Clowns are inherently terrifying, it’s just a law of the universe. From their altered faces and distorted smiles, there is a reason clowns have been featured in horror films time and time again. Steven Spielberg knew it when he wrote Poltergeist (1982) and Stephen King pushed things further when he wrote the novel IT in 1986. The latest adaptation of King’s novel steamrolled into theaters over the weekend to the tune of a $123-million opening weekend, leaving all kinds of shattered box office records in it’s wake and. With a ton of momentum from a well planned out, aggressive ad campaign IT was a much needed shot in the arm for the desperate domestic box office after a dismal month of August.
Accessibility is a big reason for the film’s success, but that’s because it’s a bit mismatched tonally. At the outset, the film shifts from traditional horror set up to a surprisingly and graphically violent reimagining almost right away. From there, the tone immediately changes again to a more lighthearted approach as a the audience is introduced to the primary group of nerdy kids. Rich Delia cast a good core of young talent but, while they are all good together as an ensemble, they don’t necessarily jive with the mood put forth in the opening scene and the script has to work far too hard to establish their characters. Once the cast is introduced, the film delves even further into cliche as the attitude shifts again to a sort of coming of age comedy complete with summer vacation and a blossoming adolescent love story.
With that said, the lack of tonal synergy isn’t the kids’ fault. They all delivered strong performances which made for a cohesive and (more importantly) believable ensemble. However, this movie struggles with self identification and spends more time hopping between genres than it does blending them. Highlighting that issue, the film doesn’t disguise its desire to be Stranger Things…or (at the very least) occupy the same space thematically. Casting a group of dorky kids to combat evil forces is nothing new and was incredibly popular during the 80s (The Goonies, The Monster Squad, The Lost Boys), but specifically casting Finn Wolfhard who had one of the primary roles in the Netflix original series wasn’t a coincidence.
Considering this was a remake of an already adapted story, there should have been more emphasis placed on crafting a stand alone identity and less on snappy repartee between the kids. Screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman spent way too much time on dick and yo-mama jokes, resulting in a script that feels like a parade of punchlines. Although the dialogue is funny, the timbre of the jokes is much more indicative of older kids and doesn’t feel authentic on the tongues of this younger cast. Furthermore, the emphasis on humor compromised some parts of the film which were genuinely frightening and left the audience laughing reactionarily. The screenplay is light on explanation and many elements of the story were simply glossed over, leaving many glaring unanswered questions. Why does the evil clown Pennywise even exist? Is IT a ghost or a demon…or something different entirely? These elements are explained in the novel but there’s only loosely strung together implications in this film. At times the creature is omnipresent in a ghostly, haunting fashion and the next moment he’s relegated to the sewers and vulnerable to physical damage at the hands of children…so it’s kinda all over the place.
Despite problems inherent in the script, there were still enough bright spots to carry the film. One thing the writers actually did exceptionally well was craft villains other than the clown. Whether it was the psychotic bully Bowers and who engaged in some disturbingly violent acts himself or the rapacious father of a young adolescent girl, there is a great deal of subtext and depth regarding the parents of the primary characters. It was nice to see a more realistic and tangible fear on the table for the primary players alongside the demonic jester. Pennywise was exceptionally creepy on multiple levels and Bill Skarsgård was fantastic in the role. Thanks to the makeup, he can take credit for the performance without being typecast. Daniel Carrasco did a very good job with the creature design and managed to add several layers of additional creepiness to an already freaky character.
Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema clearly knew where and how to spend their $35-million budget, focusing heavily on advertising and the investment in production quality over star power. The production design by Claude Paré cultivated a strong visual aesthetic for the film which was evident throughout the promotional materials and carried over as one of the strongest elements of the film. Peter Grundy’s art direction helped to solidify that imagery by juxtaposing vibrant colors on mostly dreary backdrops, which made the scenes pop on screen. Set Decorator Rosalie Board did a very good job with the sets, creating that added extra layer of claustrophobia and fear of darkness. The costume design by Janie Bryant was period perfect and gave the characters, and the film, the look and feel of those 80s films which clearly influenced the style of this movie.
Despite the massive box office success, this movie isn’t really that good. Don’t get me wrong. I mostly enjoyed it but, like I mentioned at earlier, IT’s success is due more to accessibility than quality. Director Andy Muschietti who gained notoriety for his 2013 horror film Mama (which was…okay) did a serviceable job and got some good performances from his cast, but failed to deliver anything special. Additionally, he couldn’t help this project pin down exactly what kind of film it wanted to be. Pair that with the stream of cliches and lack of originality throughout the project and we’re left with an above average movie, with some incredibly creepy and effective scares, that won’t reach the pantheon of the horror genre. However, it made a shit ton of money regardless and may even lead into a Stephen King cinematic universe.
Recommendation: If you’re deathly afraid of clowns, definitely do not see this movie. That much should be obvious. On the other hand, if you’re looking to have a good time then this movie is not a bad way to spend a couple hours. It works well as a date movie, if you’re into that, but the generally accepted violence towards children will be off putting towards parents. Not what I’d call family friendly.