It (2017) (Review)

Have you heard of a little film called It? Based on what is arguably Stephen King's most famous novel which was previously adapted into a successful miniseries in 1990, a new film remake smashed pretty much every record going for it on its stateside debut last weekend, earning a pretty buck and a legion of fans to share the success with. Subtitled Chapter One as the first in a duology, It has scared up a perfect storm - but is this horror picture worth the hype? Will Pennywise help scare up one of the year's best pictures? Let's float around the idea...

Seven-year old Georgie's (Jackson Robert Scott) disappearance on a rainy day in October 1988 is one of many to strike Derry, Maine. His brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), obviously devastated by the loss of his younger brother, is determined to find out more about his disappearance, banding together his group of 'Losers' to help him over the summer. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophie Lillis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stan (Wyatt Oleff),  Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) face their fears and come face-to-face with It, Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard) in their mission to find out the truth about the disappearances in their hometown.

Marketed as a horror, it's a surprise that this most fundamental element is where the Andy Muschietti's film slips up. An unfortunate over-reliance on cheap, jump scares and poorly-executed special effects dilute the terror and the fear substantially, preventing it from actually leaving a lasting impression on you. You most certainly jump in the moment but more often than not you can see it coming, ruining the shock and surprise and thus weakening the overall effect. A disservice to what should have been an effective horror that feeds off our greatest fears, these tropes and this poor execution is It's downfall.

As a matter of fact, the greatest source of horror is not of the supernatural or the blood and gore, but the human actions and the devastating reactions in the land of the living. One sequence - of a group of bullies cutting and torturing an overweight kid -  makes you grimace more than any clown, or dubious bolt of terror, ever could, placing the real horror of this piece with the thugs and sociopaths and torment the Losers' club. The wide-reaching notion of fear controlling us is more of a human characteristic than an element crafted by the film, which is why it succeeds as it does. Why these more potent, sharper and effective set pieces are swapped out for regular, predictable jump scares I will never understand.

Because, other than the injustice It is paid through the lousy approach to horror, this really is a successful, genuinely well-made feature-length. While rarely scary, it is certainly intense, thanks to the masterful atmosphere created; the locations and setting are both quaint and claustrophobic, immediately creating an uncomfortable air that feels unescapable as the film progresses.

The location team did a tremendous job finding Bangor, Maine, which substitutes for Derry perfectly: the geography feels quintessentially American but something exists within the various locations that heralds back to your own country, city, town, street. It works in intensifying the fear that this place, with all its strange goings-on, is not too different from your own - once again presenting the human side of It as the scarier, not these uninspired, underwhelming jump tactics.

Maschiletti's direction is slick and sophisticated throughout, maintaining the dreaded atmosphere and balance of tones superbly and emphasised by Chung-hoon Chung's lush cinematography. Our infamous opening sequence, of a yellow raincoat running down the rain-drenched streets with his paper boat sailing by, is particularly impress: it is cinematic, absolutely gorgeous to spectate and carves out the intense atmosphere that helps distract from the lack of substantial horror.  Even in the smaller moments, Maschiletti is clean and efficient with his resources and despite clocking in at 135 minutes, rarely feels overstretched. It was a real shock to learn afterwards that the budget wound in at $35 million - you would have never have guessed it was on the lower side of $50 million (woeful special effects aside), personally believing it was much closer to 9-digits than it was.

Going hand-in-hand with Maschiletti's impressive direction is Benjamin Wallfisch's excellent score. Switching between the sinister jingles of classic nursery rhymes to louder, grander orchestral swells, the immense soundtrack enhances each and every scene marvellously. It so efficiently evokes a restless energy prone to change at any time that it helps installs an unpredictability otherwise absent because of the more typical horror traits present.

Most importantly though, It absolutely soars because of the truly exceptional ensemble cast. Every single member of the Losers club (as they become known) delivers a tremendous, incredibly skilled and stirring performance, bounded by a genuine chemistry and authentic friendship between each of them. Jaeden Lieberher, leader of the group and the one most profoundly invested in their horrific adventure, is a startling talent and bestows bundles of emotion as Billie, who is endlessly searching for his missing brother. His speech impediment is expertly incorporated into the performance in an entirely natural, moving way; he won't leave a dry eye in the room, from his rousing speeches to the sheer, clear devastation of his loss and toll it begins to have on him. His brother, Georgie, is performed with a lovable, infectious energy by Jackson Robert Scott and the relationship between the two is developed wonderfully in the short screen time they share.

Sophie Lillis places so much emotion in her eyes and body language as the damaged Bev, who is quickly recruited into the Losers club at the start of the film. Experiencing arguably the most crushing, horrendous crime, Bev's story is a heavy one but it is executed carefully thanks to Lillis' thoughtful performance. The rest of the gang - Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs and Jack Dylan Grazer - are similarly impressive; sharp in their delivery of the humour (Grazer and Wolfhard, in paticular, excel) and engaging in their fear and emotion (Taylor is unbelievably subtle but powerful with each kick Ben takes), the bunch are so well-developed and put together that you will easily recognise them as people you went to school with.

It helps that the characters are so likeable and charming. Coming down to the group dynamics, it seems like the young cast have known each other for years, as they sell the friendships with complete ease and commitment. You want to spend more time with the group to adventures as they grow and mature, with these insightful moments - rock fights, swimming and bike rides - heart-warming and affecting, increasing your bond to them as the film itself progresses. I was so impressed by each individual performance and will be keeping a close eye on each to see where their career takes them.

Never underestimate the importance of likeable characters though; the script department (Case Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, working with King's source material) really spend time introducing us to these characters and their unique quirks, giving the actors room to add their own flourishes. The foundations for these characters are secure and the language, while rousing and sometimes poetic, feels totally appropriate to these group of friends. The writing have a strong insight into the individual relationships within the group and work the film excellently around that.

And, what they do most impressively, is master the varying genres. It was so much funnier than it had any right to people, a great amalgamation of a sharp, energetic bunch of actors and a writing team who understand the era, the humour and the characters well. It makes for a stunning, heart-felt coming-of-age story as boys become men and girls become women, digging into some beautiful theme work (of acceptance, belonging and team) effectively. And as a thriller, the atmosphere is well-tuned in the script process - even if the horror isn't as well-executed in the end product.

Pennywise The Dancing Clown is such a infamous villain that any actor approaching the role has big shoes to fill. Bill Skarsgard is absolutely terrific casting. Crafting a very, very fine balance between goofy and downright menacing, Skarsgard finds that grey zones and goes to town with it, delivering a towering, unshakeable performance worthy of acclaim. You buy into the kid's fear of It/Pennywise because Skarsgard is honesty intimidating in the role, more than filling Tim Curry's massive shoes. The make-up and costume department enhance this evil with some great designs and ideas too.

Other than the misplaced reliance on conventional horror tropes, It is a success; a genuinely well-made piece of film-making that masters its secondary genres (coming-of-age, drama, thriller and particularly comedy), writing and direction. Because of the ensemble cast - one of the most impressive this year - you buy into the characters, their dynamics, their fears and their drives with unmitigated understanding and success. The outstanding production values (costume, make-up, location, set design), the soundtrack and cinematography are helmed brilliantly by Muschietti's direction - it's just a shame It doesn't get under your skin more, rather than simply graze the top of it.


Summary: A better comedy, coming-of-age story and thriller than it is a horror (mainly because of an over-reliance on cheap, disappointing jump scares and poor CGI), It lightly grazes your skin rather than claws under it. But, a fantastic ensemble (one of the year's best), solid direction and impressive production elements allow It to float to truly great heights.