In Stephen King’s work, the hiearchy of cruelty is as follows:
3: Creatures of horror.
Sometimes the top two will switch, depending on the character (Beverly’s father) or the story (The Body), but the third one never reaches the top. For King, it is always people who embody badness. Not necessary evil, but abject cruelty.
Nowhere is this more true than in the King’s fictional rural hellhole, Derry, Maine, where people go missing at 6 times the national average, and the locals have turned into misanthropes as a result. In Derry, cruelty is as common as the air they breathe. And It, perhaps more than any of the Derry stories, is the most lasciviously cruel portrait of the daily lives of humans.It is about a group of young teenagers (thirteen, or so, I think?) who call themselves The Losers Club. Social life for The Losers Club is terrible: they are bullied, viciously and violently, by older kids in town. The bullies who are not trying to kill them just mock and humiliate them relentlessly. Home life is just as bad: their parents harass them, lie to them, abuse them, and worse. They are pariahs in Derry–the only non-abusive, non-assholes in town–and have turned to each other for friendship and for protection. Safety in numbers is key to survival in Derry.
The Losers Club make their big-screen debut with this summer’s It. They previously appeared in the 1990 TV miniseries that ruined clowns for a generation of children. That version holds a nostalgic place in the minds of King fans, but it doesn’t hold up. ’90s TV miniseries rarely do.
The central story of It involves a boy named Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), who, along with his friends in the Losers Club, spends his summer searching for his brother Georgie who went missing a year prior (the film opens with audiences seeing little Georgie’s horrible fate. It isn’t bashful about showing its hand).
Among the losers are a foul-mouthed wise-ass named Richie (Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things), a foul-mouthed hypochondriac and asthmatic named Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a pudgy history nerd named Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Stanley, the son of the local Rabbi (Wyatt Oleff), and the lone girl and sole object of desire for the Losers, Beverly (Sophia Lillis).
The journey that these kids undertake is one without emotional carriage. There’s a little love-triangle, for example, which means nothing. Nor does the eventual in-fighting and break-up of the Losers Club. A young-adult story, with sweeping emotional moments drawing tears from empathetic audiences, this is not. Bill and his friends are looking for a boy that they all know is dead, and along the way they become locked in a tete-a-monster with a clown/creature that wants to murder them.
Directed by Andrés Muschietti, It is a fine and satisfying film adaptation of King’s novel. Muschietti and his writers, Cary Fukunaga, Chase Palmer, and Gary Dauberman, thankfully cut the book in half, and tell only the story of the Losers Club (there’s a second part, set 27 years later). The look of the film is pure 1950s, though it’s actually set in 1988 and ’89. Derry, it seems, never modernized with the rest of the country. The photography is dusty and lingering, showing a depressed rural town on the surface, and endless byzantine sewers underneath (metaphors!).
Muschietti rightfully embraces the casual cruelty of life in Derry for The Losers Club, and It spends as much time with the bullies and the parents as with Pennywise, the murderous monster clown who kills children.
Don’t worry, horror fans, there is plenty of Pennywise in It. But Muschietti gets that it’s the people that make Derry horrible for these kids, and the torment these kids have endured at the hands of their peers and parents is what makes them a fascinating match for Pennywise. If the emotion is lacking, and it is, the horror beats are working full tilt.
Which is the point, after all. A horror movie like It is not meant for emotional storytelling. It is meant to satisfy our primal cinematic urges. To tell a good-enough story and to scare the bejeesus out of us at the appropriate time (good horror does so relentlessly, great horror does so in increasingly new and terrifying ways as the film progresses). To be funny when it’s not scary, and to be endearing enough to coax us back down before the next big bejeesus moment.
In this manner, It is largely successful.
Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), is indeed creepy AF. The speech mannerisms and body movement that Skarsgård and Muschietti give Pennywise provide an otherworldly, off-putting presence, that makes the appearance of Pennywise frightening every time. The success of Pennywise is a remarkable amalgam of talents, including makeup and wardrobe, acting, CGI work, and directing. The result of that teamwork is tremendous, and Pennywise’s physical appearance outdoes many of the more monstrous aspects of the horror (its teeth, for example, are plenty and often revealed, and never as effective as the face and voice of the clown itself).The best parts of It, the scariest, the funniest, the most rewarding, tend to occur without Pennywise (with one major exception). Pennywise might be the source of all the weird blood-and-guts behavior underway in Derry, but his machinations often make for better cinema than his own appearance. Beverly’s character suffers the hardest fate of the Losers Club, and the manner in which she is terrorized–supernaturally and socially–lead to the few effective emotional hits.
Also crucial in kid-based horror: there were as many laughs in the theater during our screening as there were screams. Most of those laughs resulted from interactions between Wolfhard and Grazer, who handle the desperation of their youths with incredible comedic timing, and cussing. One of the hallmarks of Stephen King is bitter teenagers leading hard-scrabble lives in depressed communities, and Wolfhard and Grazer both find a well of already-scratched-deep humor that plays perfect for audiences years older than their characters.
Unfortunately, It isn’t capable of escaping the usual trappings of horror cinema. There comes the inevitable letdown when the thing itself, the IT that has been terrorizing the Losers and the audience in fits and starts, must eventually arrive, fully revealed, and conclude the story. Pulling back the shroud that has allowed for the fear is difficult, and Muschietti makes it look great, even if the magic dissipates.
That has always been a problem for mainstream horror, and especially for King. The cruelty that comprises so much of King’s storytelling often comes from no particular source, with no reason. While that might better reflect the reality of our world, it makes for narrative dullness. But that’s a minor complaint, really, given the sharp execution of a rare blockbuster-scale horror movie.
–Christopher Zumski Finke