It Brings Back Horror
A Film Review of It (2017)
If there’s one thing American horror films can be counted upon these days it’s adhering to a relatively basic list of prerequisites to get the final product in the can as quickly as possible to move on to the next project. Jamming in tropes, lassoing in one shot performances from never heard from again actors, generating X amount of jump scares and adding a creepy little boy or girl are all things that, on their own, can result in a brand new film tomorrow, just like that. All of this represents the lowest common denominator for horror in the Hollywood machine and as a collective of corporations the words “quick,” “easy” and “cheap” are sweet music to their ears when it comes to profit margins. Granted, not every horror film of this time period feels like it was quick, easy and cheap to make, but many of them do. No one is a fan of assembly line film production and it doesn’t take a seasoned film historian to spot one a mile away.
It is an exceptional addition to the horror genre, but despite its largely positive reception both critically and financially, this film exhibits many of the variables of formulaic filmmaking that are indicative of a dud. Does Andy Muschietti and his experience directing a grand total of 5 films give him some special insight in readapting the formula in a fresh and meaningful way? It’s possible, however what is more likely is that the director, writers and producers made the effort to make this production special regardless of studio interference, limitations on the budget or some other external pressure coming from adapting such a beloved fiction. Still, the conundrum persists.
Yes, it is true that It:
1) Adapts source material in Stephen King’s original novel of the same name featuring the basic concept of a monster that terrifies children.
2) Applies contemporary film production value at the very reasonable cost of $35 million dollars.
3) Uses tropes like angsty teens cussing up a storm, getting into trouble, slut-shaming and bullying each other setting them up as worthy targets of the supernatural.
4) Stars many names you’ve never heard of before, most of whom are children.
1) There is a clear dedication to writing a proper adaptation in this film taking great care to establish intrigue while not sacrificing character development in a manner unafraid to stand apart from its source.
2) Visual effects are expensive if they are a constant presence, but they are not used as a crutch in this film, favoring practical effects to build the tension and danger until key supernatural moments of CG reveal bits of the evil of It through the climax. Of course, the thriftiness of practical effects means nothing if these distract an audience due to poor quality or execution. Thankfully, the quality is maintained throughout.
3) The tropes in It are not used in some half hearted effort to get the audience into the frame of mind required to accept bad things happening to bad people, but rather to make us instantly relate and empathize with most of the main characters in very authentic situations as true victims of circumstance.
4) There’s no way around this no name cast, yet this collective of newcomers demonstrate an undeniable sincerity in their performances as individuals and as a group. Working with kids has historically been a no-no for film production due to labor laws, scheduling and no guarantee of capturing quality work in the limited time they have available. Expecting them to deliver in R-rated scenarios presents an entirely new set of challenges. Despite all of this, these kids overcome with what I presume was a ton of rehearsal, chemistry and care. I can only imagine the amount of pre-production work that went into making this cast as excellent as it is, but it shows.
Horror films do not traditionally deliver a wide variety of action outside of running away from various scary things on screen. This is also the case for It, but there’s also a bit of rudimentary combat in the final act which certainly helps in keeping the pace up.
There are some nice compositions to the cinematography throughout, but as this film plays like a classic dramatic thriller, so to must the cinematography mirror a classic style without too much flare.
Bill Skarsgard delivers a haunting performance as Pennywise who finds a perfect balance between charisma and pure terror that few antagonists of any genre manage to attain. Jaeden Lieberher provides a reliably sympathetic performance as Bill who leads our loveable losers with the heartfelt belief of an innocent child, but also with the fearlessness of a disciplined adult. Sophia Lillis, however, is on a completely different level when it comes to the trials her character, Beverly, is put through in this film. Her demeanor penetrates the screen. The audience feels every ounce of her desperation, disgust, fear, hope and love. This is not the last you’ve heard from Ms. Lillis as her star is certainly on the rise.
Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer (nephew of super producer Brian Grazer), Wyatt Oleff round out the rest of the losers adequately and they are each given a moment or two of their own to have their characters shine. Nicholas Hamilton produces the best performance of an over-the-top, white trash bully you’ve seen from an Australian, ever. Stephen Bogaert is chilling in his limited screen time as the predatory Mr. Marsh.
This may have been an area of savings for this production as the original scoring for this film isn’t nearly as iconic as some of the greatest horror films ever, but at least it isn’t distracting.
Supernatural sound effects do a decent job, but like the music, do not translate to transformative experiences.
“Moving” = 21/33
Not exactly the cutting edge of visual effects, but once again, I bring your attention to the $35 million dollar budget. The CG is inconsistent at best, but certainly shines in moments of subtlety rather than big, shock scares.
Better horror films have always had strong roots in practical effects and it is amazing how far a little blood, a little lighting and some set design can go when it comes to suspending an audience’s disbelief.
I like Pennywise’s costume design, but that alone does not elevate the overall design for the cast as anything beyond ordinary.
Hair & Makeup
Not quite as excellent as the special effects but they certainly go hand in hand. Simple concepts are at work here, yet they are effective, with perhaps the exception of the leper which seems more like Walking Dead zombie than anything else.
Excellent choice of a small town to shoot in as well as accompanying exteriors depicting the outskirts such as the quarry and the sewers. This production’s location scouts deserve bonuses.
Interiors are fairly basic with the exception of Pennywise’s creepy house which features all kinds of scary toys worthy of the best haunted houses.
“Picture” = 21/33
A scary fear monster kidnaps kids in a small town where no one seems to care that their kids have gone missing except some of the kids themselves.
The growing pains of coming of age, the traumas of small town mentalities, conforming to authority, finding your own path, the loss of innocence in children, oh and fighting a supernatural evil that wants to eat you. Lots of great internal and external conflict is in this film.
The cost of overcoming overwhelming odds is felt by all of our protagonists, but the more rewarding victories they experience are the ones they overcome in their normal lives some of which are as dangerous as a monster that hunts them.
Appropriately stylized for the 80s period which does a fine job getting the audience attuned to the camaraderie of the kids. Thankfully, Bill’s dialogue has a tendency of grounding the conversations to prevent them from devolving into a series of mother and penis jokes.
Entirely communicated via dialogue which is effective at giving the audience just enough information to understand the immediate conflict, but precious little in delving into the origin of the creature and the true reasons children of this area are being terrorized.
Pennywise certainly qualifies as standing apart from other movie monsters, villains and antagonists, but what’s even more interesting is the role of Beverly amidst the current climate regarding strong, female protagonists, or roles in general. Her journey is easily the most difficult and dangerous, but factoring her age in relation to the danger she faces and how she pushes through it may not pack the punch of Wonder Woman, but is no less heroic and impressive.
Another key strength to the story is the audience’s ability to empathize with all of the protagonists. Coming of age stories naturally lend themselves to this kind of investment, but throwing in the curveball of the supernatural can lead scripts to sell out completely to the spooky aspects. Luckily for us, It maintains discipline in keeping our protagonists’ perspective as the focal points intact.
“Story” = 27/34
Overall MPS Rating: 69/100
The quality of It as a film not only demonstrates an enveloping story but also reflects a series of good choices by writers Chase Palmer and Cary Fukunaga to keep only what is needed while jettisoning the rest to allow this project to stand on its own. What’s also great about It is that it is a very accessible horror film that it doesn’t gross out the squeamish, doesn’t depend on jump scares to crush the twitchy and doesn’t intensify the suspense to a jarring level of unease. However, this does not mean this film has no teeth. On the contrary, the shear proximity of Pennywise to the children from the get-go sets the danger high. What keeps it there is the realization that these children (and perhaps all children to a degree) face real life danger much more than western society is willing to admit and even the sheltering of small communities are not immune to this fact. This fear, reflected by the natural and supernatural conflicts of this tale is perhaps the scariest thing of all and it is through belief in each other and ourselves that we can conquer this fear.