With a more ceremonious unveiling than the other Hollywood adaptation of a Stephen King property this year, It is slickly calibrated to please its spook-hungry audience. Functioning more as a roller coaster ride of frights and humor than a dread-inducing exercise in terror, Andy Muschietti’s Mama follow-up doesn’t have the inspired vision or thematic complexity to join Brian De Palma and Stanley Kubrick in the pantheon of the (very few) masterful cinematic retellings of the celebrated author. However, for a Halloween precursor, there is a respectable amount of carnivalesque mischief to be found in this cinematic equivalent of a deranged jack-in-the-box.
The updated setting of 1989 and involvement of a Stranger Things lead (Finn Wolfhard) might cause some to worry It gets consumed by nostalgic reverence. Yet aside from a marquee parading the likes of Batman, Lethal Weapon 2, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, and some heavy cassette tape usage, It stays focused on the horror at hand and, more effectively, the bond between “The Losers’ Club.” This group of outcasts in the small town of Derry, Maine spend their summer tormented by ruthless bullies who are only outdone in their cruelty by these kids’ own parents, whose mistreatment includes verbal, physical, and implied sexual abuse.
This unshakable psychological damage mixed with natural fears of clowns, spiders, etc. makes the ideal fodder for It/Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) to prey upon. This shape-shifting, contorting being has been haunting the town for decades — or, more precisely, every 27 years — as it awakens to create living nightmares for this group of kids, and ones only to be seen by them. The thematic throughline of banding together in friendship to overcome past trauma is the film’s most cogent aspect and Muschetti, working off of a script by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, and formerly-attached director Cary Fukunaga, nails this camaraderie made up of juvenile ribbing and youthful adventure, which works better than the film’s more explicit horror aspects.
The town’s kids and teenagers start to mysteriously disappear at a rapid rate, including Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), who is sent out into the rain alone by his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), then brutally murdered in an opening sequence that immediately earns the film’s R-rating. In an attempt to solve this enigma, Bill recruits Richie (a stand-out Wolfhard), who doesn’t miss a beat to crack wise about the one thing on every young teen’s mind: sex; Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), whose overbearing mother restricts his freedom; and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), who is haunted by a macabre painting-come-to-life as his disappointed rabbi father doesn’t think he’s ready for his bar mitzvah.
New additions to the group throughout the course of the story include the loner Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who shares a secret fondness for New Kids on the Block and whose isolation leads to an unpacking of the dark history of the town; Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a fetching girl who alerts the attention of the boys, but she carries deep trauma due to abuse by both her father and seemingly the rest of the population of the school; lastly, Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is an orphan whose parents met a tragic demise in a fire and he struggles to conform to the barbarity of his family’s meat-packing business. As the group burrows further down the town’s irrigation system that contains their worst fears, Muschietti’s touch is a surprisingly playful one, not succumbing solely to depravity in the film’s darkest corners, but conveying this experience from the mindset of the preteens that are experiencing it.
This includes no shortage of jarring, but welcome music cues, leading into montages of a rock war between the kids and their bullies, led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton); a clean-up of a blood-soaked bathroom; and, in a brief aside, a dream-like dose of New Kids on the Block. It’s these more peculiar avenues traveled down that give It a personality missing from much of today’s studio output of single-tone, dull horror. Muschietti also owes a great debt to Chung-hoon Chung, Park Chan-wook’s go-to cinematographer, who brings a depth and a texture to this vision of fear, punctuated by effective inserts and a camera as restless as the energy embodied by our main cast. With that said, there’s a programmatic feel to the scares here, relying on a rinse-and-repeat mix of canted angles, eerie music, and something lurking in the darkness for virtually every moment of jump-scare panic.
This dependence on horror trope signifiers and lack of deep-in-the-gut terror and cohesive rhythm to sustain tension means It doesn’t sink its teeth deep enough to cause future nightmares, rather handing out an experience more akin to the familiarity of a haunted house ride. Muschietti is clearly not interested in the subtlety one imagines Fukunaga might have brought, but to mash together an endless parade of dick jokes, an inherently goofy central villain, and no shortage of blood thanks to its R-rating, and make the overall experience entertaining is no small feat. You won’t float off the film’s intended horror high, but the characters will endear you enough to show up for the promised second chapter.
It opens on Friday, September 8.