Spoilers for It float down here…
Is It a horror film? Genre convention would say yes, but the story that unfolds in the latest screen adaptation of Stephen King’s work is much more a psychological thriller with chilling imagery designed to feast on your greatest fears. Those with a fear of clowns should steer clear — or they’ll find themselves victim of It‘s monster, Pennywise.
When it comes to story, It undeniably knocks it out of the park, as one would expect based on a story by such a prolific name as King’s. The silver screen’s version of It takes some creative license with the original material but manages to feel both true to the original and its television adaptation, as well as unique but not contrived. The film, directed by Andy Muschietti, wrings every dollar of its budget into horrifying and disturbing visual effects that do their job of instilling fright.
The fine attention paid to the film’s effects was not also given to It when it comes to the film’s cinematography. Stylistically, It utilizes extremely tight shots often with an extremely shallow depth of field. In some shots, this works flawlessly, but in other scenes throughout the film, it’s a noticeable nuisance. Details that should be sharp and in focus, like the edges of a character’s shirt as they walk in frame are slightly blurred before they come into the depth of field. Further complicating It‘s cinematographic presence are some scenes that look noticeably upscaled, seemingly from a camera that was zoomed too far out and later cropped and made to fit in with the rest of the footage. These faux pas would have been fine had that not been so blatant that even an untrained eye could be distracted by them.
The film’s young cast is mostly capable of handling such large roles that It requires. The film’s source material is undoubtedly long, and compromises had to be made to make the movie. Nonetheless, the children’s dialogue frequently seems rushed and breathless, making it hard to tell what is being said. This gets better as the film progresses and is mainly an issue when characters are being introduced.
Bill Skarsgård is unrecognizable as Pennywise, a testament to the film’s superb makeup and graphic effects. Skarsgård gives an eerie life to the iconic clown, managing to do justice to the character and certainly scar some moviegoers for life.
The actors of the film’s three main protagonists, Jaeden Lieberher as Billy, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben, and Sophia Lillis as Beverly, possess serious acting chops. Lieberher leads the cast, and Billy is always a capable leader that the group looks up to, despite his stutter. Taylor makes Ben the lovable misfit he needs to be, a character that the audience roots for. Lillis is the film’s needed heroine who proves to be braver than a few of the ‘tough’ guys.
One of the great horror aspects of It is its somewhat slow build up to its climax — although that’s not to say that the film doesn’t go all out in its attempts to scare from the very beginning. The film opens with a goosebumps inducing, albeit fairly tame encounter with the clown. There is an astounding amount of care and attention put into the film’s pacing, especially when it comes to building up the characters’ fears, making them easier for the clown to prey upon. Pennywise’s individual introductions to the children is usually abruptly interrupted, giving them just enough of the clown to make them pee their pants without actually having harm come to them. As the film goes on, Pennywise becomes more twisted and violent. It preys on its own characters psychologically, and this has an impact on the audience, too.
One character that doesn’t get a lengthy experience with Pennywise is Richie (Finn Wolfhard) because it is revealed he is afraid of clowns. His eventual face-to-face with the demented clown in a room full of clown dolls is particularly scary, as is another scene where Pennywise torments the children through a slide projector, projecting himself into a photograph before popping out and scaring both the children and the audience.
As a character, Richie is equally obnoxious and endearing. He’s the film’s main source of comic relief, with crude one liners and frequent sexually explicit jokes. His fear of clowns being the reason Pennywise saves him to terrorize last is a good excuse to make up for the character being pretty one-note and only necessary to keep the film from being too dry. He’s totally worth the annoyance though for when he tells the kids’ school bully:
Go blow your dad you mullet wearing asshole!
What an awful mullet, indeed. The character of Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) is such a disgusting asshole that it’s worth wondering if Pennywise is truly the most unlikable character in the film. Somewhere you have to have a soft spot for the iconic clown, but who in their right mind would like Henry?
The film does a great job of seeing its two main villains team up. Throughout the first half of the film, Henry is fairly unstoppable. He has nothing to fear…because everyone fears him. A broken Pennywise fears he is losing his grip on the children, but he has yet to get his hands on Henry.
Henry is at his most foul and loathsome when he is about to shoot a cat in cold blood as target practice. His dad (played by Stuart Hughes), who happens to be a police officer, spots him and intervenes, taking the gun and shooting at the ground around Henry’s feet.
Ain’t nothing like a little fear to make a paper ‘man’ crumble.
Henry’s father makes a good point, and from this moment on Pennywise has his foot in the door with Henry. Pennywise motivates him to pursue and kill the children, and he follows them almost right into the clown’s lair. This is where the film begins to sacrifice its credibility for scares, most notably when Billy forgets the very advice he gave the rest of his friends at the beginning of the journey to find Pennywise: don’t split up.
A bit like a Scooby-Doo! number, the film’s protagonists get split up and distracted, just how Pennywise wants them. It would appear to wrap itself up nicely after the kid’s final confrontation with Pennywise, but the logo for the film’s credits begs to differ, crediting the film as ‘It: Chapter One.’
It will be interesting to see what the second chapter of It has in store. The precedent the first film sets is high; there are plenty of thrills, chills and scares to go around in It, and the film is further bolstered by its well developed story and visual effects. The film is not perfect, but its distractions are only minor annoyances, and they only concern the film’s camera work. Negligible stuff. With this being one of the first Halloween films of the year, 2017 is shaping up to be quite a good year for scares at the cinema.