Stephen King’s novel It stands as close to the quotidian ideal of the writer’s output, for reasons both admirable and dubious. It pivoted on King’s superlative talents as a crafter of vivid experiential prose and those bizarre yet earthy storylines that have so often fuelled riveting filmic visions, and was also replete with passages that confirm his intelligent habit of repurposing and popularising modernist literary tricks in a horror fiction setting and his deep roots in that brand of fiction itself. But the novel also confirmed King’s incapacity to tell his best authorial traits from his worst – in particular, his tendencies to smother his books’ qualities in great clouds of eminently editable verbiage, his fine effects lost in the weeds. Of course, for many others It became a central fixture of King’s oeuvre, the quintessential King novel I used to see fellow students thumbing their way through laboriously in high school. The efficient, if flatly assembled, 1990 miniseries adaptation starring Tim Curry as the usual face of the monstrous, chameleonic demon-crustacean from another dimension who feeds upon human fears and flesh living under the Maine town of Derry has likewise featured in many a fondly remembered adolescent frisson. It’s not hard to see the specific appeal of It, which not only harvested and stewed together most of King’s favoured tropes, but in a manner that appeals precisely to a teenaged mindset, one that looks back on recently lost childhood nostalgically and forward to adulthood as a trial by ignominy and diminution. It mates the Spielbergian romanticism of the freewheeling gang of childhood friends at war with the world with a darker, more insidious version of the evil marauding in its shadows, like Jaws invading the world of E.T.
Now the first part of an intended two-instalment cinematic edition has arrived, this time pumped up with a big budget and the official gloss of cinematic sweep, and helmed by Andres Muschietti, whose debut Mama (2011) was hailed by many but struck me as clichéd and witlessly overstated. It starts with an effectively brutal sequence depicting young innocent Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) being lured in by the monstrosity in that introduces itself as Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), appearing in a storm drain whilst Georgie floats a paper boat down the gutter of the street. Pennywise bites the kid’s arm off and drags him down into the underworld. Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) lives on with the guilt and grief, and soon begins to perceive a malign pattern to the apparently random disappearances of young folk around the town. He begins an investigation in league with Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), a core gang of pals who quickly gains new allies in their quest, including paternal molestation victim Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), bulbous new kid in town Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and black home-schooled lad Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs). All are united into a “Loser’s Club” in their general social rejection and persecution by vicious local bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), whose predations rhyme with and are finally encouraged by Pennywise as the malignant entity soon finds himself increasingly unable to fend off the newly emboldened gang.
It has been swiftly anointed as the more successful of the two big-ticket King adaptations released this year, dwarfing Nikolaj Arcel’s ramshackle adventure into the worst kind of televisual transcription, The Dark Tower. And yet, as shapeless and insipid as it was, The Dark Tower never began to annoy and frustrate me as much as It did, for a combination of reasons. The leisurely pace and spacious runtime for a film that only depicts half the novel hands Muschietti plenty of scope to develop his characters and their milieu with it, and yet the film swiftly begins to display signs of uncertainty about what exactly it wants to be, hedging its bets between playing as a straightforward version of the book, retro pop culture tribute, and a generic contemporary horror spectacle. The time frame of the novel, which shifted between the present of the 1980s and the 1950s world of BB gun-wielding scamps and chitinous roadsters beloved of King, Spielberg, Lucas and others of their generation, has been nudged forward, so that this instalment unfolds in the time of the novel’s writing. That’s an entirely reasonable move, but also one that smacks a little too readily of opportunism in following on the heels of J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011) and the television show Stranger Things in playing on the audience’s fond recall for a familiar panoply of beloved ‘80s touchstones without rooting them in any coherent way to the drama. The closest the film comes to this is giving us a view of a cinema marquee advertising a Nightmare on the Elm Street instalment as a clue to Muschietti’s taking licence from that franchise’s random, surrealistic tinge to its horror template.
That said, Freddy Kruger was supposed to be a literal phantom from an oneiric zone, whereas Pennywise, although skilled in illusion and shape-shifting, is supposed to be a proper, physical entity. But Muschietti keeps using him and his talents to pepper the film with a constant parade of special effects-induced chills and clumsy, loudly insistent horror tricks, reducing King’s complex tale in the greater part to yet another recent horror movie that exists chiefly to randomly goose the audience with scares every few seconds. One miscalculation is quickly revealed when the much-hyped Pennywise first appears. In the book, and the miniseries, Pennywise’s habit of turning up under sewer gratings is uncanny and unnerving, but his appearance is also supposed to be a lure for innocent and confused young minds. This made for one of the book’s best ideas, blending cunning metaphor, common phobia, and telling reflection of real life, and the way predators, particularly those who prey on children, adopt guises that entice (it reminded me, for instance, of John Wayne Gacy's working as a party clown). But the Pennywise we get here is instead a scary clown right out of an internet meme, instantly reducing King’s image-play to freaky cornball. Muschietti instead takes licence from the parts of the book when Pennywise appears in a multitude of guises intended to upset and generate fear in the kids. Manifestations of threat and evil come on which such regularity and senselessness that the film’s attempts to mount anticipation when the characters brace themselves to venture into hearts of darkness, we’ve already seen all Muschietti can throw at us, and so no sense of moment.
The best aspect to this take on It is that kids are allowed to be kids, playing video games, riding bikes, swapping off-colour jokes, and fretting over the personal angsts that make them feel like the anointed outcasts of life but which of course provide a framework for their eventual community. As long as it sticks to the young protagonists, the film remains moderately entertaining. Even in this It resolutely fails to work nearly as well as it should, however. The period updating is fitful - no-one, for instance, has a Walkman; nobody thinks of trying to capture video evidence of the monster - whilst Muschietti has no great feel for youthful camaraderie beyond basic clichés, and little grasp on these kids as types or individuals. About the limit of the film’s feel for such experience is giving us an awkward scene of the boys gazing stricken and mesmerised at Beverly’s bikini-clad form, and Richie’s constant stream of penis-related quips. King’s nod to his motif’s roots in the social cross-section crews of World War 2 movies and the Our Gang shorts becomes in Muschietti’s hands mere bland tokenism, whilst dismissing the backgrounds of the kids for the most part to sketchy inconsequence. A big thing is made eventually of Eddie rejecting the oppression of his hypochondriac mother, a character who’s been on screen for about thirty seconds before this scene. And it’s a poor movie indeed that can’t even give some time to the basic pleasure of letting us see the kids piece together their understanding of the nature of the beast and how to fight it. It's odd that Cary Fukunaga, who did such a good job boiling down Jane Eyre (2011) to essentials a few years back, contributed to this entry's awkward, undercooked script.
The film even fudges some of the basic storyline functions of the characters, like Henry, who eventually becomes lunatic scapegoat for Pennywise’s crimes, and shifting the love for delving into local history and folklore from Mike to Ben, on the apparent assumption that a fat history nerd is more believable than a black one. Background traumas, like Beverly’s victimisation by her pervert patriarch, and Henry’s cringing before his, a sadistic cop, are offered with blunt force. Which is at least true to King’s tendency in a lot of his early work, his habit of leaning on stock caricatures of sweaty rubes and smarmy suburbanites by way of social commentary. One problem It immediately faces in courting comparison to beloved forebears lies in the plain and simple fact that there were at least a half-dozen King adaptations in the ‘70s and ‘80s infinitely superior to this. In the concentration of bullies and outcasts, the basic material most closely resembles Carrie (1976) and Christine (1983), which were directed with divergent talents and yet similar gifts for concise effect by Brian De Palma and John Carpenter respectively. Nothing like De Palma’s operatic sarcasm in handling King’s raging metaphor for pubescent anxiety nor Carpenter’s wiliness in realising both his nostalgic fetishes and his set-pieces of fantastical inspiration simultaneously. Hell, given the film's nods to late-'80s blockbuster horror, I would have settled for the Chuck Russell version of this material. Muschietti’s best touch in the entire film comes is leaping from an icky sequence where Beverly and her bathroom are splattered with gore that floods out of her sink, to the running red hues of a watercolour sketch one of her friends is making of her. Where most of the film is thumpingly unsubtle and clumsy in handling its essential juxtaposition of horror and the delicate gifts and yearnings of adolescence, this layering of images captures exactly the right tone, but so briefly it’s painful.
Lillis seems a galvanising talent as Beverly, and it helps that she’s been handed the best part in the film, as Beverly is the gutsiest, most interesting, and dramatically engaged of the young characters. Skarsgård shows signs of dark charisma in his first appearance, but otherwise is terribly misused. Ultimately, It degenerates into a series of sequences where the kids slog around in the dark, either in an old tumbledown house or in the sewers, with Pennywise stalking and scaring them, but eventually proving amenable to a few good swats with a baseball bat. I’m not impossible to scare or unnerve, but the style of horror Muschietti offers bores me silly. Perhaps inevitably, King’s infamous depiction of the children becoming adults through primal ritual by engaging in group sex is here substituted with a more permissible pagan rite, that of blood brotherhood, and the vow to return and fight Pennywise if he proves to have survived. The conceit of bifurcating King’s tale in this way is entirely understandable on one level, and yet it seems to conspire against its very texture, and will prove a hard sell when Muschietti substitutes a random bunch of actors for his cast of kids in the second part, and moreover loses a notable aspect of the novel, the sensation of having grown up but also having grown wrong, and the tale’s metaphor for the notion of nostalgia itself as a confusing, troubling, usually twin-edged thing. To say that Muschietti’s film misses this essence is to understate things. I might still be tempted to see how the next part of the story plays out. But make no mistake: this entry is only the quotidian ideal of hack work.