It, the new big-budget adaptation of the first half of Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel, might have worked better as a silent film. The movie is visually striking but lacks a single well-developed character; the human subjects are defined by one trait a piece, and they have little to say that couldn’t be conveyed by simple title cards. Director Andy Muschietti has a strong sense of blocking—his arrangement of people vis-à-vis the spaces they inhabit is always dynamic and pleasurable to look at. Yet he’s clueless with regards to directing dialogue, eliciting uncertain performances that are reminiscent of the one-dimensional acting in TV commercials. In fact It sometimes feels like a commercial for itself, with refined, postcard-style imagery that hints at deeper meaning than the movie delivers.
It takes place in a small town in Maine where children go missing at an alarming rate. Set in the late 1980s, the story concerns a group of young adolescents who investigate the mystery and discover that the town is being terrorized by a supernatural presence that feeds on the fear of children. It’s essentially an R-rated Disney movie, telling a reassuring coming-of-age tale with lots of gruesome shocks thrown in to make the loss of innocence seem particularly scary. Essential to the reassuring vibe is that the young protagonists are all familiar archetypes: there’s the loudmouth, the worrywart, the sensitive fat kid, the tomboy, and the shy boy who assumes the role of group leader. There are also a couple of token minorities, an African-American and a Jew, and neither is developed beyond his status as a social outsider in a primarily WASP community. In addition to investigating the paranormal mystery, the group takes revenge on a gang of bullies, goes diving off a dangerous ledge, and experiences first feelings of romantic desire. It all adds up to an idealized vision of early adolescence about overcoming childhood fears.
The film is most effective when it suggests that those fears are outside of human experience—these intimations enable It to momentarily transcend its Disney-style uplift and tap into ageless phobias of the unknown. There’s a nicely realized set piece early on when the fat kid researches the town’s history at a local library and discovers patterns of tragedies and disappearances that have occurred during the past century. The dive into history reveals a timeless, untraceable evil that perhaps has been with us always. Moments like this occur throughout King’s fiction, and they’re clever variations on the familiar nightmare in which you try to escape from whatever’s chasing you only to find it in the place where you choose to hide. In this passage of It, the library becomes an unlikely source of terror, as the town history comes to seem as frightening as what the character’s experiencing in the present. (The filmmakers overplay the scare, however, with a series of obvious shock cuts to gruesome pictures in the book the boy is studying.)
As for the 80s-set terror, its effectiveness depends on how you feel about clowns. The supernatural evil of It often takes the form of Pennywise, a circus clown with a tall forehead and a malicious grin. He lures children to their doom with the promise of balloons or other treats, then scares the bejesus out of them before stealing them away to god knows where. I’ve never feared clowns myself, so Pennywise didn’t make much of an impression on me except for in a later scene when he pulls back his jaw to reveal several rows of fangs that make him resemble the creatures from the Alien movies. This detail showcases the filmmakers’ inventiveness in production design and makeup, which goes a long way in making It an entertaining experience.
That inventiveness extends to the design of the well house where the kids discover the locus of the town’s nightmare. Full of cobwebs, dark hallways, and a bottomless pit, the well house takes its place in a long tradition of haunted buildings in horror movies. Peter Grundy’s art direction is a standout here—the lurid details are so nicely arranged that the building is almost too good-looking to be truly scary. Yet the cinematography, by Chan-wook Park’s regular cameraman Chung-hoon Chung, plays well with shadows and creates a strong mood. Chung’s work (as in his films for Park) suggests menace even when it isn’t immediately present, and the visual presentation offsets the overstated nostalgia of the period re-creations. That mix of nostalgia and horror, a staple of King’s fiction, aims to provide feelings of reassurance amid the scares. This might explain why the novel was so popular and why Muschietti’s It seems destined to be a favorite of young audiences.