It (or, as the end credits helpfully tell us, IT: Chapter One) begs the question of what we are looking for in horror films, let alone adaptations. Do we want something that strips down a story’s essence, using an emotional core to power a delirious, artistic interpretation? Or do we want an austere re-telling of the printed word, professionally managed? Andres Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s killer clown opus picks a third path: meandering approximation, coupled with nostalgic dog-whistling. Telling the childhood portion of the book, Muschietti fixates on barely pubescent boys and their hangups (a mullet-sporting bully with a switchblade invites comparisons to another King coming of age tale, Stand by Me). The group gossip and mock, joke about their dicks one moment and sheepishly ogle the lone girl the next, their attention divided between having enjoyable summer adventures and a child-snatching evil which has blanketed their town in a kind of dreadful ennui. While its primary form is a flamboyant clown (Bill Skarsgard), Pennywise is implicated as a catchall for America’s various sins (the racism and genocide of colonialism, particularly), with a side order of the vicious gossip of small town living. He also takes great interest in terrifying Sophia Lillis’ abused, yet assertive Beverly; if only because she shows the least fear of him, having already experienced what pain (physical and emotional) men are willing to inflict on her.
Such broad scope in a horror film begs for praise, yet It: Chapter One never earns its marks. The film is surprisingly weightless for the gravity of horror it aims for, jumping between the staid slow burn of Western J-horror remakes or cartoon hysterics and flying Dutch angles straight from the Sam Raimi playbook. Yet, Muschietti doesn’t have the tense pacing for the former, nor Riami’s comedic timing for the latter. Instead, he accumulates and rearranges scenes, incidents, and motivations from the source, burns screentime on a bathroom-cleaning montage set to the Cure, and insists on roping in last minute subplots that go nowhere and accomplish nothing. (The bully, for instance, becomes Pennywise’s minion in the final act to chase the kids into his lair…despite them already setting out to rescue one of their own.) Adding insult to boredom is Pennywise himself, a seemingly all-powerful demon who repeatedly fumbles easy kills. The film’s favorite attempt at terror is to lure one of the child actors away with an obvious trap. The lead’s younger brother and a member of the bully’s clique suffer gruesome fates, but the main ensemble (all seven of them) manage to slip away despite falling for the same trick multiple times. Such inept, listless plotting (and slavish devotion to the source) reveals a lack of vision. A more daring filmmaker would have narrowed focus, excising bits and bobs of scenery that work better in the page than on the screen. Maybe even brought a sense of escalation to Pennywise’s actions by offing one or two of the mains (or at least done something other than jump scares). Instead, we’re given a two-hour shrug that invites us back for more in a couple years.