It is a celebrated and impressively long (1000+ pages) horror novel by Stephen King that tells the story of a group of friends over two time periods (one when they’re adolescents and the other when they’re adults) in the fictional small town of Derry, Maine, as they combat an evil force that emerges every twenty-seven years to terrorize and kill the local residents and manifests itself in a variety forms, most notably as a demonic clown known as Pennywise.
This year’s film version is the second adaption of the book, the first being a two-part miniseries released on ABC in 1990 (I watched that version about fifteen years ago and remember liking it, although now I can only dimly recall how it went). Given the shear size of the source material, the movie wisely only adapts the part of the novel when our characters are children to keep the plot somewhat manageable. It also updates the setting from the late 1950s to the late 1980s (presumably so that, if a sequel is made focusing on the adult portion of the novel, it can take place in the present day). Apart from that, having never read the book*, I don’t know how faithful it is in terms of keeping the story beats.
This is one of those small-town-band-of-misfit-kids-solve-a-mystery kinds of movies; it occupies similar territory as The Goonies, The Monster Squad, and Stand By Me**, except it’s filled with way more R-rated horror. Our central group, dubbed The Losers Club, consists of seven kids who are all outsiders in some way. The movie admirably tries to give each of them a meaningful arc and some amount of depth. Unfortunately, 135 minutes is not enough time to really pull that off with this many characters. The result is that some plot threads — such as one kid struggling to learn Hebrew for his bar mitsvah or another kid coming to grips with killing sheep as part of his job at a slaughter house — just kind of get dropped without any real resolution. Others — like a love triangle that develops between two of the boys and the club’s sole female member or the group’s dealings with the local bully — do get resolutions, but they’re kind of rushed and somewhat confusing.
Regarding the monster itself, It, that spends the movie terrorizing The Losers Club, well, it’s not actually all that scary. The design of Pennywise is appropriately freakish, and there’s a few moments early on that were a bit shocking, but as the movie progressed it just kind of became oddly predictable when we’d see It; and so it was less terrifying than I thought it should be. Not helping things is that much of the kids’ dialogue consists of toilet humor, swears, and sexual innuendos, even when the monster is present. I think I get what they were going for — it’s a realistic way to show their immaturity and false bravado — but it gets to be a bit much and I think it undercuts the drama a little too often. It’s also strange that, for as fluent in pop-culture as these kids seem to be (the movie makes a point to show us that they live in a world of Batman, thrash metal***, video games, and slasher movies), they commit a lot of the same mistakes that people tend to make in horror films, even though they should know better. More than once somebody wanders off from the group alone when they shouldn’t, listens to a haunting voice when they shouldn’t, etc.
I admit I’m beating up on this movie a bit more than I thought I would. While I have criticized a lot about it, I did actually like It. I’m a bit of a sucker for any story where a group of kids, as opposed to adults, can save the day and grow in the process; and even if this one is rough around the edges in places and sort of cliché in others (the depiction of the bully is the most cookie cutter thing I’ve seen all year) I did find the story overall entertaining. And even if the kids’ dialogue is sometimes really annoying, I did like all the characters in this motley crew and hope these actors will show up in some capacity if a sequel is made about them as adults. And while it’s not exactly terrifying on the whole, I was never really expecting it to be (it’s hard to fear demonic clowns when a nation like North Korea is developing ICBMs, but I digress). That it got me a bit nervous in even a few places was more than what I was expecting.
To sum up, if you really enjoy horror movies or have a particular fondness for this Stephen King story, then I would recommend checking out this movie. It’s not groundbreaking, and it does have issues, but I do think you’ll get your money’s worth from it. For everyone else, it’s entertaining, but not a must see. The movie’s box office has been impressive thus far, so we will likely get a sequel (probably called It: Chapter Two) in a few years focusing on the adult-portion of the novel. With that in mind, and considering the novel’s themes of fear, I’ll leave the reader with the following quote from poet Richard Siken:
“Children are afraid of the dark because they have nothing real to work with. Adults are afraid of themselves.”
*I read the first few pages once but decided I didn’t want to commit to reading the entire thing.
**Also based on a Stephen King story.
***Props to whoever saw fit to include Anthrax’s version of Trust’s “Antisocial” in this movie.