(Dir: Andy Muschietti, 2017)
It's been twenty seven years since the last filmed version of IT – a curious coincidence or something planned? Regardless, it is surprising that we haven't seen an adaptation in the years since the 1990 mini-series made famous by Tim Curry's iconic portrayal of Pennywise the Clown. That is hardly regarded as the unimpeachable, definitive visual representation of Stephen King's classic novel, so it's pleasing to see another take hit cinemas and transport us back to Derry.
Anyone who has read the novel will know that one of it's greatest strengths comes from the deep vein of characterisation that runs throughout, as we spend the summer with these boys and Beverley, seeing their bonds grow and strain, feeling their joy of a summer of freedom, and truly understanding their fears as they slowly manifest before their eyes. This allows for a sense of mounting terror to build from beneath, slowly gripping you in its icy cold claws, before scuttling away to lurk unseen, ever-waiting. Attempting to balance all of this in a two hour film is a difficult task, especially when the core cast consists of seven characters, so inevitably this is where this new version of IT stumbles.
The kids are all well cast and give good performances, having the right chemistry and a decent script that leads to genuine humour. Their distrust of adults effectively comes across, whilst the scenes where they're all together en masse and not in peril are far and away the best, but there's not enough of this meaning they all feel too thinly sketched out. Bill, Beverley and Ben (Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor) inevitably get the most development, but it still feels like we're barely scratching the surface. Finite screen-time aside, the key reason this is so is the film's insistence on pushing the horror right to the front and centre. Unfortunately the film takes the rarely successful modern horror approach of throwing as much as possible at you as frequently as it can. Thus it feels like we're quickly jumping from one supposedly scary scene to the next, with just a few moments of respite and regrouping in between. For this story to work we need to understand each of the character's fears, rather than having them quickly blurted out, so this overloaded approach means they mostly lack much power.
The key asset of IT is Pennywise the Clown. The book and 1990 mini-series certainly did for coulrophobia what Jaws did for galeophobia, but this iteration of the character, portrayed by Bill Skarsgård, lacks the requisite impact and is in fact very rarely actually scary. His face is just a little too benign and he struggles to imbue his voice with enough suggestive layers of menace, but the biggest issue is that he's on-screen just too damn much. This is clearly the "the audience wants a killer clown so let's give them a killer clown!" approach. The opening scene is, on the whole, really well done, but it's fatal flaw is giving us the clown in all his glory almost immediately. Imagine instead if we the audience saw nothing more than malevolent eyes burning in the darkness, and glinting teeth revealed by a cruel purse of the lips. Then imagine for the next hour we get just slivers of him insidiously lurking, seemingly ready to pounce, alongside shards of acerbic dialogue, all allowing the fear to slowly build. That would have surely led to something far more impactful than continually throwing a smorgasbord of bland, CGI-heavy, horrific imagery at the audience with diminishing returns.
This new version of IT feels difficult to reconcile. In every aspect other than the horror side it is very good and extremely well put together, with excellent production design and cinematography, casting and acting. But the continual barrage of supposedly scary scenes quickly numb you so the few that are effective, such as the projector scene, have far less impact. Whilst Pennywise and how he's thrust in your face is the other critical weakness. As a coming-of-age film in the vein of King's own Stand By Me it works. As a horror film it finds itself rather lacking and thus disappointing. Like the criticisms recently laid at The Dark Tower, to make the best of the lengthy source material any adaptation really needs time to breathe, meaning the film route was probably not the answer. Imagine IT as a ten episode series, taking the time to envelop you, develop all of the character's properly and allow the tension to slowly percolate by not being constantly bombarding you. Or, like so many films before, perhaps it just works best if you've not read the book?