*Be warned, this review is very liberal with plot spoilers.
The new movie based on and named after Stephen King’s “It” is a bit of a misnomer. The film should rightly be called “Pennywise, the Clown Who Eats Children.” The retitling would both liberate the film from the duties of condensing a beloved and gigantic novel into the length of a feature film (and, it seems, the inevitable sequel), and advertise to audiences the subtlety-free funhouse horror flick that they are actually in for. “It” spends most of its time wandering around a carnival of spectacular and grotesque set pieces, which is not unenjoyable but is less engaging and certainly less scary than the film’s predecessors.
Going in, I must confess a personal bias. My relationship with “It” is long and sordid. As with pretty much everyone I knew growing up, I saw the movie accidentally on tv when I was about 8 and my parents were not paying attention. And when I say that I saw the movie, I mean that I bailed 20 minutes before it ended, missing the final reckoning with the godawful early-90s-tv-effects-rendered spider as well as the happy ending. I spent the duration of every shower I took for the next two years staring at the drain, alert for any signs of funny business involving blood or balloons. By the age of 14, I’d pretty much pulled myself together when I found the actual book at the library and read it over the course of 10 summer days during which I slept like hell, plagued by every nocturnal creak in the old house my family lived in. Five years later, as a college freshman, I reread it and rewatched the tv movie. While my stoicism about such things had grown, it is doubtful that my heart rate dipped below 100 for about a month.
What I am saying is that I love “It.” Going into Muschietti’s remake, however, I was optimistic and managing my expectations. I understood that I couldn’t spend my time stacking it up against the movie that scarred me as a kid. As the novel mentions, the monster likes children because childrens’ fears are easier to embody. The new movie deserved to be approached and appreciated as its own entity.
Take the new “It” on its own, as an isolated horror movie, and it definitely has some key virtues. For one, Muschietti’s “It” looks straight-up amazing. The sets are lovingly detailed, and the atmospherics result in a Derry that actually feels like a breathing hometown. On top of that, the young actors playing the seven losers do a phenomenal job of embodying their distinctive characters, who are a distinctly Stephen King brand of preteen: awkward, foul-mouthed, and joined at the hip. They end up a fun team to watch, especially Bev, whose regular life we see the most of, and Richie, whose regular life we don’t see at all. Those two, respectively played by Sophia Lillis and Finn Wolfhard, may be standouts, but the child actors in general do their best with heavily split screen time to give us real characters that stand on their own.
However, if “It” is to be judged on its own terms and as its own movie, it suffers from certain major, perhaps insurmountable flaws. Much like the unseen series of children Pennywise kills in the film, the details of the story beyond the barest thread of plot go missing and never return. In a single brief monologue from the library-bound Ben we hear all the history of Derry and the monster that we are going to get. Something about 27 years, the sewers, likes scaring kids. Not totally following, but ok, we’ll take your word for it, Ben. However, even that scene has to end with a giant Pennywise crawling out of a slide projection and literally crowding the kids out of the garage they are gathered in. It’s a perfect summary of the movie and a metaphor for its guiding principle. The clown is central. Get him in the frame. Why is he not in this scene.
Look only to our individual introductions to each of the Losers and you’ll see the problem. Ben in the library, Mike delivering meat, Stan studying for his Bar Mitzvah, Eddie dropping his pills in front of the Neibolt house: each of these introduce the characters only as an excuse to have Pennywise come in and chase them, always narrowly missing. Individually, yeah, they’ll make you jump, but altogether they miss the point and leave the impression of a child-eating monster who, despite his unexplained shape-shifting powers, is just terrible at his job.
Because the film is so scattered and gives you so little stake in each of its human characters, the only way to get a good scare is to be familiar with them from the other renditions of the story, and here the movie “It” really loses its right to be judged on its own merits. It just throws the clown at us whenever things get quiet or a character is alone.
Possibly, a wiser choice would have been for the film to take more liberties with its source material, rather than lose itself like it does. The existing plot alterations are actually very palatable, if somewhat odd. The invention of the Well House and the consequent increase in importance of the Neibolt House works well. The time warp from 1957 to 1988 does no harm and is a little cute, what with the Goonies posters and Richie hanging out at an arcade. Even odd little choices like orphaning Mike and putting him in a slaughterhouse and turning Henry Bowers’ father into a cop are workable transformations. Continued changes might have allowed the film to escape its source material and given it more freedom.
As it is, “It” depends so heavily on your knowledge of the original story or, more likely, you having seen the tv movie that it cannot stand on its own. Pennywise’s very brief mentions of fear in the final scenes in the sewers do not let us understand anything about the monster or what he’s been up to. Instead, the ending of that scene in which Pennywise is (almost) killed as he compulsively transforms into each of the kids’ worst fear turns into something very close to the classroom with the Bogart in the third Harry Potter except instead of wands the Losers use pipes to just beat the shit out of Pennywise and later pay some lip service to the importance of friendship and teamwork. This film takes a metaphysical creature like King’s Pennywise aka Bob Grey and turns it into a pullstring-operated fear machine. Scrapping the weird supernatural elements of King’s novel like the Ritual of Chüd and It’s monologue is a fine decision, but because he is so overused in the film, the monster itself seems both mundane and clumsy. Muschietti, who previously directed “Mama,” clearly banked on the audience having the same sort of childhood fear of Pennywise that yours truly grew up with, but he missed something important.
The scariest parts of both Stephen King’s “It” and its tv movie were the ones in which It was hidden. The moment when a family album starts bleeding, or when his face appears in the moon to urge an adult Henry Bowers to leave the asylum. The virtue of that original monster was not that he was powerful and bloodthirsty. It was that It occupied the atmosphere of Derry, perhaps being in everyone and everything that surrounded the Losers. As scary as a clown with fangs is, you can shake that off, you don’t see those all that often. But what about a sewer drain? Or what about your own father? And here, you also start to notice the inferiority of Bill Scarsgard’s Pennywise to Tim Curry’s. Tim Curry’s wanted to eat you, but some of the scenes he was in presented him as genuinely playful with his prey. Whereas Scarsgard’s Pennywise just has this confused mad grin on his face the whole time.
The problem of Pennywise is complicated because the villain is supernatural, but this concern wraps around to the new movie’s original problem of foregoing its outside characters. The villain in the original novel is so out of this world as to be hard to be afraid of cuz, like, he’s basically a deity. The more superpowered such a creature is, the more you need to feel the very human struggles of his victims. You need to make the world surrounding them real. Just launching the audience into a scene like Neibolt House, in which Pennywise is all over the place, gnashing and clawing, is kind of like trying to scare someone by reading “The Inferno” at them. But say, the moment in the novel or the original movie where It disguised itself as Mrs. Kersh, that will get to you. The creature of It is amazing because he is powerful enough not just to get his victims’ blood pumping. It can tamper with their sense of day-to-day reality.
As it happens, “It” is a decent horror movie that is going to continue to break box office records by manipulating the good name of Stephen King’s novel and a collective phobia of clowns (which that novel did a good deal to establish). The movie’s basic accomplishment is the stripping down of a familiar story to its frame and them sprucing that frame up. In working so hard on that frame, the new “It” lost the soul of the story, replacing it with the overexploitation of a famous and terrifying character, Pennywise. Despite the sheer shock factor of Pennywise’s new set of tricks, including his many-rowed fangs, all the time he spends on screen takes away from what is sinister about him and leaves him looking, eh, clownish. If you go see “It,” there are moments that make you jolt, but there is nothing that will follow you home from the theater and keep you up at night.