This did not turn out anything like I thought it would, and I came at this movie with two entirely different ways of thinking. One side of me retained the cynicism I had developed from the trailers, none of which managed to convince me this was going to be anything other than a standard haunted house extravaganza lacking in any real substance or coherency. Another side was coming from a place of optimism, having heard that reviews were actually calling this one a masterful Stephen King adaptation as well as a great horror movie in it’s own right. It’s never ideal to come into a movie with any preconceived notion of quality, but in this case what I saw conformed to neither. It is a movie of highs and lows competently thrown together in a manner that works, fleetingly.
I see this film as itself, not as a remake or an adaptation of a novel. I also don’t really have any attachment to Stephen King as an author, so I am viewing this purely as an effective horror experience. In many ways It is more than that, but it also feels shackled by striving for that jump scare mass appeal that makes for a fun popcorn flick. Pennywise the Clown is the chosen monster here, a being that is much more terrifying than it may initially appear on paper. Bill Skarsgård — as the clown — seems to balance horror and comedy with surprising grace, he does not play it safe. I feel the character is not going to be received positively across the board, but I was pleasantly surprised to find he did it for me. Actually, I’d say he was a superbly shocking and disturbing presence in general, one where the mere sight of him induces anxiety. I shan’t give anything away, but the way Skarsgård’s performance and modern CGI blend to create this creature was excellent, and this is speaking as someone who can be found mourning the dying art of practical effects on a semi-regular basis.
Andy Muschietti, who previously directed the creepy yet somewhat disappointing Mama, seems to know he struck gold with Pennywise. We then see the natural progression from there, which is to hammer down the main characters of the story, of which we have an ensemble cast. Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Olef and Chosen Jacobs all make up the rag tag group of foul mouthed kids that are working to solve the mystery of the disappearances occurring around Derry, Maine. Bill (Jaeden) is searching for his brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) and serves as the main spur for the group to face their fears and solve this mystery. Each of the child actors here give convincing performances and they do swiftly have well established chemistry. They all felt like their own characters, with their own individual issues, even though the film could only touch on some of these issues lightly. Extra emphasis is given to the relationship between Beverly (Sophia) and her Father (Stephen Bogaert) which I think was the right decision.
Overall Muschietti does create in this film a town that feels real and kids that feel somewhat authentic. I’m something of a fan of the realism that can come from children swearing amongst each other in movies. It’s part of what makes films like E.T. remain fondly in our memories to this day. These kids seem to be going a little far though and it doesn’t offend me but it just doesn’t exactly feel natural. Also Richie (Finn) spent most of the movie just sort of annoying me with his loud mouth, but I suppose on some level it is part of the character.
Unfortunately the first act of the film is far too long, and just features Pennywise scaring each of these kids individually until they finally all sit and talk about what they are going to do about it. Whilst the design of Pennywise is creative, and I enjoyed seeing him, there is something to be said for reeling him in a bit. By the half way point we have seen Pennywise countless times and whilst it is impressive that he is still unsettling until the conclusion, I can’t help but feel he becomes somewhat stale in the middle section of the film. Also despite characters defying logic to wander off alone is a common horror trope, I have never noticed it as much as I did here. I felt like I was going to blow a gasket if I had to watch one more character run away from the group. This happens even after they verbally confirm with one another that being alone is what gets them killed, maddening.
The bottom line is that the movie is scary, in a creepy sort of way. It establishes early on that it isn’t going to pull any punches just because the main cast are children. I felt a true sense of danger throughout which is important in creating a good horror film. The jump scares weren’t as obvious as in some movies though I can’t say they were exactly hard to spot either. I had fun while the movie was getting me on a pure popcorn basis. The attempt to juggle multiple story lines is what holds this one back. Muschietti has done it considerably better than many could, but it still prevents an efficient scare fest from being just that.
There is so much potential here, and because of that I look forward to the next installment which is no doubt coming. This is an improvement on Mama but it is so tonally messy that the great beats are dragged way down by the general messiness of it all. It’s a shame, but it stays afloat.