It: Be Safe, by Tyler Smith
For people of a certain age, Stephen King’s novel It will always be associated with the 1990 miniseries, featuring John Ritter, Richard Thomas, and, most notably, Tim Curry. It is often cited by many as absolutely terrifying, though it is more than a little creaky upon rewatching. The cheesy melodrama and awkward staging leaves a lot to be desired, though Curry’s performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown stands up disturbingly well. Director Andy Muscietti seems to have taken all of this – the nostalgia, the terror, and the forgettable bits – into account when making what will be the first of two films adapting King’s novel for the big screen. This is to both the film’s benefit and detriment. While Muscietti clearly felt liberated by an unabashed R rating, and in it saw an opportunity to build on the most effective elements of the miniseries, the film almost feels a little safer than it should. While the relationships between the members of the Losers Club has always been at the heart of King’s story, the new film sands the more difficult emotional edges off of those relationships until the film feels almost wistful. While the film is filled with great performances and frightening imagery, this adaptation of one of King’s most iconic horror novels feels at times like just another entry in the recent series of movies featuring a young ensemble fighting against a deadly force. A film that perhaps should feel more of a piece with The Shining and The Mist is actually much more akin to Super 8 or Stranger Things (itself a loving King tribute). While the film is undeniably engaging, I kept thinking that It could have – and should have – gone further.
The story is pretty well-known at this point. In the late 1980s, a group of unpopular kids in a small Maine town stumble upon the monster responsible for the recent disappearances of several children. Each of the kids have their own unique personalities. There’s stuttering leader Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard), fearful Stan (Wyatt Oleff), overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), homeschooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and the lone female Beverly (Sophia Lillis). Each of these characters deal with their own private demons, which It, in the form of the predatory Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), exploits in order to scare them almost to death before feeding on them (the fear makes the meat much tastier). The more the self-titled Losers Club learn about It, the more responsibility they feel towards stopping It, bonding closer together to overcome their individual weaknesses.
Obviously, in a film like this, each cast member must not only try to differentiate themselves, but also fit into the larger ensemble seamlessly. The chemistry between actors is absolutely vital, and the actors in It are so genuine, so charismatic, and so lovable that it’s hard to single out any one performance. At the risk of negating the solid work by all cast members involved, I think that the work of Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, and Jeremy Ray Taylor (two scene stealers and the bashful soul of the film, respectively) helps to elevate the general tone of the group dynamic. And Sophia Lillis, who has the difficulty of being the only female in the group but not allowing herself to be defined solely by that, is positively magnetic. Her ability to silently assess the situation and decide how she feels and what to do speaks to an inherent understanding of her character Beverly, constantly having to navigate the horrific advances of her father. Beverly is a survivor, and Lillis plays her with the appropriate 1,000-yard stare that makes her both a source of strength and tragedy within the film. I’m mostly unfamiliar with Lillis’ work, but if she isn’t a star within the next few years, we’re all doing something wrong.
The art direction and cinematography are beautiful, but that too might be a problem. The story has been updated, with the events taking place in the late 1980s instead of the 1950s. However, you wouldn’t know it, based on how the film looks. Despite a couple of specific references here and there, there’s really no way to know exactly what year it is. Perhaps this was the intention, trying to suggest that Derry, Maine exists completely on its own timeline, never too impacted by the outside world. If this was the intention, I appreciate the effort. However, in portraying the timelessness of this world, and incorporating buildings, cars, bikes, and clothing that are more about the essence of what they are than simply being what they are, Muscietti creates a distance between the audience and the film. This doesn’t feel like a world we could live in, and thus the horror feels removed. Yes, the dilapidated house where It has been traced to is a wonder of art direction (and a nice reference to Psycho), but one would be hard-pressed to find such a structure in our everyday lives. It’s the kind of building that we see in movies and nowhere else.
Of course, it’s not vital that a film mimic our reality. But there needs to be some kind of anchor outside the emotional beats of the protagonists. From the meticulous production design to the on-the-nose and over-the-top performances of the other Derry townspeople, It has a certain artificiality that prevented me from carrying the dread with me as I returned home. The film seemed too self-contained to be legitimately frightening; intense in the moment, but nothing that really lingers once the film is over.
I don’t like being hard on this film, especially when the ensemble is so effective, but at almost every turn I felt the director attempting to impress me with the sheer movieness of it all, in contrast to the visually unimpressive 1990 miniseries. This isn’t a bad instinct, but when it is also mixed with nostalgia, the result is a film that seems a bit too eager to please; not just the horror fan, but the mass audience, as well. And, in my perhaps limited view, the best horror is never that which makes us feel comfortable. It is meant to set us on edge, question our own confidence, and occasionally look over our shoulder. This film is none of that, or at least not in a truly meaningful way. Instead, it is a nice, moody, well-realized horror film that’s too concerned with pleasing a wide audience to actually have the kind of impact that the best horror does.