Written by Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman
Directed by Andy Muschietti
It’s 1988 in Derry, Maine and Bill Denbrough is mourning his brother Georgie who vanished one rainy Saturday afternoon. His group of friends begins to have similar experiences all revolving around a menacing clown called Pennywise. He seems connected to Derry’s history of disappearances, far beyond that of any other town in America. As the Losers, their club’s nickname, investigate further they are led into the very bowels of Derry where the evil waits, eating up their fear and the children of the town.
I come to this adaptation having never read the Stephen King novel nor having ever watched the 1990 television mini-series in its entirety. From what I have seen and heard about that 27-year-old film is that it just doesn’t hold up, particularly the second adult-focused half. Thankfully, the producers behind this current iteration of It decided to focus their first film on just the kids. Updated from the 1950s to late 1980s, the story doesn’t seem to lose much in the time change. From a marketing standpoint, it hits that Stranger Things, 80s nostalgia that seems to be popular at the moment.
The original director was going to be Cary Fukunaga, who directed True Detective Season 1, and was the primary reason this film first crossed my radar. Sadly, Fukunaga dropped out due to the studio’s push for a standard jumpscare oriented horror film. In an interview with Variety, Fukunaga said about his ideas for It:
“I was trying to make an unconventional horror film. It didn’t fit into the algorithm of what they knew they could spend and make money back on based on not offending their standard genre audience […] In the first movie, what I was trying to do was an elevated horror film with actual characters. They didn’t want any characters. They wanted archetypes and scares. I wrote the script. They wanted me to make a much more inoffensive, conventional script. But I don’t think you can do proper Stephen King and make it inoffensive.”
I still held some interest in the film after seeing the trailer. The aesthetics seemed strong thanks in part to the cinematography of Chung-hoon Chung, the same artist behind the visuals in much of Chan Wook Park’s films (Oldboy, Stoker, The Handmaiden). There is a light touch of sepia throughout the scenes that evokes that sense of nostalgia. The color is muted, emphasizing the browns and earth tones which places the film in the past. It would be hard to argue that It is a visually sloppy film.
The flaws of this movie are found in the script, written by Gary Dauberman. Dauberman is responsible for the Annabelle films where he has definitely honed his ability to fill a movie to the brim with jump scares. Some definitions should be made clear here, a jumpscare is not actually horror. A jump scare is a surprise that immediately vanishes. Horror is a building of dread, amping up the tension, and then making the audience sit with the things they want to go away. There is rarely a moment of that in It which is sad because childhood fear is rife with potential to be creeping and tension filled.
Instead, we get a series of scenes where a character is by themselves, and every aspect of the film is screaming “This is a scary scene.” When the scare occurs, we have always met a loud sting of music. But nothing from these moments has the staying power to linger in our heads. Only one moment stood out to me as unsettling. Ben Hanscom sits in the library, researching Derry. Behind him, just slightly out of focus but visible is a librarian who turns and looks in his direction. Cut back to the newspaper clipping he’s reading, then back to Ben. The librarian is now grinning, but still out of focus, so details are unclear. The scene is capped by the discovery of a boy’s severed head in a tree in one of the old photos…but the director still chooses to add the blaring jumpscare musical cue.
It is slickly made, and when the film focuses on building the relationships of the kids, it is wonderful. As a result, it begins to feel like this horror movie is intruding on an excellent coming of age story about a group of kids. I wish Fukunaga had been allowed to stay on because I feel he would have produced a film that created horror that really lingered and dug in deep with the audience. It is a successful film, but it won’t be a work of horror that stays with you long.