Another month rolls by, another Stephen King novel is realised on the big screen.
King’s body of work is catnip to Hollywood. Studios are eager to capture his wide ranging well-liked fiction in a visual medium, and have done so for decades to varying degrees of success. Die-hard readers yearn for the very essence and detail of King’s able pen to be distilled into two hours, while casual film-goers seek the hefty dread associated with the author’s name.
IT emanates from, arguably, the golden age of King in full horror mode.
His 1986 novel follows a gaggle of small town misfit teens intimidated by both their domestic backgrounds and a force known as ‘It’; manifesting itself in varying disguises, settling primarily for a Vaudeville clown known as ‘Pennywise’ (Bill Skarsgård) – a creepy apparition of mercurial proportions with the cadence of Scooby Doo.
Canny use of levity bring about false senses of security
Many a modern horror film is fraught with cheap jack-in-the-box moments, and from my interactions with younger audiences, it appears that this is a given; a sad modern staple of the genre through years of conditioning. I am delighted to say that IT does not solely rely on these to conjure fear, but instead, takes a shrewd approach to its screenplay by allowing the children to act and use language young adults would. A string of profanities here, a sprinkling of misdirection and a canny use of levity bring about false senses of security during the most unexpected of moments.
Muschietti and Chung-hoon Chung, behind the camera, have a good grip of common pitfalls and proficient technique in this genre of filmmaking, taking inspiration from Kubrickian low-angles (dragged across the floor) and smart point-of-view switcheroos to their credit. Even the tonally out-of-step moments are playfully received and knowingly delivered – in particular, an amusing call-back to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off using New Kids On The Block’s ‘Hang Tough’ in lieu of Yello’s ‘Oh Yeah’.
Though, it cannot be denied that IT is cynical in its approach to ride the wave of 80’s nostalgia, to such an extent that it begins to ape, rather than pay homage to, films of that era.
One of the children, depicted by Finn Wolfhard (Netflix’s Stranger Things), plays a lift of ‘Mouth’ (Cory Feldman) from The Goonies (1985) replete with pithy put-downs, and one could easily slot the rest of the teens into other roles from the same film. The bulk of the plot setting, too, echoes the mostly sleepy, parentless and apathetic small town living of Stand By Me (1986).
IT is a weighty tome and you would have expected a bit more fine detail
Screenwriters, Chase Palmer and Cary Fukanaga, never quite do enough to nuance each child beyond their functional purpose in the overall story; the African-American child from a broken background who is bullied over his race, the Jewish child duty-bound by his faith, and so on. But devil is in the detail, and IT is a weighty tome, so one would have expected a bit more fine detail, especially given, that at 135 minutes, IT features at the upper-end of horror film durations.
Certain canonistic script choices (in comparison to the novel) have also disappeared, such as the back-and-forth timeline of the 1990 TV Movie. Whilst faithful to source in this aspect, it was clumsily executed then and is curiously completely absent here, only to be answered in the final frame and met with a groan-worthy ‘really?!’.
The final scenes chunter along
In direct opposition to the positive steps IT makes to differentiate itself is the overbearing score, whose tropey discordant strings – although well-produced - blunt transitionary moments and does a disservice to the climax, telegraphing much of what is to come. Likewise, the final scenes do chunter along into sloppy complacency, and whilst not totally unsatisfactory, the lazy go-to dialogues, grandstanding and abject peril stroll into familiar contemporary horror territory.
For younger audiences, IT will change their perception of horror as more than a sequence of jump-scares, largely due to the child-actors being proficient and relatable. Similarly, the depiction of Pennywise by Skarsgård musters up enough deceitful madness without tipping over into ludicrous pastiche, enabling him to ratchet the adequate fear factor aided by some above-par CGI.
There’s no doubt that Muschietti’s film is a turning point for commercial modern horror; artfully captured with the nostalgic twang of picking up and shaking a souvenir holiday snow-globe on your parent’s mantelpiece, compelling you to ‘run towards something, not run away’.