Thursday, 14 September 2017

Film Review: It is well crafted enough to make up for a near total lack of scares

There's a fundamental issue at the very core of Andy Muschietti's adaptation of the classic Stephen King novel, "It". This film just isn't scary. Now, here's where things get more complicated: fear is unquestionably subjective. One person's worst nightmare is another person's smallest concern. It relies very heavily on two things in order to create its horror: firstly, it needs you to find clowns scary; secondly, it needs you to enjoy jump scares.

Unfortunately, I don't tick either of these boxes, and that means any effect It could have had was ultimately lost on me. Across the film's lengthy 135-minute runtime, I can remember feeling a sense of fear for about six or seven of them, at a push. Almost every horror infused sequence follows a near identical structure, and while the effect is solid early on - Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) first greeting Georgie down the drain is genuinely unsettling - it loses its impact very quickly. Skarsgard's presence here is perplexing, he evidently has the ability to play a creepy clown well but the film ultimately pushes his performance aside in favour of questionable CGI and loud jump scares. Less than an hour into the film and Pennywise is already more of an annoyance than a scream inducer.

Paradoxically, It is insanely well crafted. It's pretty rare to see a horror film made on this scale by a major studio nowadays, and the love and care that has gone into crafting this film pours from every scene. But herein lies the issue: we can't be scared of a film that feels so lovingly made. Horror needs a jagged edge, a rough finish - something to permanently unsettle you. The cinematography here is all lovely, but rarely does it feel sinister or foreboding. It just looks nice. Remember how It Follows used those gorgeous 360-degree panning shots to emphasise how its demon worked? You'll find little of that ingeniousness here.

And that's mostly what makes It such a deeply frustrating experience. This is a brilliantly well made feature in almost every regard. The film's casting is spot on, assembling one of the strongest young cast ensembles to hit the big screen since The Goonies. Every performer clearly understands their character and relates to them in some way, and it's a joy to watch. Horror is frequently very hit and miss in terms of performance but there's not a single false note across the entirety of Muschietti's film.

It also helps that the film's script - penned by three people - holds its characters in such a high regard. Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is one of the film's biggest victims in terms of what she endures in her personal life but It refuses to let this act as her defining characteristic, instead embedding her with a genuine loyalty and affection for her newfound friends that we believe wholeheartedly and immediately. The same applies for every other character too: Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is more than just his missing brother; Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is more than just his weight; Richie (Finn Wolfhard) is more than just his brash personality. The film clearly loves and respects its characters, and it makes you genuinely root for them.

It surprisingly works far better as a coming of age story than it does as a horror film. We get individual scenes of almost every child character seeing Pennywise in some form - Beverly's is by far the strongest, it's one of few scenes that genuinely unsettled me - meaning we feel and appreciate their individuality but still find them at their best when grouped together. The film sets them on the path of overcoming their fears, and when it all ends with a kiss by a river it's kind of tough not to feel a tiny bit moved by the journey you've watched these characters experience. It will be interesting to see how the sequel - set 27 years later - fares without the ability to fall back on this secondary genre as a kind of saving grace.

When I say that It isn't scary, I don't mean that it isn't tense. Whenever the film heads into Pennywise's haunted-house-lair-of-sorts, It locates scene after scene of brilliantly sourced tension. I was on edge the whole time, and I feared for the characters - but I didn't fear for myself, and fearing for yourself is the sign of great horror film making. When Thomasin was influenced into signing Satan's book in The Witch, I remember hoping my seat would swallow me whole just so I could get away from the nightmare I felt like I was living. It does a good enough job of making you worry for its characters, but never does that fear leave the screen and embed itself into your mind. 

Perhaps It tries so hard to be a good adaptation and a powerful character study that the horror just can't work its way in, forcing the film to rely on cheap jumps for most of its scares. It fails as a horror film, so I struggle to say I actively recommend the film for what it sets out to achieve, but everything else here is so solidly put together that missing out on it would feel unfortunate. Come for the beautiful coming of age narrative, but don't expect to be sleeping with the lights on any time soon.

In A Sentence

While Andy Muschietti's It is perhaps too polished to be petrifying, it succeeds as a smart, unique coming of age tale thanks to its talented young cast and a roster of likeable, well defined characters.

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