In the town of Derry, Maine, 1988, a series of children go missing. After his brother vanishes, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and a group of kids known as the ‘Losers Club’ try to investigate the murders, eventually coming face to face with the demonic clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).
IT is not a horror movie.
Well, I suppose it is, technically. At first glance, IT has all the ingredients of a horror movie: a scary monster (in this case Bill Skarsgård’s evil clown Pennywise, in a performance so delightfully disturbing it will probably put any remaining clowns out of a job), a bunch of kids, and a tight, claustrophobic location for said scary monster to chase said kids (the sewers, this time). But it still is not one.
What it is is a coming-of-age classic masquerading as a horror flick.
Unfortunately, this is only partly by intention. As a horror movie, IT is never more than okay. Sure, Skarsgard’s Pennywise is terrifying early on, combining practical efforts with CGI and clever editing to great effect, but his impact diminishes over the course of the film, as he individually haunts each member of the young cast. His introduction in the opening sequence (a rough recreation of that of the 1990 miniseries) is easily the film’s scariest moment, but he appears so often that, by the end of the movie, the sense of terror is lost. Sometimes a horror villain can be scarier in their absence.
IT is a coming-of-age classic masquerading as a horror flick
Of the ‘haunting’ vignettes, in which Pennywise torments each of the kids with their worst fears, some work better than others. At times, the imagery of a red balloon is terrifyingly effective, and one or two are imaginatively creepy and gruesome, with slightly disturbing amounts of child violence (this one definitely earns that 15 rating). Too often, however, they rely on tired horror tropes, and even when Pennywise shows up, there are a disappointing number of jump scares mixed in with some imaginative set pieces. Skarsgård’s performance means that there are still some terrifying moments, but don’t go in expecting a screamfest.
Thankfully, Pennywise is not the only monster lurking in the town of Derry. The film doesn’t shy away from the idea that, in many cases, the true monsters are the adults, and pretty much everyone in Derry older than 15 comes across as controlling, capricious or just plain cruel. IT is actually impressively mature in its handling of difficult and serious themes, such as abuse, bullying and puberty (the last one in particular is addressed with some gloriously unsubtle imagery), and it helps that the child actors who do most of the dramatic lifting all deliver astonishingly un-child actor-like performances.
It stresses its 80s setting so strongly that at times, it can feel like weaponised nostalgia
And let’s talk about those kids, because they’re the ones who elevate IT from a decent horror movie to a fantastic coming-of-age story. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Stan (Wyatt Olef) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs) are a bunch of dorks and nobodies who come together and form the ‘Losers Club’, ultimately teaming up to investigate the rising number of missing kids and stave off the evil that the adults of their town seem content to ignore. As protagonists, they are wonderfully engaging, with real chemistry and personality – props to the screenwriters for writing dialogue that actually sounds like something a kid would say, swear words and all. And they’re funny! I did not expect to do much laughing in IT, but the film is as funny and heart-warming as it is scary, maybe even more so. There’s even a bit of romance, for those so inclined. IT is really about the process of growing up, and how overcoming your fears and doubts is a massive part of this, and the members of the Losers Club provide this journey with an emotional core that’s far more compelling than any scary clown.
Yes, the film does owe quite a debt to Spielberg and, like the more recent Stranger Things, with which it shares a cast member (Finn Wolfhard), it stresses its 80s setting so strongly that at times, it can feel like weaponised nostalgia. But, like the best of Spielberg, it comes across as life affirming rather than purely commercial – impressive, considering that it’s both an adaption of the Steven King book and a partial remake of the popular 90s miniseries. Perhaps its greatest achievement, however, in a world where literally everything is getting a sequel or a remake, is that it actually makes me want to see Chapter 2.