What do scary clowns and nostalgia have in common? They are equally obvious and effective devices. Also, they are the air in the balloon of Andy Muschietti’s new version of It. I don’t want to begrudge the pragmatist filmmaker for taking the direct route and giving the people what they want, especially because this is a reasonable strategy in such a visceral genre as horror, but asserting that clowns are scary or that nostalgia is pleasurable—as this It does repeatedly, over the course of its two hours and 15 minutes—is like writing a dissertation on how boobs are sexy. We all know this. Sure, many will actively respond, but it’s kind of a cheap move in an endlessly jiggling culture (that’s also full of scary clowns and retro pop-culture reminiscing).
It’s this simple: If you want to see a scary clown doing scary clown shit like grinning madly with his eyes pointing in two slightly different directions, or flailing as he rapidly approaches his potential victims like a doll being manipulated to run by a hyperactive child, It is your movie. You like hearing references to Molly Ringwald or Michael Jackson’s hair setting on fire? It’s got you. Enjoy seeing reminders of fun Warner Bros/New Line Cinema movies of old in your contemporary movie (a Gremlins poster, Batman and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 on a movie theater’s marquee)? It is it! Want a running joke about New Kids on the Block’s corniness? You are It, It is you.
It is a cheap movie, but it is not an ineffective one. It is not a great movie, but it is a decent crappy horror movie—like a rare find in the horror section of a Blockbuster in the ‘90s. Its layers of nostalgia include not just the kind of overt references partially listed above, but also in its approach to horror. Somewhere between a creature feature and a fantasy slasher (and owing debt so immense as to be shameless to the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise), It functions not like the rote haunted-house flicks and found-footage formal exercises of recent years, but as a movie designed to shock via jump scares and its own wild sense of imagination (a decapitated-body chase through a library here, a demonically possessed slide show there), alike. It’s a throwback, for sure, but this throw has a bit of a curve. It doesn’t have the contrived Spielberg-ian vintage lens and Carpenter-inspired synth score of Stranger Things (though it does feature one Stranger Things actor, Finn Wolfhard)—it looks and feels very 2017 most of the time.
Given how soap-opera stilted and toothless the 1990 TV-movie version was (killer clown Pennywise’s razor chompers notwithstanding), a new version of Stephen King’s beloved cinderblock of a novel It is in order, anyway. This It is more intense in almost every way, and more in step with the book—the kids are meaner and more profane, the adults are almost uniformly grotesque, the violence is way more graphic (within 10 minutes, a young child is flailing in the gutter with his arm having been ripped off), Pennywise’s teeth are sharper and in several rows like a tiger shark’s. The acting is more naturalistic, too, though besides Bill Skarsgård, who brings a sickening friendliness to Pennywise, only Sophia Lillis (Beverly) truly stands out by fluidly cycling through misery at the hands of her abusive father, steely determination, and adolescent snark.
Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman’s script is more coherent this round too—instead of volleying back and forth in time between the adolescence and adulthood of the band of misfits we follow dubbed the Losers’ Club, this It focuses only on their childhood. The plot, though, becomes a little too straightforward as It progresses and the movie becomes a series of near-miss encounters involving Pennywise terrifying the kids in a bunch of ways. He’s creative, sometimes donning the form of a Leper or Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) the dead brother of the Losers’ Club’s Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) but these are ultimately low-stakes sequences in which the movie just spins its wheels for a while before climaxing.
The more It explains, the less sense it makes—this is a pitfall for horror that attempts to deviate from the genre tropes du jour (see also: It Follows). Is “it” a ghost clown that awakens every 27 years (not unlike like a cicada, one character points out), or a curse on the Losers’ Club town of Derry, Maine, or a “disease” as suggested in the 1990 movie, or a manifestation of fear? And why does Pennywise merely toy with some kids while murdering others? And why are some of his means of torture (like shooting blood out of Beverly’s sink) only visible to the kids while others, like breaking the arm of Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), are seen by all? And if adults die and disappear in Derry at six times the national rate with an even higher percentage of kids kids being affected, as Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) reports, why is this group of 13-year-olds the only people in town that seem at all concerned by this?
There’s harnessing fear of the unknown, and then there’s sloppy storytelling, and this It too often falls into the latter category. It doesn’t seem to have much sense of its own rules, and after a while, you get the sense that you’re being jerked around, that the movie is toying with you like Pennywise toys with the kids. They soon discover they need to reach inside themselves to overcome their fears and triumph, but It does most of this work for its viewers by the end, by being too silly and arbitrary to truly invest in.