Illustration by Isabella Frescura
In 1986, Stephen King’s tour de force horror novel It was published to much critical acclaim. King’s novel focused on the story of 7 friends in the 1950s and their clash with a supernatural force that took the form of a clown named Pennywise. 4 years later, ABC produced and released the two part It miniseries, which itself got a rather mixed reception. This first adaptation was plagued by a low budget and extensive network censorship.
In 2012, New Line Cinema announced that a new It remake was in the works. Now, 5 years and 3 directors later, It has come to theaters. And, for what it is, It is an excellent horror film, if certainly a lackluster adaptation.
Shifting King’s original story into the 1980s, It follows the adventures of Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), a child whose seven year-old brother has gone missing and is presumed dead. Convinced that he can find his brother, Bill asks his friends to help him search the town for answers. After meeting fellow outcasts Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), the group discovers that Bill’s brother has been taken by “It”, a monster that dwells in the sewers of the town of Derry, and lures children to their death in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skårsgard).
Cinematically speaking, It is a very well made film. The 80s aesthetic and the charming but unnerving style of director Andy Muschietti lends it a retro Goonies-like feel, and the aggressive performance of Bill Skårsgard is truly worthy of nightmares. The movie has the ability to push the audience to the edge of their seats in nervous suspense, while simultaneously creating an enjoyable narrative to watch. Perhaps It’s greatest asset is the fact that it can so effectively balance a serious character-driven story, light comic relief, and heart-stopping scares.
It presents a largely uncensored take on the story, including intense sequences of abuse in several of the moments in which the monster is absent. Nicholas Hamilton’s performance as school bully Henry Bowers and Stephen Bogart’s portrayal of Beverly’s father are particularly unnerving because of their undeniable humanness. Unlike “It”, they are common people and no matter how sociopathic they seem, their evils exist in our world.
Where It fails is where the 1990 original adaptation, and indeed, the majority of Stephen King adaptations, fail: the type of horror. The key to Stephen King’s bibliography is the slow intensity with which King builds his stories. A large portion of the original It novel is devoted to the personal lives of its characters, to their struggles and traumas, to the hints of Pennywise on the edge of their perceptions. The book takes its time to construct a living place where horror lays dormant, only to blossom every few decades. The movie decides, instead, to use an overwhelming amount of jump-scares to create its scare factor. A big part of this failure also comes from the shift in time setting. The original novel takes place in the 50s, a time where clowns had no social stigma surrounding them. Part of what makes Pennywise so terrifying in the original story is that he is able to easily trick his victims into trusting him. It is not the clown form with which he chooses to terrorize his victims.
While It is not entirely truthful to its source material, the film is excellently crafted. Unlike many modern horror films, It takes the time to develop its characters, giving the film’s frightening moments an emotional weight. An over reliance on jump scares lowers the level of psychological terror that the movie could provide and its alteration of Stephen King’s story is unwelcome, but overall, It is an appreciable addition to the horror film genre that is certainly worth watching.