You don’t have to wait long for the scares to arrive in It. The newest adaptation of Stephen King’s novel serves up its frights early and often, starting with the gruesome disappearance of a little boy in the opening scene.
It takes a little longer, however, to see where the real horror lies in It. At its best, It captures the very specific terrors of early adolescence – the stuff that feels all the more haunting because they’re scrubbed clean from our idealized notions of youth, the stuff that happens in the corners where no one else is around to see, the stuff that maybe even happens at the very hands of the people who are supposed to protect you. Plus, you know, the occasional creepy painting or two.
To that end, It establishes itself in 1989 in Derry, Maine – exactly the kind of perfectly retro suburban setting that’ll tickle an adult’s nostalgia in the year 2017. Except this town is hiding a nasty secret: Lately, the kids in it have been vanishing one by one. In fact, it’s kind of a regular thing in Derry – every few decades, there’s another rash of disappearances.
This time, one of the missing happens to be the younger brother of Bill (Midnight Special‘s Jaeden Lieberher), a middle school outsider who runs with a small clique of other middle school outsiders: Richie (Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), plus, later, Bev (Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs).
As the summer goes on, each member of the so-called Loser’s Club is visited by “it,” an unnamed being that takes the form of each target’s deepest fears. Its favorite look seems to be Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), but it might also take the form of a leper, or a burning body, or a fountain of blood. Whatever “it” decides to be, you’ll definitely see it. It doesn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination and instead approaches these sequences with a straightforwardness that only an R rating and a confident creative team will get you.
With so many moving parts, inevitably, some function better than others. The best scare sequence involves an ugly painting and is all the spookier because it’s so wonderfully specific — we’ve all seen a piece of art that gave us the heebie-jeebies even if we couldn’t quite explain why, and it was probably hanging in our mom’s friend’s living room when we were kids. The worst is set in a room full of clowns, halfway into a movie that’s already all about clowns. What’s a few more?
Likewise, some of the kids come out better than others. Lillis is a standout as Bev, and her material is both the meatiest and the messiest. The film never seems entirely sure what to make of Bev — are we supposed to identify with her, or identify with the boys who like her? — but Lillis keeps Bev consistent, and consistently interesting. Some of her most enjoyable moments are with Taylor, another highlight. He’s instantly endearing as Ben.
On the flip side, there’s not much to the character of Richie other than comic relief. Whether you find him a much-needed source of levity or an annoying distraction will depend on your tolerance for 13-year-old boy humor. I couldn’t stand him, but admired Wolfhard’s natural performance. Worst served of all is Mike, whose only reason for existing in this film seems to be “well, he was in the book, and we need him for the sequel.”
For most of its 135-minute running time, It moves briskly enough that these flaws are easy to forgive – or at least to put aside — in the hopes that they’ll be addressed later on. As It barrels toward the end, though, its cracks start to show. In its final act, just as It should be raising the stakes, cranking up the emotion, and delivering us a balls-out bonkers finale, It instead devolves into a generic monster battle and starts to drag.
But maybe that’s OK. Maybe that’s even kind of the point. Because for all of Pennywise’s showboating, It‘s most horrifying monsters aren’t “it” at all. “It,” after all, is just doing what it’s meant to do. The real demons are the sadistic bullies and abusive parents and indifferent bystanders — people who should have been friends, protectors, helpers, but instead have left these kids to the wolves.
It digs down deep into that fraught period in life when you’re old enough to realize that the world can be a very dark place, but not quite old enough to understand how or why, or what to do about it. It is scary, yes – but it’s heartbreaking, too. And that, even more than the clown’s nasty tricks, might be what lingers with you.