‘IT’ Review: The Losers Are the Winners Here
In its broad strokes, IT follows the template of a monster movie—there’s a monster who is colorful and interesting, and there are victims who are terrorized by the monster. Traditionally, movies get us rooting for the monster and the victims are made into cannon fodder so they can be disposed of in a grotesque variety of ways. Ultimately, while the victims may be the protagonists, the filmmaker seems to have more empathy for the monster who wreaks havoc. However, Andy Muschietti’s partial adaptation of Stephen King’s novel (it adapts the first half of the story) firmly puts its empathy on the part of its young protagonists with “IT” as a terrifying monster, but one who repulses rather than entices. Rather than give into its audience’s bloodlust, IT is far more concerned with the trauma, both real and imagined, that its heroes will have to face in order to defeat a creature who feeds on fear. Vibrant, confident, and overflowing with a surprising amount of emotion, IT is almost everything you could want from a modern horror film.
In Derry, Maine in 1989, people are going missing. One of the latest to disappear is Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), the younger brother of Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher). Although Georgie has been missing for almost a year, Bill thinks that his brother’s disappearance has something to do with the sewer system. Along with dealing the loss of his brother, Bill and his friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) also have to fend off bullies, who become the least of their problems when a supernatural entity appearing as a clown and calling itself Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) begins popping up as their deepest fears. Forging a friendship with fellow outcasts Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the group, calling themselves “The Losers Club”, sets out to defeat “It” and stop the disappearances.
Thankfully, IT is in no rush to get there. While a streamlined version of the movie could have quickly assembled the Losers and invested more time in Pennywise, Muschietti’s movie is far more concerned with defining its young characters. Although some characters get more definition than others (Stan is basically “The Jewish kid who is afraid of a painting”), we ultimately care about them as a group and as individuals. We don’t like them simply because they’re underdogs or outcasts; we like them because of their friendship, chemistry, and personalities. They feel like real friends who are bonded not just because they’re fighting It, but because there’s actual affinity between them.
Additionally, Muschietti understands that his horror film can’t be all scares all the time. He clearly relishes the “scary” scenes, but there’s just as much effort put into the humor and emotions. The movie is a tricky balancing act because it has to recognize that there are imagined fears young people have like Richie’s fear of clowns or Stan’s fear of a painting, but there’s also legitimate trauma like Bill losing his brother or Beverly fending off her sexually abusive father. Muschietti doesn’t try to paint all fears as equal, and instead knows when something should be delightfully spooky like Richie wandering into a room full of clown dolls, and when something should make our skin crawl like the advances from Beverly’s father. IT has to juggle a lot of tones, and yet it all works together seamlessly.
Some may level the complaint that IT isn’t particularly “scary”, and I suppose I can see their point, although I’m a giant wuss, so I was covering my ears for half the film to drown out jump scares. But I suppose why the film may not terrify is that it’s not particularly vicious. Muschietti excels at creepy imagery and setting up Pennywise’s attacks, but he’s not terribly concerned with making this It’s story. The film almost seems afraid to really let Skarsgard shine with Pennywise because he might overshadow the Losers. There are a few scenes where he really gets to let loose, but he’s stuck in a pattern—It is the predator, and the kids are his prey. The creature is only motivated by hunger and a need to feed on fear. That’s not particularly interesting, and while you can get some frightening images out of his creations, the heart of the movie needs to be the characters who can grow and change, the Losers.
If you measure the success of a horror film simply by how much it can scare you, then it really just comes down to, ironically, what you’re afraid of. I have a friend who refuses to see The Blair Witch Project because she knows that kind of movie is her trigger. I know other people who think that film couldn’t be less frightening. Rather than simply try to create a movie that scares everybody, Muschietti confidently emphasizes craft and focus of IT, a film that wants to terrify its audience but never abuse them. There are characters we want to root for, and Muschietti bundles it an alluring packaging.
IT is a gorgeous movie with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung making Derry look both mundane and otherworldly. Working with Muschietti, the two are able to make creepy moments but never overplay their hands. There’s never a scene in IT that wants you to pause and appreciate how creepy it is; instead, those scenes serve to build tension and illuminate what the characters fear. A scene where Bill follows the specter of Georgie may not be the scariest thing ever, but the pacing, visuals, and score are all exquisite.
But what really makes IT come alive more than anything is its heart. It would be a mistake to say that the horror genre is heartless, but it’s one that can be unforgiving. There’s an inherent brutality that, at its best, serves to illuminate rather than titillate. But IT stands apart because while it may not be the scariest movie of the year or perhaps even the adaptation that King’s fans wanted, it shows its ambition by where it chooses to show its attention. Pennywise may know what scares you, but the power belongs to the Losers.