I wanted It to be scarier. It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve stumbled out of a theater with that peculiar joy of a good horror movie: the combination of gratitude that a film is over and satisfaction at having survived it. Maybe my expectations were too high. The original It always held a special place in my heart as the pinnacle of horror movies. When I was five, my cousin had me watch it during a family gathering, and I couldn’t take a shower for days without one of my parents standing guard at the door. Walking into It, I was hoping for even a fraction of that fear. Nothing has ever scared me as much as Tim Curry’s Pennywise the clown. Today, I can remember the fear, but I can’t feel it anymore.
It is a film all about taking its audiences back to their childhood fears. Adapted from a Stephen King novel of the same name, the film follows a group of misfit preteens in the 1980s as they investigate the many disappearances of children in their small town. This search eventually brings them into conflict with Pennywise the clown, a sinister, supernatural character who abducts children. Even as they battle Pennywise, they must contend with the horrors of growing up among bullies and broken homes. It’s clear, with a plot like this, that the film is relying on the potent combination of nostalgia and fear to take adults back to the simpler fears of childhood. It tries to tap into our experience of hanging out with friends during an endless summer vacation in an effort to recreate the fears that we were on the cusp of growing out of at that age.
Our fears as children are fundamentally different from our fears as adults. As a kid, fear’s centered around the supernatural. There are monsters under beds. There are ghosts in the attic. There are witches in the dark woods. As we grow older, our fears grow rooted in the realities of our lives. I’m now terrified of cancer and failure and rejection, not sewer dwelling clowns with shark teeth. My fears now are, at once, less acute and more permanent. I don’t think that my job is going to pop out of my closet and kill me tonight, but a hug from my mom won’t make the persistent dread melt away either. In that way, just like any stimulus we experience too often, the fears of adulthood are enervating. The fears of childhood, on the other hand, are exhilarating and life affirming. The fear comes in a rush and lifts immediately, leaving a new appreciation for safety and life. That’s what I want from a horror movie.
So, does It capture this brand of thrilling fear that adulthood has tossed by the wayside? No. There are creepy mansions, blood spewing from drains, and contortionist clowns with pointy teeth. Unless you have coulrophobia (a fear of clowns), the imagery is often macabre and entertaining, but fails to tap into a feeling of existential threat that was so commonly evoked in childhood. In fact, the most frightening moments are, instead, the real-world terrors of domestic violence and bullying inflicted on some of the young protagonists. There are certainly tense moments that will have you grabbing the arms of your seat, but these moments are more akin to the thrills in an action movie than the scares one wants in a horror film. In fact, it’s hard to describe It as a horror film at all. It has elements of the horror genre, but treads much closer to tween adventure movies of the eighties like Stand By Me or The Goonies, and modern retreads like Stranger Things.
When evaluated as an eighties inspired tween adventure, It is largely a success. This sub-genre depends almost entirely on the chemistry between a film’s young protagonists and It’s self-styled “Losers’ Club” succeeds in this respect. The banter between the seven members of this group is both charming and believable. In particular Finn Wolfhard, as the wisecracking Richie, Jack Dylan Grazer, as the anxious Eddie, and Sophia Lillis as the adventurous Beverly, stand out. Beverly, in particular, who is subjected to terrifying abuse at the hands of her father, displays great range as she veers from dramatic to comedic to action packed scenes throughout the film. Watching this group of kids horsing around and embarking on adventures helped me relive the joys of a part of my life, the details of which are growing increasingly hazy.
In fact, I could watch this group of kids embark on any adventure and come away feeling just like I did coming out of It. That’s the problem. The film is put together competently, but other than the kids at its center, nothing stands out. The story, although apparently much beloved, is pedestrian, at least in this version for the screen. Other than the Losers’ Club, the performances are predictable and uninteresting. Bill Skarsgard, who plays Pennywise, for example, must have been cast exclusively for his ability to curl his lower lip into an unnatural arc. The gang of bullies that torture the Losers’ Club is similarly bland, even though the film halfheartedly attempts to humanize them. The visuals, too, are standard horror fare. It relies on the kind of horror imagery that we’ve seen for decades.
It is competently made. It’s entertaining. It’s fun. At times, it’s tense. It’s certainly not a horror classic. I had hoped that It would remind me what it was like to be afraid as a kid. It didn’t. The horror elements of the film aren’t anything we haven’t seen a hundred times before. Instead, the film reminded me of the fun I used to have on long summer days as I biked around town with my friends. It is not a perfect film by any means, but it’s ability to evoke these fading memories is worth the price of admission.