Directed by Andy Muschietti
It is one of the best Stephen King adaptations I have ever seen. That might be hyperbole, and it’s certainly subjective, but this film captured the same feeling I get from a Stephen King novel. The Shining might be a better movie, but it’s a different story, while tv remakes like those of The Stand and Salem’s Lot are a far cry from their source material.
The world of It, set in the fictional Maine town of Derry, is most similar to the environment of Stand By Me (1986). Though set thirty or so years later, this world feels like it’s been preserved, stuck under a bubble (or a dome) while the world around it rots.
The kids bike everywhere, they play in the quarry like the forever slackers of Breaking Away, they dream big, and they’re fun to hang around with. They’re kids, so they need to grow up like any coming of age story, but It isn’t about who will they become as much as who they are now. They’re kids, and that’s to be celebrated, for all their eccentricities, insecurities, selfishness, etc.
These feelings of splendor that movie may evoke are contrary to the story’s text. Derry is actually haunted, not just by a killer clown but by a plague of sinister adults. The kids remain kids in this movie because all the forces in this story confine them to their childhood. Ya dig?
There is a clown named Pennywise who lurks under the town but only comes out to visit every 27 years. When he shows up again, now in 1989, he torments the children by shapeshifting into their biggest fears. For one it’s a leper, for another it’s his kid brother whom the clown killed a year before, and for another it’s… a clown.
The kids are horrified, and the alien clown feeds off their fear. The adults are no help in this case because even though they notice the strange amount of disappearances, they can’t see the clown as the children can. When Beverly (Sophia Lillis) screams in horror as her bathroom is bathed in blood (reminiscent of King’s Carrie), her father stumbles in to see nothing out of the ordinary. The kids have to take care of this damn clown on their own.
It’s not just that the adults are no help, but they are downright monsters in their own right. There are three main adult figures, and each one of them betrays the children who would otherwise look to them for safekeeping. A cop abuses his son before the son (the film’s bully) stabs him in the neck at Pennywise’s urging. Beverly’s father is more than abusive, tormenting her at every turn until she’s forced to defend herself, and another child’s mother is like the Kathy Bates character in Misery.
There is no one else to turn to, well except for the pedophile pharmacist, so of course that’s not going to work.
The kids are on their own, but they soon realize that Pennywise feeds on their isolation. When they band together they can fight back, and in the end that’s what they do.
In many ways It is just another horror movie full of jump scares, sinister atmospheric tones and those haunted buildings you know you’re supposed to avoid. It’s more entertaining because of that strange kind of joy that fills out the movie in between the moments of horror. The kids are appealing, and the dialogue is funny. If it weren’t for the horror this might almost be a comedy, and maybe it already is.
The world of Derry, in other words, has a certain appeal. It’s the type of town I’ve always wanted to spend a summer in my childhood, one that is big enough to sustain a child’s imagination but small enough for them to one day outgrow. There’s an impermanence to this kind of world, almost as if the town itself will crumble once the children hit puberty.
Derry is an extension of the children’s imaginations. It’s one with them in a way I think King captures in his best novels. In stories like this, whether in Salem’s Lot, The Shining or something as sprawling as The Stand or as limited as Under the Dome, the characters feel tied to their environments.
Because of that the environment is never one thing but rather ever-changing just as people are. Derry is very clearly haunted, as the new kid in town observes (with a disappearance rate 6x above the rest of the country), and yet it’s a magical little place. I don’t know how a story can create such a duality within a single environment. I both didn’t understand how the kids could possibly resist hopping the next train out of town, but I also understood their deep attachment to the city. Like with childhood they simply don’t know better. They are attached to the place insofar as it’s all they know.
I have trouble watching horror movies because even the laziest jump scare will startle me. It has plenty of these moments, and I found the horror to be remarkably effective. That being said my opinion might be like that of a dog insisting the vacuum is scary.
Up Next: The Babadook (2014), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Philomena (2013)