Stephen King, the author of the 1986 novel upon which “It” is based, advises audiences to “enjoy the show, if you can.” As he creates a world that is simultaneously terrifying, comical and eerily normal, director Andy Muschietti dares the audience to do exactly that: Find beauty and joy in the horror.
Creating a movie based on such a classic novel, especially one with an earlier adaptation, is a dangerous game. “It” certainly rises to the challenge. Not only does the film skillfully bring to life Pennywise the Dancing Clown and other terrifying figures from King’s novel, it hones in on the essence of what makes the author’s books so engrossing and so terrifying: Despite the horrible creatures, supernatural events, and plenty of blood and violence, the novelist’s genius is clearest in his ability to make everyday activities terrifying. The new adaptation of “It” translates that quality to the big screen.
The film certainly does not shy away from blood and gore, and there are plenty of jump scares and moments of pure adrenaline. Some of the most chilling moments of the film, however, are not supernatural at all. As 6-year-old George first descends into the cellar, the music and lighting make the old dusty shelves as terrifying as Pennywise. George spins around to see two white lights that look like glowing eyes staring back at him. He desperately fumbles for a flashlight as the suspense grows until he flips the switch and reveals that the eyes were simply two glass balls, reflecting light side by side. Moments like this rekindle childhood fears, render them scary to the adult eye, and, later in the film, lend them a terrifying legitimacy.
In addition to the scares, “It” also offers some lighter moments. Again like King’s novels, the film creates believable and likable characters with lives beyond the horror. There are friendships, fights and scenes of young love, which, if slightly cliché, lend the film a normalcy that makes the horror feel more real. The constant wisecracks and jabs of the young protagonists—if mostly just curse words, sex jokes, and insults—yield laughter and provide some relief from the constant suspense.
In Muschietti’s adaptation, the lines between real and supernatural blur. It is never clear what is in the kids’ imagination and what is a real threat—in fact, in this film there may be no difference. The antics of the twisted bullies are just as terrifying as those of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Violence between families and friends mixes with the supernatural evil at work.
The scenes of terror are also strangely beautiful. In fact, Pennywise’s gaping teeth reach their most terrifying and most alluring at exactly the same moment. From an egg standing on end, to rushing water, to a bleeding drawing, there are plenty of aesthetic moments. The film shows an incredible attention to visual detail which makes the most horrific points entrancing and ensures that, try as one might, it is impossible to look away.
The humor is equally disturbing. Actor Bill Skarsgård lends Pennywise a weird dance-like, singsong nature that makes him seem comical as he terrorizes the town. In this way, Skarsgård brings the concept of a demented clown and the twisted humor that comes with it to its full potential.The middle-school wisecracks also continue on through the moments of highest suspense. Meanwhile, scenes of friendship and love are casually permeated with blood. Fear and happiness occur not in alternation throughout the movie, but simultaneously.
In one scene, the group of kids known as the “losers” clean up a room covered in blood from floor to ceiling. Somehow, the scene is perhaps the most lighthearted in the movie. As the kids methodically wipe up blood and cart waste away in garbage bags they exchange comical loving looks and tease each other, eliciting laughter from the audience. The blood becomes normal, and the scene fun. Nothing registers as strange until after its conclusion.
“It” is terrifying, yet it is not depressing. Rather, the fear becomes energizing and the whole film feels like a powerful adrenaline high. Happy moments have a shadow of foreboding and fear, while the most gruesome and terrible moments become playful and fun. The horror of “It” is enjoyable, and that might be the most disturbing thing of all.
—Staff Writer Yael Saiger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org