Movie Review: It
When was the last time you were really scared?
For me, it was a few weeks ago, when I was visiting my parents in Spain. It was the tail-end of August, swelteringly hot to my feeble Scottish temperament, and I was desperately trying to get some sleep after travelling all day. After tossing and turning in bed for what felt like hours, I accepted that I wasn’t going to get any rest lying in the swiftly-saturating pool of sweat forming on the sheets, so I got out, grabbed a pillow, and lay down on the cool tile floor. I was facing the large picture windows, which I had pulled half-open, and found myself staring out on to the dark, quiet street outside. Sleep-deprived and heat-addled, I found my brain drifting to that famous scene in ‘Salem’s Lot, where the deceased child Danny Glick appears at his brother’s window – the close-up of his rotted nail scraping on the glass, that awful, grinning, deeply dead face peering through at the surviving sibling. And soon enough, my mind’s eye had locked on to that image, transposing it to my situation. I could practically smell him, could practically hear the screech of his finger on the window. And before I knew it, my stomach had filled with that churning, curdling dread, my heart was racing, and I flipped over so I was no longer facing the window. I knew, in the rational part of my brain, that ‘Salem’s Lot is nothing more than a story and I was silly for getting so unsettled by it; another part of my brain, which felt equally rational at the time, knew that if I turned over and looked out the window then he would undoubtedly be there and there would be nothing I could do about it.
Fear has a way of feeling perfectly rational, even when you know it can’t be. And that’s what IT, the latest Stephen King movie adaptation that came out today, is about more than anything else: taking the odd, idiosyncratic fears that we are perfectly capable as dismissing as irrational, and making them into a reality. I think that’s why it’s one of his most enduring and popular works, for better or worse – because it’s not a werewolf or a vampire or a zombie or something that only a few people might find genuinely unsettling. The villain of It is your personal fear, so it’s much harder to dismiss that a lot of his other monsters.
And yet, capturing that fear, and the line between the rational and irrational, can be difficult, even for the most accomplished writer or filmmaker. So I think one of the best things this particular movie (one of a planned two) does is to set it’s story entirely around children, for whom the line between the rational and irrational is blurred in a way it isn’t for adults.
And bloody hell, let’s just get this out there right now: IT is probably one of the best horror films of the last few years, and certainly my favourite Stephen King adaptation to date. It follows seven kids as they battle an impossible entity known as “It” (but who I’m going to refer to as Pennywise in order to keep this review at all readable) that takes on the form of all their worst fears. It, the novel, is perhaps the most quintessentially Stephen King book he’s ever written: set in a small town in Maine, following kids, an examination of the enduring and evolving nature of fear, with a brilliant villain and a terrible ending. For the most part, the film captures that: Derry, the town that’s famous for hosting this tale, looks and feels perfect, and the casting of the seven leads is nigh-on flawless, with particularly outstanding performances from Finn Wolfhard (of Stranger Things fame) as Richie and Jaeden Liberher as Bill. It looks beautiful, with Andy Muschetti drawing some gorgeously evocative sequences from the sprawling strangeness of Derry. And Bill Skarsgard, who plays the much-touted monster when he’s in his clown form, is exquisitely excellent: talking as though he hasn’t quite learned how to use his mouth yet and moving like his body doesn’t quite belong to him, it’s a powerfully unsettling performance that more than stands up to Tim Curry’s esteemed interpretation of the character in the disastrously bad nineties miniseries.
But the best part of the IT movie is, without a doubt, the way it evokes fear. And no, I’m not talking about the fear it draws out of the audience with it’s tremendously effective horror sequences (although those are a real delight). I’m talking about the way it taps into the fear of the kids at the center of the story. Yes, we might not be scared of the spooky painting on the wall of Stan’s father’s study, but, as he carefully makes his way past it with his hand lifted so he doesn’t have to look right at it, we remember what it was like to feel that irrational fear of something when we were that age. And, when the creature from that painting comes to life, the film rips away that safety net that we had to rely on when it comes to our irrational fears- it’s not real, it can’t hurt me. Well, what if it was, and what if it could? What if Danny Glick really had been at that window waiting for me? It’s this feeling that the film does so well exploiting, and I think where the true power of it lies.
It’s not perfect, by any means – Bev is still not in a great place as the film’s only female character (although she is a vast improvement on the book) and Mike is dissapointingly underserved, not to mention the fact that the arc with the main bully character is extremely rushed. But IT is still a fantastic entry to the horror genre, and one that seems to truly understand why Stephen King’s It remains one of his most enduring works: it’s not the specificity of the monsters, but in what they represent. And for that alone, it deserves your patronage. Well, that, and because it’s about the only adaptation of Stephen King that’s ever got it this right.
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