By Preston Wilder
Clara Bow was the ‘It Girl’ in the late 1920s, but we’re not talking flappers with sex appeal here. Stephen King’s It – from the horror maestro’s bestseller, already turned into a TV mini-series in 1990 – is a clown, name of Pennywise, who preys on the little town of Derry, an unfortunate place where people “die or disappear at six times the national average” (and that’s just the adults; the kids are even worse). More broadly, ‘It’ is an evil force, which – like Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four – figures out a person’s greatest fear and plays on it, fear being what nurtures the evil and keeps it going.
The people in this case are young, a gang of bullied 13-year-olds whose friends are going missing at an alarming rate – and I guess we have Stranger Things to thank for this 80s-set combo of horror and kiddie adventure, the success of that show having stirred fond memories of Stand By Me and The Goonies (both of which It resembles). TV has also taught (or reminded) Hollywood that audiences don’t mind long, talky build-up as long as character is being revealed, and the most welcome aspect of It is the way the kids’ various dramas unfold at an unhurried pace with plenty of small-town-childhood detail – even if it comes at the price of a bloated running-time. This thing is way overlong at 135 minutes and it’s still only ‘Chapter One’, the precise timing of our heroes’ return to Derry as adults depending, presumably, on how well it does at the box-office.
The worst parts of It are the actual scares, Pennywise coming equipped with a set of Alien-like monster teeth – which is disappointing since he’s much scarier when he’s wheedling and trying to ingratiate himself, as he does with little Georgie in the pre-credits sequence. Bill (the excellent Jaeden Lieberher) is Georgie’s older brother, a brave boy with a bad stammer which his loyal friends mostly pretend to ignore – and the best parts of It are the details of boyhood friendship, the so-called “Losers” battling bullies (like the boys in Stand By Me) and staring amazed (like the boys in Super 8) at a girl who seems to be a head taller than most of them, and several levels more sophisticated.
The film is happily unreconstructed (it’s set in 1989), its schoolyard banter including the occasional homophobic or anti-Semitic touch; it may even be irresponsible, playing a rock-throwing war with the bullies as exuberant action (don’t they know someone might get hurt?). Then again, Derry is a grim sort of place, mixing dirty realism – the aforementioned girl, Beverly, has been sexually abused by her father – with pulpy horror conventions like the spooky, cobwebbed old house where the evil hangs out. It is Gothic fairytale but also secretly about puberty, the scariest thing in the life of a young person. Stan, a Jewish boy, is preparing for his bar mitzvah which (he says) will magically turn him into a man. Beverly, scarred by abuse, fights the thought of becoming a woman, cutting her long hair – now you look like a boy, complains her dad – and assailed by visions of the bathroom sink gushing geysers of blood, i.e. menstrual blood.
As long as the clown is playing mind-games, signalled by sinister TV or a floating red balloon, It is clever and easy to identify with. Didn’t we all, as kids, have a painting on a wall of our parents’ house that creeped us out, and didn’t we all avert our eyes upon entering that room so as not to glimpse it? Stan has this problem, while Eddie, another of the gang, has a paranoid fear of germs fostered by his over-protective mother; another friend, Richie, has a fear of clowns, raising the intriguing possibility that Pennywise might be a figment of his imagination. He isn’t – but the clown does play the occasional sick joke, like presenting the kids with three doors marked ‘Not Scary At All’, ‘Scary’ and ‘Very Scary’. Unsurprisingly, they plump for the first door – only to be faced with a hideous corpse hanging suspended with its legs cut off. That’s not funny, clown.
It could’ve used more sick jokes, and indeed more mind-games. Much of the second half, with the no-longer-hidden monster lunging at our heroes in various situations, is disposable. One could also mention that many of the characters – the ‘new kid’ with a crush on Bev, the bully whose dad is himself a bully – are underused, having presumably had more of a life in the novel. Still, this is one of the better Stephen King adaptations, not an offbeat masterpiece like The Shining but solidly crafted and peopled with characters you care about (the kid actors help, and indeed it probably takes a kid to speak a line like “If we stick together, we’ll win!” and make it sound convincing). If you ever wanted proof that a horror film can be both 18-rated and quite endearing, here you go. It’s got It, whatever It is.
DIRECTED BY Andy Muschietti
STARRING Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard
US 2017 135 mins