Let’s get one thing out of the way first: the 1986 novel It is not particularly good. There’s a decent book somewhere in its thousand-plus pages, nestled among the literary equivalent of debilitating coke sweats. Despite this unfortunate handicap, Stephen King’s vision of Pennywise – the ancient interdimensional evil by way of Bobo the Clown – has permanently hammered itself into the culture’s collective fear cortex. It’s a very simple terror calculus: clowns are scary, and murderous alien clowns are doubly so.
Andy Muschietti’s It shouldn’t be particularly good. Making an effective horror film is hard enough without having to endure the chaotic production process that clearly beleaguered this film, which has ricocheted around Hollywood backchannels — swapping writers, directors and actors — since at least 2012. But it (read: It) manages to be pretty good nonetheless, by aspiring to the humblest goal of horror cinema: scaring the shit out of you.
Here’s the synopsis: the town of Derry in Maine has been haunted by an ancient and terrible evil since time immemorial, which emerges every 27 years to eat kids – the noblest aspiration of any ancient evil worth its salt. The evil takes the form of what scares its victims the most, and its favoured form is a clown. In 1989, a group of snotty preteens called The Loser’s Club who have been haunted by Pennywise in a number of forms decide to band together to kill the damn thing. Their quest to do so takes them through the terrible history of their terrible town, as well as their fractured family lives and internal fears. Is the true monster… humanity? No, the true monster is the aforementioned clown.
Though the filmmakers offer up the illusion of more depth, the film hacks off the cruft of King’s novel; its plotting resembles the scaffolding of a haunted house ride, creakily lurching the viewer from set piece to set piece. Whereas the book was a kind of lengthy meditation of the awkwardness and pain of childhood and its psychic echoes in adulthood, occasionally punctuated by a bloodthirsty clown monster, the film is happy to let the drama be window-dressing to the bloodshed.
And the set pieces are good. Muschietti draws from the very distinctive mode of contemporary Latin American horror filmmaking; there’s a real fluid knowledge of the vocabulary of revulsion on show. His only film before this was Mama, the reasonably pointless feature-length adaptation of his excellent short of the same name, which was the purest expression of the fundamental human terror of tall skinny beings with too many joints. The human brain rejects such images outright, and Muschietti triggers that same flight response repeatedly in It. The creature design – both of the clown itself and its myriad forms – is frightening, and Claude Paré’s production design occupies a lush spot between Del Toro-esque horror fantasy and mainstream Hollywood horror. On the whole, though, the film’s aesthetics never settle into one mode, seemingly uncertain as to whether it wants to be a period film or a piece of pure horror. There are weird stabs of hyper-stylised pop filmmaking too – a rock fight between The Loser’s Club and local bullies features a liberal use of slow-mo and a vintage Anthrax soundtrack – which, while reasonably cool, feel entirely out of place.
A word of warning: It features a truly staggering number of jump scares. Possibly more jump scares than I have ever seen in a film – they are constant and unrelenting, and you will walk out of this movie drained, your primate amygdala having been subjected to the chemical analogue of a woolly mammoth hunt. Jump scares are the absolute cheapest tool in the horror filmmaker’s utility belt – and are widely reviled for good reason – but Muschietti deploys them well. They’re largely earned, in that you anticipate almost all of them yet they fuck you up anyway. A reiteration of the word of warning: if you truly hate jump scares, you will not enjoy this movie.
The kids are fine, even as they contend with the frequently clunky dialogue (which is a tedious inevitability of the three credited screenwriters). It very much abides by the Stranger Things maxim, which holds that the best foreground to sinister supernatural happenings is handful of wisecracking ‘80s preteens. It doesn’t even try to mask its debt to the Netflix series, nicking one of the Stranger Things stars – Finn Wolfhard plays Richie Tozier, who cracks approximately 85% of the film’s frequently deployed genital-adjacent jokes.
While the novel ping-pongs between the past and the present, showing The Loser’s Club as both children and adults, the film has elected to focus entirely on the childhood timeline. A second film has already been announced, which will presumably focus entirely on the group as adults. One of the book’s greatest strengths is that the plot is revealed to the reader across both timelines simultaneously, eventually culminating in two parallel climaxes. The projected film franchise has already blown its proverbial load in the first film, stunting the promise of a satisfying sequel. My guess is they’ll double down on the stylised killings which, considering the strengths of this first one, I endorse.
Though the marketing suggests there might be something more interesting afoot in the shiny new It, there really isn’t. As a well-crafted scarefest, it’s satisfying and exhausting in equal measure. I have absolutely no doubt that it, like Stephen King in the 1980s, will make bucketloads of money. See you in another year or two for the next one.