Muschietti’s “It” Presents Fresh Take on Classic Horror Style
Issue   |   Wed, 09/27/2017 - 00:06
In theater’s latest Stephen King adaptation, “It” transcends typical horror movie tropes and presents genuine adolescent characters with relateable fears.

Just last month, an adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” came into theatres to no one’s acclaim and Idris Elba’s immediate regret. In true Stephen King fashion, the story follows a middle-class, white, American boy’s journey into the netherworld and adulthood, climaxing in a fantastical battle with Matthew McConaughey where childlike wonder and innocence triumphs adult cynicism. What disappointed was not the destination but the halting, screeching stops and turns it made along the way.

Now, a month later, another Stephen King adaptation graces the screen with an almost identical plot of an adolescent journey where innocence bests adults’ skepticism. But “It,” despite making several mistakes that reveal the age of its source material, proves to be a ready improvement upon this trope, particularly with the way it melds its particular horror with the universal King-narrative of children poised on the verge of dangerous change.

I found the films’ similarities a bit surprising, too, since “It,” directed by Andy Muchietti, concerns itself with not one but seven children and their terrifying encounter with adolescence. The film follows the truncated first half of Stephen King’s tome, in which children disappear in quick succession from a small town in Maine. No mystery surrounds the perpetrator: Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who Bill Skarsgard charismatically plays. His face on the poster and in the prologue all but assures us that he is responsible for these disappearances, and that these disappearances are, in fact, grisly killings. One protagonist loses his brother to these incidents, and soon, the history of violence haunting their town causes the entire group to confront its demons, within and without.

Even so, most of the film’s runtime follows these children, their speech impediments, their domestic abuse, their germaphobia and their jokes about “your mom.” The directors took a bizarre and brave risk that pays tremendous dramatic dividends by the climax of the movie. The decision adds a thematic depth to what could have been just another rote “Conjuring” clone by examining the terror beyond the terrorizer.

As gripping as the scenes with Pennywise are, the clown does not quite disturb. It is ultimately terror directed towards the audience rather than any actors of the drama. “It” makes the cleverer choice to, at times, obscure its iconic clown altogether to deliver some of its most visceral frights. Bullies, overprotective mothers, lecherous stepfathers and headless children all fill this void. Instead of feeling incoherent and thinly spread, these disparate images congeal into a sense of abomination stalking the most vulnerable members of the town, a sense that precise language cannot capture a sense of “it.”

Then, empathizing with the primary observers of “it” and its many manifestations becomes several times easier for the audience. Just like in “Dark Tower,” these children sit on the brink of growing up. In one giggle-worthy scene, one boy scratches out the word “LOSER” on his cast and writes a mighty red “V” in the place of S. It is a quiet detail, but it is unmissable, just like this movie’s concern with the emotional and sexual dimensions of growing up. Confronting the monster is not just a merry adventure. It is a trial by which these squires become knights and these boys become men. All of these small details, like that red “V” on the cast, mount to the unavoidable realization that the imminent terror that they must face and overcome function as the terror of facing and overcoming the changes in their minds and bodies.

Unfortunately, this attention to the minutest detail falters and fizzles when it comes to the actual, visible horror of the film. As much as the script deviates from the tried, true and tired beats of “Conjuring” or “Annabelle,” the actual scenes are all too proud to flaunt their degrees from the James Wan School of Scares. Each scare is fitted to reveal something about the particular kid, yes, but each scare rushes armed with blaring noise to conjure the cheapest jumps from an unsuspecting audience. In the context of the rest of the film, these scenes waste their able actors and mark uncreative detours from what has proven to be an unique path through and away from the surrounding dreck of the genre.

Even more lamentable is the fact that the absolute climax of the movie stretches itself as one of these digressions. Aside from a poignant and heartfelt goodbye that severely and seriously concludes the character arc of the group’s leader, the final minutes of “It” swell and swing with the worst tropes in the business, including a tasteless callback to “Sleeping Beauty” that only reminds the 21st century viewer that the original book was written in the 1980’s and that girls have no place playing the hero.

It is a hurtful flaw, to be sure. But unlike “Dark Tower,” “It” has an assured sequel in the works recounting the second, more significant story of the novel that would locate this movie and all its aged faults in the appropriate past to tell the story of these immature kids, grown up and still frightened. It is still a book with problems, to be sure, but it gives hope, especially considering the considerable strengths of this film. One can only hope there are no more sidetracks on this road, and that the story grows up with its characters.