Imagination is a wonderful gift we’re told, a gateway to places of creativity and wonder that keeps the old young, reminding them what it was like to once dream. Of course, we forget that it can also bring to the surface horrible nightmares, the sort that leave lasting scars on the innocence of youth before kids are forced into adulthood. The latter consequence must be one of the reasons Stephen King’s tale of a group of misfit children terrorized by an evil force that preys on their fears has endured these many years, and that element is exploited just enough by the latest cinematic adaptation of IT to reignite long-buried stirrings of the heebie-jeebies. Submerged in subtle 80s nostalgia and an abundance of jump-scare vignettes, IT is a well-crafted coming-of-age story that engages even as it plays things a tad too safe for a story involving a supernatural killer clown.
That circus freak is certainly used to good effect to start things off with a spooky intro involving a young boy chasing a paper boat down the streets of the seemingly picturesque town of Derry, Maine, where apparently Bad Things happen every three decades or so — a cycle possibly related to tragic events of the past. He encounters a sinister clown named Pennywise who peers out from beneath a storm drain, and their tension-filled conversation sets a menacing tone emphasized by the hazy, gloomy grays above ground and the shadowy lurking below. The gory events that follow set in motion a series of incidents nearly a year later, as a dorky pre-teen clique dubbing themselves “The Loser’s Club” — comprised of a girl and six boys, one of whom is the missing boy’s older brother — are themselves plagued by visions that capitalize on the things they are most afraid of. As the group delves into the dark mystery behind what’s happening, they further expose themselves to a growing list of dangers. Welcome to growing up.
Adolescence is a time where monsters are everywhere, and IT shows these youngsters coping with them in all forms, from psychotically-violent bullies to various examples of parental abuse and a cold, indifferent world. On top of that, they deal with loss, sexual maturity, hypochondria, relocation, and having a smart mouth that clearly is covering up for some sort of inferiority complex. No one will look out for these wounded birds, each with their own particular weaknesses and insecurities, and so they organically assemble into a pack dynamic where they can look out for each other. The moments of bonding between people struggling to assert themselves for the first time are some of the best scenes IT has to offer, as the cast delivers the spot-on schoolyard interplay so effortlessly it’s not hard to imagine that they are actually friends, earning precious endearment that pays dividends later when plot machinations get a bit heavy-handed. A memorable trip to the local swimmin’ hole cements the group onscreen and in our minds; despite the dread surrounding them, there is still time to have childhood summer fun — but those days are numbered.
As a group, the Losers are strong, and thus allowed to enjoy moments of happiness and triumph, but the transition to adulthood is filled with lonely moments where the relative safety in numbers is compromised, where a lack of strength and confidence exposes a solo imaginative mind to a host of terrifying possibilities. Much of IT is comprised of scenes that lays bare these fears, deep rooted or illogical as they may be, and while some work better than others, like a grotesque portrait come to murderous life, or a zombie-like leper attacking outside a decaying house, most achieve at least a basic level of tension. They also allow IT to cut loose a little from its otherwise restrained style with a great mixture of static compositions and frenetic moments of action that will probably linger as images in the impressionable minds of underage moviegoers like the 1990 miniseries did for the generation before. Director Andy Muschietti paces these scenes well, knowing exactly where to put the camera to build, and how to break free, but he does seem to be holding back as well, never willing to go all the way and risk alienating those who rely on familiar horror beats.
I was never quite tired of watching these vignettes, but the odd, almost episodic structure they’re placed in does undermine the spookiness a bit, dulling the effect of screeching sound cues and possibly desensitizing audiences to Pennywise himself. For those (like myself) unfamiliar with the source material, however, the feeling that anyone is fair game remains reasonably palpable throughout, and getting a glimpse into the inner minds of each protagonist certainly brings them more to life. IT smartly gives each Loser some special attention — even if there are a couple standout protagonists who hog a bit more spotlight — and for the most part, they are allowed to complete at least some semblance of an arc. The lone exception is one of the film’s biggest mishaps, as a betrayal of Beverly, the lone female in the group, reduces an otherwise driving force to an eventual mere damsel in distress, the groan-worthy culmination of which is sealed with lazy writing. It’s a significant disappointment in a final act that sees the story lose some steam, and by the end, IT‘s juggling act has worn a bit thin.
Still, it’s nice to see craft return to mainstream horror, and soak in the pictures a filmmaker in tune with his characters and setting can conjure. Muschietti brings 1980s Derry to life as the kind of small town that sells ice cream floats to tourists and looks great on postcards, but hides dark secrets beneath the colonial brick exterior. The school hallways and city streets are narrow, closing in on these kids and funneling them to a life of bitter adulthood, while homes are poorly lit, their shades pulled to block out the sun and hope for a future. Only outside on the green grass or the magical forest does the camera pull back to reveal a brighter world, one where maybe happiness really does exist, if only for the three months responsibility is out of session. There’s a Spielbergian vibe to much of IT‘s imagery, and it sells the authenticity of the 80s era far better than most recent attempts. Credit to cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, who has recreated the look of my childhood, right down to the blazingly-innocent color of those tighty whities.
Much of IT‘s audience may have grown up, but the film does its job in eliciting those old feelings of the struggle and dread that happens with coming of age. The world is a beautiful place where anything can happen, including savage cruelty, and having an active imagination opens doors to just as many dark places as light — it’s no wonder people stop using theirs. We’re not alone in our fears though, and even though life can be strange and deadly (like a clown with a Sarlacc pit for a mouth), there are plenty of other Losers to help us face it.