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By Anthony Reyes.
It: A portrayal of childhood and terror
As an avid fan of Stephen King’s literary masterpiece of the same name, I was skeptical when I discovered that a new adaptation of It was being produced. Adaptations from novel to the screen are always a risk, but the stories of Stephen King always bring an extra layer of insecurity. Despite featuring many themes of the supernatural and horror in his stories, Stephen King is a humanist at heart. He frequently writes about universal topics such as the loss of innocence, loneliness, and the pleasures and instability of small town America. But since the movie industry is a business and distribution companies needs to market their products, the main selling point of most of the adaptations from Stephen King’s stories is the horror aspect. And that can be plainly seen with It. Since the start of this film’s development, the horror of a killer crown terrorizing kids of a small town has been piled on so that mass audiences get hyped up to watch this film on September 8th. But fans of the source material as myself know that It is special for many reasons other than the supernatural horror side to it. As I entered the theater for a special advanced screening of It that I was invited to, I hoped that Andres Muschietti, the director, kept those reasons in mind when making this film.
The story of It follows a group of children living in the small town of Derry, Maine. Brought together by their shared isolation and status as social outcasts, Bill, Eddie, Richie, Beverly, Ben, Stanley, and Mike form the Losers club. They are also brought together by the fact that they each have come across a terrifying clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) who exploits their personal fears in order to feast off of them. Disillusioned by surrounding adults, together they try to find a way to defeat the clown to stop him from hurting anyone else.
Having watched Andres Muschietti’s Mama, I was confident that It had potential to be a great horror film and coming of age story.
Muschietti knows how to successfully balance horror with emotion, which is horribly important for this story. These children, led by Bill Denbrough, have all been through horrible events in their lives. They are victims of life’s cruel touch, from abusive fathers to gas lighting mothers. They are bullied and harassed relentlessly by other kids. Not in a light, playful manner either. These kids are beaten and held at knifepoint by Henry Bowers and his gang. They even chase after Mike for being black and Ben for being fat. The film did a wonderful job of establishing their status as losers. They are scared. They are alone. They have nothing to do with their time except avoid bullies. They’ve each been terrorized by a supernatural clown. So, the natural next step would be for them to come together and unite. Muschietti succeeds in relishing those moments of unity. After all the hell each character has been through, the moments in which they are carefree and are just enjoying being kids together are the strength of the entire story.
This film also knew how to establish the role of every member of this group, which helps when the main character is an ensemble. Bill Denbrough is the leader, the brave one who has no issue charging forward against Pennywise. Ben Hanscom, despite being terribly insecure due to being overweight, is a clever thinker. He knows how to research and find solutions to problems. Beverly Marsh is the confident one, the girl who can get the boys out of their shells. Eddie Kaspbrak is the loyal one who overcomes many of his fears in order to help his best friend Bill. Richie Tozier is the wisecracking jokester of the group, who finds something to say at every turn. Stanley Uris is the skeptical one of the Losers club, often being unsure of whether the group should take on It or not. Mike Hanlon is the one with a long connection with Derry, with his family and the color of his skin leading him to the others. These roles establish the importance of each member to the Losers Club, and how they can only be effective against Pennywise together. The casting for Muschietti’s It really reflected how dedicated the filmmakers were to Stephen King’s story. Each actor played their role with precise vulnerability that later turns into budding confidence. Their performances helped portray the character arcs that they all experience throughout It, the one that takes them from innocent, small town children to the fighters that must save their town from the monster that wants to feed on it.
While the emotional arcs of these characters are ultimately the entire crux of the film, Andres Muschietti was very creative on the way the horror was to be conveyed. Despite being focused on children, the horror is by no means childlike. I was surprised by the lengths It went to in order to scare the audience, but delighted on how effective it was. From the scene at the beginning when Pennywise meets George at the sewer drain, the audience becomes thrown into the world of a relentless monster. Muschietti does not leave up. He uses every horrific and violent detail that he can use to build a world where the adults have been so traumatized that only children can fight the dancing clown. Bill Skargård’s portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown was a joy to watch, but also incredibly frightening. At some points, the clown was wildly eccentric, relying on physicality to terrify. He would dance, jump around, shapeshift. And while those moments were terrifying to watch, Skarsgård also pulled off the most chilling aspect of Pennywise: what he represented to the children. He represented fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of not being in control, of your fate being in someone’s hands. Skarsgård hit all those notes impressively. He made Pennywise’s very presence earth shattering, which is a feeling that barely went away throughout the whole film. When you combine Skarsgård’s performance with the nerve wracking cinematography, you get a horror movie experience that stays with you long after you leave the theater.
To the children of Stephen King’s story, the only thing more terrifying than Pennywise the Dancing clown is the idea of losing each other, or returning to their own lives. Being a kid is hard. Nobody listens to these characters, nobody pays them any mind. Some of them think that they are invisible. Every single member of the Losers club struggle with their own demons, their own personal hell that they escape from when they’re together. Stephen King likes to write about the loss of innocence, but these kids have lost their innocence a long time ago. It was stolen from them by parents or other external forces that disregarded them as human beings. The fight against It is a fight to reclaim their innocence, because It represents everything that they’re afraid of, everything that has ever victimized them. Muschietti understood that and did everything possible to establish the bravery that these kids display to fight the dancing clown. There is a speech around the middle of the film delivered by Bill Denbrough where he explains why he feels the need to face Pennywise. It is one of the more eye opening moments of the film. You see the emotional weight on everybody’s shoulders, how much is at stake if they give into their fear. Producing a horror film with great emotional balance is difficult enough, but when childhood innocence is added to the structure, it would be easy to depend more on the horror than the story arcs of the characters.
But It beautifully depends on its young characters to carry the film, to make the audience sympathize with them and see why they matter.
What a person who has read Stephen King’s It might know that a person who hasn’t read the novel doesn’t know is that this 2017 film is only the first installment in a two-part story. It spans across three decades: when Pennywise appears to the kids and twenty-seven years later, when they come back to Derry to finish off the clown one and for all. This film covers the first part, and Muschietti makes it a point to give hints that this story has not come to an end. As the film establishes the roles of each character within the Losers club, you can see where the characters might end up in the future when the second film begins. The kids also establish that Pennywise comes out of hibernation every twenty-seven years, and they keep that in mind as they film ends. They look to the future and swear a blood oath to finish off the Dancing Clown if he were to ever reappear. And although news of the It 2 has been relatively thin, this film promises a continuation of this story. I’m sure we’ll watch closely as Muschietti embarks on telling the story of the adult Losers club.
I was skeptical going into Andres Muschietti’s It for many reasons that are all attributed to being devoted to the source material. There was doubt within me that the film would focus too much on exploiting the horror of the story and not focusing on portraying the emotional weight that comes with being haunted by a force that feeds off your fear. However, I was impressed to see how well Muschietti could get me invested not just in Pennywise the Clown but every single member of the Losers club. These kids were not afraid of a clown. They were afraid to live their lives, to become used to the abuse and neglect that they have been subject to. Sure, Muschietti might indulge in some horror movie clichés such as jump scares, but every aspect of story and filmmaking is used to heighten the horrific story of child hood and monsters.