestrally heavy, never does it feel like a typical horror score in execution. The film doesn’t rely heavily on high-pitched strings and loud changes in musical volume, but rather plays more on the childlike fantasy element of the film more than anything else. If anything, Wallfisch’s score resembles more of “E.T.” than it does something like “The Conjuring,” which really plays out well.

And there’s something that might not run well with a lot of people with “It.” While the film is incredibly scary in execution, it’s not a traditional horror film in any sense. There aren’t the typical jump-scares that run rampant in modern horror (some films like “Annabelle: Creation” do it quite well), but the film settles for thematic unpredictability over everything. Muschietti doesn’t do anything horror-related in this film unless the story calls for it. No false jump scares, no swelling music leading to nothing, but rather a sense of keeping the story flowing from one horrific incident to the next, rather than waiting around for something to jolt the audience to hit before moving on. Muschietti’s has too much shit to do to keep that up, and it pays off wonderfully.

“It” might not be a film that uses every second of its long, 135 minute runtime to assault the audience in terror, but rather it builds a cohesive, believable world that these rich, likable characters are surrounded by. This is a film that knows how to carefully construct something horrific, rather than expect the audience to find it horrific from principle alone, which they easily could’ve done in a film about a killer clown. Rather than expecting the audience to find the clown scary, Muschietti and his team, including Skarsgård as Pennywise, work to make sure that the material is objectively scary, rather than contextually. Mix this with some truly major heart and charm, as well as a wonderful self-realization of what a film like “It” should be, rather than just scary, and you have a film that feels far more cohesive and in turn, much scarier than a horror film of this nature has any right to be.

4.5/5

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott, and Bill Skaragård.
Runtime: 135 minutes.
Rating: R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language.
Also available in Dolby Cinema and IMAX.

New Line Cinema presents, a Vertigo Entertainment/Lin Pictures/Katzsmith production, “It”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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