In terms of literary adaptations, a great many have arisen from the ever-popular library of Stephen King novels and novellas. Stanley Kubrick famously took on The Shining, much to the dismay of its original author. Frank Darabont has taken on not one, nor two, but three adaptations, with The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist. And just this year, Nikolaj Arcel’s clunky edition of King’s famous The Dark Tower series collided onto our screens.
And yet, it had surprised many King fans that there was yet to be a big-screen adaptation of what is arguably his most popular horror novel: It. Now, there was the 90’s television mini-series starring Tim Curry. Yet it was considered by many to be somewhat of a mixed bag, mostly due to budget constraints.
So Warner Bros. and director Andy Muschietti have answered the call, fulfilling this desire of the fans by producing a respectably budgeted, period-set horror that entertains and defies narrative convention in all the right areas.
As with a number of King’s novels, It follows the adolescent adventures of a group of friends during their Summer vacation. However, this is not Wet Hot American Summer. Because the town in which the film is set, Derry, has suffered from an uninterrupted spate of child disappearances, one of which being the younger brother of our lead protagonist, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). So Bill, accompanied by his self-proclaimed clan of ‘Losers’ – Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs) – begins to investigate into and plan to uncover the mystery surrounding these abductions.
However, It doesn’t play like your typical mystery: the culprit is revealed in its opening moments. Who is the deviant behind these kidnappings? The very thing the neutral yet tantalising title refers to, the spectre who is haunting their every move, the supernatural threat that declares itself as, and takes the form of, Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård).
So with this early revelation, It will not amount to a cliché whodunit: instead, it plays as a psychological horror that also acts as an examination of fear and the efforts of the children to overcome these fears.
See, the twist with Pennywise is that rather than outright murder his victims, he torments them based on their greatest fears and phobias. For Bill, this is the loss of his brother and the unbearable weight of finding him again. For Beverly, this is the manifestation of her sexuality, something she has had to repress due to her abusive father, but has now come to prominence as a result of her first period. For Eddie, Pennywise takes the form of a leper, preying on his hypochondria, as forced upon him by his overly anxious mother. And so it goes for the rest of the young characters within the film.
What this makes for is a template on which scenarios and set-pieces can be built in order to test our heroes’ sanity, and challenge our susceptibility of disturbing imagery in the process. However, rather than tackle it heavy-handedly, Muschietti and his screenwriters keep it strictly in line with the characters and their motivations and arcs: what could feel like a plethora of greatest hits from a ‘what-would-make-a-great-scare-board-meeting’ instead ends up registering as a more thoughtful engagement with paranoia, grounded firmly within allegorical imagery that means something much bleaker to the characters involved than a surface view may suggest. Take Beverly’s infamous first encounter with Pennywise for example: what could amount to a grotesque ploy for gross out scares with the flood of blood from the bathroom sink, instead insinuates a closer connection to the fear of sex, right down to Pennywise coaxing in Beverly through the plug hole, an object sharing an aesthetic biology with the uterus.
It is this kind of thoughtful storytelling, a show-rather-than-tell ideology, that is missing in dominant fare. As with Aronofsky’s recent head-trip mother!, It does not function off of preordained ideals of what the audience would like or expect to see. Instead, it actively seeks to negate our preconceived prospects, by creating a psychological nightmare under that topic we all wish to avoid when we enter the cinema lobby: our repressed thoughts and feelings.
This is all brought to brilliant fruition by the talent in front of and behind the screen. Firstly, the film wouldn’t elicit such an introspective reaction without a strong visual and aural aesthetic to cement the images within our consciousness. Therefore, it is a valuable aid to have procured the ever-effervescent cinematography of Chung-hoon Chung, whose work on this year’s The Handmaiden has still left a lasting impression. There is a haunting mobility to his camerawork in It that is so reminiscent of Park Chan-wook’s earlier erotic thriller, as he induces an aura of discomfort by utilising unconventional angles such as the Dutch tilt to upset a static perception of events, as the camera reels into and palpitates with the calamitous horrors that Pennywise performs on the Losers’ Club. Chung’s colour palette is somewhat muted compared to, say, the narratively similar yet more fluorescent Netflix series Stranger Things. Yet this only adds to the tension that exudes from the doomed setting: whereas the creature of Stranger Things exists elsewhere, Pennywise’s terror rests at the foundation of Derry, within its sewer systems, putrefying the town and its residents, much to the detriment of our hopeful heroes. It is impressive work and has strengthened my claim for Chung as the cinematographer of the year.
Moreover, Jason Ballentine’s editing and Paul Hackner’s sound design work in tandem to unsettle our viewing experience, with Pennywise’s cackles and movement amplified to an ethereal level and the rapidity of shot lengths oscillating infectiously between moments of drama and scenes of horror. One particular sequence, involving a projector, brilliantly combines flickering light and the noticeable clunk of the projector slides loading to increase tension, disrupting our senses and emulating a feeling of anxiety that nowhere is safe, not even from a medium such as a projection that lays outside of our own subjective experience, a feeling all too relevant to our position as film spectators.
Finally, there are the character portrayals, a factor that is both open to praise and criticism. Firstly, there is Skarsgård, who, if you’ll pardon the pun, walks a difficult tightrope between horror and comedy that remains balanced for the most part, although leaning towards comedy perhaps a little too often for my liking. The character is inherently abhorrent, yet the film asks us to laugh at his antics at points where it seems inappropriate according to the narrative events. But more often than not, Skarsgård negotiates around these flaws and creates a character worthy of the inevitable explosion of Halloween outfit ideas.
Instead, it is the Losers’ Club and the young actors who inhabit them that really makes an impression. While they all have their moments to shine, Jeremy Ray Taylor is a highlight as Ben, exuding a feeling of innocence that never ceases to brighten a film that is predominantly grave in tone. Moreover, Sophia Ellis produces a performance that rivals Millie Bobbie Brown’s definitive role of Eleven in Stranger Things, for strongest screen debut. Handling some heavy subject matter – the progression into sexual activity, the abusive father – Ellis convinces us of Beverly’s private struggles and public defiance with grace and confidence.
Overall, I will say It is a terrific adaptation and joins mother! as a new release that doesn’t play by the rules of studio filmmaking. Muschietti and co. are never afraid to stray into psychologically demanding territory, and are also careful to micro-manage their characters and the specifics of their circumstances, helped along by a plethora of strong performances. There is a tonal issue that comes to fruition the more Skarsgård plays with elements of dark comedy in his performance, but aside from these blips, it remains a consistently dark, electrifying and engaging thriller that will leave you feeling satisfied, and perhaps even a little contemplative of the severity of your own fears and phobias.