In my experience, a movie’s first impression can often be a little hyperbolic. Good movies sometimes seem a LOT better than they actually are on first view, while bad films can sometimes seem much worse than they truly are. I think you have to see a movie at least twice to get a genuine appraisal of it, but that doesn’t mean the passion that a film inspires on its first watch is without merit. So with this in mind, enjoy the following review of IT (2017), which I have written immediately after seeing said film for the first time – just take it with a grain of salt, for first impressions can be liars.
IT (2017) is extremely good. If you’re just looking for an evaluative review, there ya go. I saw the movie in a packed theater and the sense of dread and tension was palpable. The crowd was talkative in a way that would usually be annoying, except, well, I think we – as in “everyone in the theater” we – kinda needed it. Not in a “this movie is bad that we’ve turned on it way,” but in a “I need to be reminded that the outside world exists to keep from having a heart attack” way. It’s a credit to the film’s power that it still held our attention – even on the occasions when I talked to my sister, my eyes were glued to the scene. We were kept in the movie even when we tried to escape. It was enthralling – a “you can’t look away no matter how much part of you wants to” horror movie. We don’t get many horror movies like that anymore, especially from ones with this much budget and advertising. The only recent movies I can recall that scared me like this – films like The Babadook and The VVitch – had runs that lasted all of one week in my town with maybe five showings a day. IT, by contrast, has over a dozen per, including some in the special theater with vibrating seats. That feels notable to me – having a good horror movie be treated this well feels very notable.
Ok, now that we’ve got the “Is it good?” question settled, I want to focus on the aspects of this movie that made me feel the need to write about it immediately: its portrayal of the titular monster, and its use of sympathetic protagonists, both of which feel like innovations in the modern horror landscape. In an age where most “monsters” in horror films are gray human beings in dirty clothes, and most “heroes” in horror films are forgettable, unlikable, personality-deprived, 1-dimensional cardboard cutouts who exist to be killed and nothing more, IT feels downright revolutionary. Of course, the great irony of that is that IT (2017) is also a fairly faithful adaptation of a Stephen King novel that was written in the 1980’s. What feels so fresh about IT is actually something that has been lying in an old, abandoned crypt, waiting for the day it can rise from the grave to terrify the living once more.
Let’s talk about the monsters. Stephen King’s novel spun out of a simple concept: what if there was a monster that could turn into ALL other monsters. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, Rodan, you name the fictional monstrosity and It could become them. The idea was rooted in the nostalgic monster mania of the 1980’s, right down the name of the creature – after all, so many of the 1950’s/60’s creature features that people like Stephen King loved had titles like It Conquered the World and It Came from Beneath the Sea. Wouldn’t an ur monster – a monster that could become any and EVERY other monster – be well suited to claiming “It” as a title?
The titular monster needed an identity of its own as well, which is why Stephen King crafted Pennywise. In the novel, Pennywise is essentially It’s lure, an orchid-mantis-like disguise that allows the beast to get close to its prey without alerting them to the danger until escape is impossible. Pennywise isn’t meant to be innately horrifying, though that doesn’t mean the clown isn’t still creepy. After all, an Orchid Mantis is still a mantis, not a flower, and while Pennywise may look comparatively nonthreatening, It is still just a nonhuman predator pretending to be human. No disguise is 100% perfect.
However, in the decades since It was published, culture has changed. Monsters in horror films are an endangered species, and audiences are trained to find the likes of Dracula and the Wolf Man to be more humorous than scary. Monsters have (for the most part) devolved from something to be feared into something that’s really cool for heroes to kill, being more suited to Sci-Fi or Fantasy action films than horror movies. An It that would turn into the classic monsters wouldn’t have the same cultural power that It had in the 80’s. To a world that’s had roughly two decades of monsters being replaced by gray people in dirty clothes, Dracula is less scary and, well, unfortunately out of place.
A lesser adaptation would probably eschew the monstrous entirely, then, reducing It to little more than just a killer clown. IT (2017) does not settle for such a cowardly move, however. Instead, IT plays around with the tools it was given. Ironically, pop culture has built Pennywise into a horror icon on par with the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein, and as such IT often uses the clown in a similar manner. It uses different methods to lure its prey in for the most part, often tempting them with objects or a better mundane disguise. Like a magician, It will redirect its prey’s attention to trick them into going to where It wants them to go, then turn into Pennywise to finish them off. The switch isn’t unanimous, though, and there are some scenes where Pennywise Itself also functions as a lure like It did in the original novel.
Still, more often than not the appearance of Pennywise is a sign that It has sprung its trap, and the clown often distorts into increasingly monstrous forms. The clown rarely stays just a clown for long, contorting inhumanly as its transforms before your eyes into things that are definitely not human or, for that matter, even remotely natural. The utterly alien monstrousness of Pennywise in this movie can’t be overstated, and a huge factor of the dread this form inspires is the fact that you’re never sure how it will distort next. While you know you’ll see some freaky shit whenever the clown comes into frame, what that freakish shit will be remains an unknown. Will Its arm lengthen impossibly to grab a victim, or burst into a scaly talon? Will Its eyes bulge and turn red, or will Its face tear open to reveal a long fleshy tunnel filled with lamprey teeth? Though Pennywise starts as the same clown each time, what Pennywise ends up being is always different and always deeply unsettling.
It is still a shapeshifter in this film, and Pennywise isn’t Its only form. While It doesn’t transform into movie monsters like Its literary counterpart, It still preys upon the fears of the kids It stalks. Some of those fears are mundane child fears: for one kid, It becomes a woman from a creepy abstract painting in his dad’s study. For another, It becomes a diseased leper, preying on the kid’s hypochondriac anxieties. Some of the kids have significantly more rational fears, though, whether it be the grisly death of their parents, the guilt they feel for losing a sibling, or in one particularly disturbing case, a child’s own abusive parent. Each of these forms is undeniably monstrous, being far too exaggerated and grotesque in form to be natural – as the heroes note, Its forms are like living nightmares.
As wonderful, horrifying, and brutally effective as the monster in IT is, what really makes the movie work is its human cast. The Losers Club, a collection of adolescents played by some downright miraculously good child actors, is the heart of this movie. Each kid has a different personality, different motivations, and different backgrounds, and the story is as much about them coming together and becoming friends as it is about a town being menaced by a shapeshifting clown monster. I became heavily invested in the mundane dramas of the lives even as a murderous monster started stalking them, and wanted to see them overcome the obstacles in their paths. Or, to put it simply, they were actually characters.
I’ve mentioned already how terrified I was during this movie. Well, it should be noted that I went in knowing who would live, who would die, and how things would basically play out. The suspense should have been undercut by that. It definitely would be in most modern horror movies – once you know the ending, there isn’t a lot to a Paranormal Activity film beyond the fun movie magic tricks. Yet despite knowing whether or not the kids would be ok, I was terrified for them every minute of the film. When scary shit happened, I was scared – not because I didn’t see it coming, but because I didn’t want want what was coming to happen to these characters.
Sympathetic protagonists – i.e. main characters who you want to live not just out of basic human decency, but because you genuinely like and care about them like would for real people – have become as rare in horror movies as, well, monstrous-looking monsters. IT has very few on screen deaths. It likewise has very few jump scares. What it does have, though, is a cast you want to see live, and a cast that you want to be happy and healthy and safe. As a result, IT is scary even when you know what will happen, because knowing how the characters will end up doesn’t change the fact that you don’t want them to suffer through the horrible shit being thrown at them. This sounds like an obvious point to make, but god, why do so few modern horror films do this? Why has Horror forgotten that characters should be likable?
As an adaptation, IT (2017) is faithful to the spirit of its source material, while making necessary changes to the story so it can fit both the medium of film and the wildly different storytelling trends of this modern decade. As a modern horror film, IT resurrects story-telling tropes and techniques that have been dormant in the genre for far too long. IT has monstrous, inhuman, and creative monsters, which it pits against a sympathetic and well developed cast of heroic human characters. We could use more monsters like It, and we could use more heroes like the Losers Club. If we’re lucky, IT will set a trend.