The new film of IT from the novel by Stephen King has been eagerly anticipated, and the film easily lives up to expectations. Directed by Andy Muschietti, who made the auteurist but commercially successful horror film Mama, the movie shows a deft grasp of the source material and does an interesting job of exploring its characters and themes. IT is really a portrait of American life and a coming of age story as much as it is a horror story, and the director takes those elements seriously. While King has been an impressive author at entertaining his audiences with macabre stories for most of his life, the most frequent passages in his books are spent on developing characters and portraying everyday American life with its complexities and pitfalls. The horrors of his books are usually metaphorical things that relate to that, and this film does a nice job of taking those considerations seriously with a lot of time spent on developing the personalities, lives, and interactions of its central characters.
The horror is nonetheless truly delivered in the film, and it does a very good job of showing how the concept of an evil clown really can be scary rather than just silly. Taking the point of view of the children in the film, we see that a creature that is meant to be humorous can take on terrifying connotations if it is twisted to some other purpose. This is what King and director Muschietti both do with Pennywise. He is demonic and able to change his shape, but he takes on the form of something familiar to young people and twists the visage of the clown into something horrible. Faces are highly personal to all of us, and twisting a face around is indeed one way to effectively scare.
Clowns are staged performers who by nature break expectations of normality. So there is little limitation on what an evil clown could do, and Pennywise delivers this very well in the film. He is acted with a disturbing ferocity and a willingness to toy with victims that is much more frightening than most horror villains. Clowns also seem to have the advantage in horror of being costumed enough that any crazy person could be underneath the clown suit.
Americans have run with this idea, with journalists comparing Donald Trump to an evil clown in prominent articles, and people have taken to dressing up like clowns to scare others and play pranks. There has even been a rash of red balloons being left on sewer drains around the country in reference to the film. Sociologically this is very interesting, because King’s novel is really about corruption and evil of the human type being present in a small American town. The young people face damaged existences and lessened futures as a result of this.
Since the novel came out in 1986, conditions in the country have deteriorated over the last 20 years with lower wages, less healthcare, and more interest in fighting wars than in helping domestic citizens. IT paints a picture of the 1980s as a time of innocence that was a prelude to the development of serious social ills, much like King’s novel treated the 1950s that way in comparison to when it came out in 1986.
The cinematography in the film is nicely done for its subject matter. The haunted house is genuinely dark and creepy, and the lighting of the more shadowed scenes is eerie enough to please anyone who wants to dwell in the darkness with Pennywise. The daytime scenes are contrastingly shot with great brightness and a nice level of diffusion, as though we all have blinders on in how we perceive our surroundings. They carry a suggestion of hope and promise which is surrounded by a strange foreboding presence: Pennywise in the horror sense, and social problems of the town of Derry and implicitly America in the real sense. The juxtaposition of an innocent looking small town with horrors underneath is reminiscent of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet which came out around the time of the book.
The director also is sympathetic to King’s frequent use of profanity in the mouths of young people. This is a quirk in his writing which is meant to add realism, and the director allows this to be carried over the top just like the novel’s author does. I think it is a bit excessive and becomes an annoyance at times, but there is a point to this. It shows us an underlying cruelty that is reflected in how the young characters attack each other for absolutely no reason. This belies some serious social problems and is indeed a phenomenon of American life which probably leads to a series of other problems down the road.
The film’s heroes are really the young people who decide to work together and overcome their innocence while not becoming evil or corrupted. King seems to suggest that this is a real problem for people growing up in American towns. In the novel, there is also clear reference to the AIDS crisis lurking around as a horror for the development of young people in the 80s. The film does not explicitly reference this, but the use of blood in some scenes shows a respect for that aspect of the source material. I don’t find this theme to carry over so well in the film, but there is definitely a horror associated with contact with blood that at least captures the subtext of this.
The editing is also worth some appreciation, as the pace of the film is brisk when it needs to be but does not lack a willingness to dwell on scenes of characters. It is nice to see a blockbuster movie that does not have the typical bad taste of composing a film out of a series of two second shots. Similarly the violence is present enough to make this a legitimate horror, but it does not dominate the film like so many bad piles of shootouts that Hollywood has been concocting for far too long. While the film does entertain with its disturbing horror narrative, it also forces its audience to take seriously its characters and more serious questions.
The novel is intentionally weird and long and spends over a thousand pages developing this pervasive strangeness about the town of Derry, and the film is willing to dwell long on characters in order to capture this. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, it is long but nicely paced and uses that time to develop more than only frights. Unlike the source material, which takes place over two timeframes, the movie only deals with the characters when they are young. A sequel due in 2019 will deal with the adult characters, and there is good reason to hope that the two films together will do a lot of justice to the book.