I don’t do horror.
I like my blood pressure within reasonable levels, and being scared for an extended period of time doesn’t seem like a productive way to maintain that goal. If I were to subject myself to such torture, I need one of two things: a pop culture challenge and a compelling case of FOMO (fear of missing out). How unfortunate for me then that It offered both. The film stunned Hollywood, reeling from an anemic summer, by storming the box office with a record-breaking $123 million opening weekend. Topped off by positive reviews from critics and audiences, It captured the zeitgeist and became a must-see attraction among the likes of fellow 2017 breakouts Get Out and Wonder Woman. So, aversion to horror put aside, I bought a ticket to see It.
Written by Cary Fukunaga (adapted from the famous Stephen King novel) and directed by Andy Muschietti, It tells the story of a group of children in 1980s era Maine who are terrorized by a demonic force who takes the form of a terrifying clown. The clown, named Pennywise but only referred to as “It” by the kids, preys on the children by conjuring up horrific phantasms of their worst fears. The children, all perceived “losers” in their small town, come together to fight the evil that threatens to (literally) devour them, while facing their own personal demons. Those demons run the gamut, from hypochondria and mysophobia to child abuse and the death of a loved one.
The latter serves as both the film’s driving force and its emotional core. Apart from the adolescent thrill that leads the kids through dank sewers and decrepit houses, the group rallies around Bill, their de facto leader, as he searches for answers to his younger brother’s disappearance. His crusade, which transforms as Pennywise makes himself more visible, gives the group the foundation to navigate their own unique experiences and support each other as things get really dark. The story is grounded in real and relatable characters and emotions, which genuinely raises the stakes as it leans into its horrific, supernatural elements.
It’s ironic – and hopefully purposeful – that the film’s most horrific moments don’t often come from the ghosts or the blood. No, It truly terrorizes through ordinary humans capable of truly demonic things, like a hillbilly bully teetering on the edge of sadism with a switchblade, or a father not-so-secretly sexually abusing his daughter. While Pennywise, with his glowing eyes and sinister, child-eating grin is terrifying in his own right, it’s the townsfolk of Derry who feed the monster, and leave their children holding the bag.
The metaphors for societal and generational decay are deftly offset by humor that keep the film from drowning in self-seriousness. These are kids after all, on the verge of puberty, and no kid is immune to a crude sex joke. There are some true howlers in this script, a hefty amount of them delivered by Finn Wolfhard – of Stranger Things fame – with astonishing comedic timing. He is a standout in a truly exemplary young cast, all of them very capable of balance youthful wonder and vigor with the suffocating fear surrounding them. Muschietti does a great job in giving them spaces that truly unnerve and discomfit. Some of the images he creates, if not terrifying, at least leave you deeply shaken and disturbed, and even nauseous. There are some fairly obvious horror build-ups, but the jolt to the chest when it lands feels genuine.
I wouldn’t say that It was particularly scary in a nightmare-inducing way, although there were more than enough chair-shifting moments for my taste. What surprised me was how poignant it was. The film explores childhood trauma without ever condescending to its characters, affording them identity and agency instead of just feeding them to a ravenous clown-beast. Maybe it could’ve been scarier, but the scares it does offer, born from weighty and realistic emotions, are well-earned.
In other words, clowns with red balloons are canceled for 2017.