Magazine | October 2, 2017, Issue

Sunlit Horror

Bill Skarsgård in It (New Line Cinema)

Stephen King’s novels and stories have been adapted for the screen about 40 times, and the less said about most of those movies, the better. Back when King was in his prime, in the 1970s and 1980s, some great directors took up the challenge of translation — Brian De Palma and David Cronenberg and of course Stanley Kubrick (though The Shining is so overwhelmingly Kubrickian that the King original is just another ghost in its hotel). But King’s powers have waned, the movie industry’s big players have moved on to other stories, and in the 23 years since The Shawshank Redemption, the list of King adaptations includes a few decent B-movies and a lot of mediocrity and dreck.

This summer’s The Dark Tower was the first attempt at a King-based big-budget movie since Dreamcatcher (a dud adapted from a dud) in 2003. It failed, not surprisingly, because, while King’s Dark Tower novels are superficially perfect for this age of world-building and endless sequels, in reality they are way too recondite and weird and King-specific (some would say, King-up-his-own-posterior) to compete with the Marvels of the world. The Dark Tower movie tried to be more accessible and simple and non-arcane, but that just made it thin and weightless and disposable, and audiences treated it accordingly.

This autumn’s It, however, is a different beast entirely. It is by no means a great movie, but simply by virtue of being competent and entertaining, it vaults into the top ten of King adaptations, and, by virtue of capably adapting one of his most beloved and terrifying books, it will command a substantial box office. In a few ways it suffers by comparison with Netflix’s successful miniseries Stranger Things, an exercise in King-infused nostalgia that had a lot more space to make its characters and setting come to life. But in certain ways it casts Stranger Things into its shadow by reminding you of how much of that show’s formula was just a straight homage to King.

It, as anyone who ever feared white pancake makeup and a rubber nose well knows, is the tale of a Maine town, Derry, terrorized by a monster known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Pennywise (played in this incarnation by Bill Skarsgård) feeds off the fears of children and the pathologies of adults; he’s a parasite on Derry’s rotten soul, emerging from hibernation every 27 years to pick off kids and inspire bigotry, madness, chaos, and mob violence among the grown-ups. He lurks in storm drains and sewers but can manifest himself just about anywhere — bedrooms, libraries, garages, old photographs, and bad dreams.

Ranged against this monster are six boys and a single girl — the self-styled “Losers’ Club,” a gang of misfits whose sort-of leader, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), lost a baby brother to the clown’s long arm and teeth. In the novel, we watch them struggle with Pennywise as children and then return to do the same as adults, in overlapping timelines. In the movie, we get just the children’s story, set in 1989, which holds out the promise of a present-day Part II.

That story, as filmed by Andy Muschietti, aspires to something rare in King adaptations, even the successful ones: the integration of both of his artistic modes, the melancholy and gritty Americana and the bloodcurdling-nightmare-monster stuff, into a successful narrative whole. All the outdoor scenes are shot like a dream of an American summer — the light falling just so, the main street a Rockwellian picture postcard, the trees green, and the deep water gleaming. The cast of children (including one Stranger Things vet, Finn Wolfhard, and the magnetic Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the lone girl) is almost uniformly excellent, their banter and sport and nerdish angst triggering nostalgia without slipping toward the treacly or too cute. (My only regret, as a descendant of Mainers, is that the film doesn’t have them try the real King-country accent, deah.)

But leave the sun-kissed summers outdoors behind and enter the body of Derry, its homes and apartments and public works, and suddenly you’re in a true horror movie — all shadows and grime and rot, populated by adults who are either too clueless to notice or too sinister to care. This is where Pennywise lurks, where every corner or picture or TV screen could hide some personalized horror, where the camera-work and music constantly build toward jump-scares, screams, and flight.

And I do mean constantly: The main weakness of the movie is that eventually you come to expect the unexpected, that the scenes that actually advance the plot — rather than lingering with the kids, their hormones, and their bikes — are just one fright after another, with somewhat diminishing returns. The film doesn’t always know how to hold its fire, to make your skin crawl while your imagination spins. It needs more moments in which the horror can be glimpsed in the background without having it rushing at you screaming.

In a passing scene early on, you notice (but none of the characters do) that an unwatched but blaring TV in one of the homes has been taken over by a maniacal chant about the joys of playing in the sewer. There’s more horror in that unnoticed television than in the jump-scares that bookend it, and I wish the filmmakers had realized that.

But audiences do like jump-scares, and those in the theater when I saw It seemed like satisfied customers. Which is the best way to think about this movie: It’s not great, it’s imperfect, it lacks the fullness of what King does best — but unlike many adaptations of his work, it’s both faithful enough and frightening enough to be genuinely satisfying. It’s not a masterpiece, but it gets the master right.

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