Welcome, one and all, to my first film review of the year. Today, I’m looking at a film that was highly anticipated by many people: Stephen King’s It (2017).
For those not familiar with the tale, the story follows ‘The Losers Club’, a group of friends who, if we’re being honest, didn’t have the best of starts in life. During their childhood in the 1960’s, they all had their own personal traumas to deal with, suffered bullying, and were all haunted by the supernatural entity known as Pennywise The Dancing Clown. They set out to deal with said beasty as kids, and return to do the same as adults in the 1990’s. The tale first appeared in Stephen King’s 1986 novel of the same name. In 1990, Lorimar Television took on the mammoth task of condensing the well over 1,000 pages of the book into a two-part TV series with a total running time of four hours, including adverts. This adaption saw many famous faces, such as Emily Perkins and Seth Green, cutting their teeth as horror stars, and is perhaps best remembered for Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise. The 2017 version was handled by New Line Cinema and covers the entirety of the 1960’s arc from the book.
So, before I begin, I should probably point out a little bit of my own history with this story. Unlike many, It was not my introduction to Stephen King (Salem’s Lot was if you’re wondering). I did not read the source material until long after seeing the 1990’s adaption, and my views on said production are a little mixed. You see, I thought that it was a decent story, and enjoyed Tim ‘Dr. Frank-N-Furter’ Curry as Pennywise. I did not, however, find the series scary. There were other issues that I had with it other than the lack of scares, but I’ll come to those later in the review. What is interesting to note though is that, while generally viewed as a cult classic, the reception to the series wasn’t quite as glowing as many remember. There were those that raved about it, those that felt it was a little campy, and those that felt that the presentation was uneven. Much the same rings true for this modern adaption, with critics’ opinions varying greatly.
Now, the 2017 film shifts the childhood arc to the 1980’s. Honestly, I’m fine with this. It makes sense given how fresh in mind the 1980’s are for much of what I would assume are the target audience. That sense of nostalgia in setting can go a long way to creating the feeling that the events of the film could have happened to you. On top of this, the decision to have the film just cover the main characters in their childhood years was one that I welcomed; the jumping back and forth in the 1990’s version wasn’t something that I was a fan of in my early viewings, and I thought that this move would give the film some much needed focus. Unfortunately, it didn’t really pan out that well for me.
Looking back on it, the jumping between eras was a useful tool as it allowed us to see the characters as they are, and as they were. This gave us a good way to build up multiple layers for them, learning what they’re like and what events may have shaped this in quick order. Of course, removing this isn’t necessarily detrimental if the characters themselves are strong. The problem is that, despite having more time to play with (if both films run to around the same time, they’ll have more time between them than the 1990’s version, even if you include adverts), the characters felt a little flat. Yes, they all had their own issues to deal with, ranging from mourning family losses to racial bullying, but everything just felt really rushed to me. Characters that were previously three dimensional now almost ran into each other, to the point that by the end of the film, I couldn’t even remember most of their names or what half of their individual vices or key personality traits were.
So, why did this happen? Well, unless my memory is failing me here, there certainly seemed to be more instances of Pennywise affecting the environment that they were living in. In a way, that isn’t all bad. Swedish born Bill Skarsgard had some mighty big shoes to fill here, and he did so admirably, putting in a suitably creepy performance as the clown that caused many people’s coulrophobia. In fact, the script even allowed him to do something better than Tim Curry: make Pennywise vulnerable. Towards the end of the film, there is a scene where the monster is shown to feel fear and start trying to bargain for its life. That’s important because, if the antagonist has no weaknesses, it can create a feeling that any heroic victory is just so far fetched that it takes you out of the moment. And yes, this does still apply to fantastical tales. A good story draws you in, no matter how unreal it may seem, and makes you suspend disbelief. One wrong step though, and that illusion comes crashing down and you’re back to not caring half as much.
You’ll note that said that this isn’t all bad though. Yes, there was one major drawback to this, on top of the reduction in character depth for our heroes: an over reliance on CGI. If you’ve read about or spoken to me about horror before, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of practical special effects. The main reason for this is that having something actually there in the environment that the cast are in makes it feel more real to me. The problem with CGI is that I can tell that it’s CGI the vast majority of the time, and that gives me that suspension of disbelief shattering effect.
That’s not to say that CGI is inherently bad, mind you. If it’s done well, it works, and this film is not completely devoid of moments like that. One or two scenes where the CGI-enhanced Pennywise is doing his thing were absolutely fine. His final appearance in the film, for example, created quite a striking image. The rest of the time though? It all felt kinda ropey, especially given $35M budget. It all moved nice and smooth, of course, but it was all too apparent that Pennywise was separate from the environment, and that was really quite jarring for me. It’s a shame too, because not only did it diminish Skarsgard’s performance for me, I was actually looking forward to seeing how they handled the CGI in this one. When this comes from someone who felt that the final scenes in the 1990’s version featured some poor practical effects that were in dire need of updating, that’s saying something.
The important question though is whether the film was scary or not. Well, that will depend on opinion. It certainly featured a bigger emphasis on jump scares than its older counterpart, and that has been the subject of much criticism. The thing is, that’s more of a sign of the times than anything. Jumps scares are in, hence the focus on them in video games. Despite the lack of an effort to create some creeping dread though, I would say that the film did get me with one or two of said jump scares. Obvious they may have been, but they achieved their purpose. In that respect, it at least partially did its job. It still wasn’t really what I’d call scary though. It simply hasn’t had the same lasting effect on me that other films have. Perhaps being fine with clowns in general is to blame for this?
All that being said though, I wouldn’t say the film is a waste of time. Despite a plethora of problems, it never dragged. For a little over two hours, it provided enough light entertainment to keep me watching, if not entirely engaged. That in itself means that the film had all the pieces to be something special, it just didn’t quite hit the mark for me for me. In a way, It (2017) is a bit like a chess match where you have all the pieces to win, but somewhere along the line, you make a mistake and never quite recover. Is it worth watching? For most people, yes. Just don’t expect too many sleepless nights unless the subject matter is already likely to give you shivers.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.