Main Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Killer Klowns from Outer Space (No, Seriously)
I never read the book this film is based on, nor have I seen the 1990s miniseries that preceded this adaptation. I’m one of those people who likes spoilers, sometimes even more than the thing they supposedly spoil. Both facts are important to understanding my take on this iteration of Stephen King’s famous novel, because I had a rudimentary understanding of the story’s conceit (a shape-shifting otherworldly monster, often disguised as a clown, is rampaging through a small town in – I’m guessing – Maine, scaring and eating small children), but I never found the premise to be interesting enough to want to see or read any version of it. I wasn’t in the line on opening day to see this film, and only saw it perhaps a month after its release. I wasn’t disappointed, though; it was a good study of adaptation and horror filmmaking that I think merits some discussion even though I’m not familiar with the source material nor generally like horror films.
In short, I liked it, but thought it might do better in a different format.
Ironically, this film feels like it’s drawing strongly from Stranger Things, which is partly based on the novel version of IT and probably arrived at a similar structure because of its shared lineage, not necessarily because the 2017 film ripped it off. Even the clown monster’s design toward the end looks a lot like the Stranger Things Demogorgon, and I swear at least one of these kids is in both narratives. The similarities aside, I feel that there are several issues with the film that may be sourced largely from the book. There are several scenes, like when the clown grows enormous to fill the main character’s garage, or when the bully ringleader (who gives an alarmingly accurate portrayal of what I imagine proto-Trump supporters must have been like as teenagers) gets brainwashed by the clown and tries to kill the other kids, that clashed with the dark tone of the film sufficiently to pull me out of it.
The film isn’t especially scary – the clown might be frightening if you don’t like clowns, but only a few scenes ever made me feel a deep sense of dread. The headless man walking down the steps, the bloody hair in the drain, Bev’s father, and especially the burning people in the butcher shop made me uneasy, but in a good way. Most of the rest of the film hinges on jump-scares and seems especially insistent that Pennywise the clown is frightening. He isn’t. The idea of a shape-shifter that kidnaps children while disguised as a seemingly innocent figure has potential, and occasionally you see glimpses of that like at the beginning. But the opening is also a good demonstration of why the film fails to frighten; it just shows too much and doesn’t leave much to the audience’s imagination.
The first scene of the film was largely unveiled in the trailers, and features the younger brother of the main character, Georgie, running down the street and encountering the clown in a rain gutter. They have a conversation and Georgie gets frightened, but he wants the little toy boat he was chasing, so he reaches down into the gutter. How disturbing would it be for him to have just vanished there, his fate unknown even to the audience until the end of the film? Perhaps it wouldn’t be surprising for the kid to vanish and turn up dead later, but the scene continues beyond its tensional climax and shows the clown growing giant CGI teeth, biting the kid’s arm off, and the kid army-crawling away until the clown’s hand can extend out of the gutter and drag him back in. What was a tense scene suddenly becomes ridiculous, but it feels like it’s still trying to be creepy. Other moments, especially those with the creature as a clown, follow a similar pattern.
Part Two: The Main One, the Girl One, the Fat One, the Gay One, the Hypochondriac One, the Black One, and the Jewish One
Given that the film fails in large part as a horror story, and its artistic qualities are at best average, what is there in this film worth seeing? I think the answer depends on what you want to get out of a film, but I will say that it does a good job of capturing the dynamics of a group of kids, and they’re the ones carrying the film. Each individual character is pretty simple, some more than others, and as I implied in the title, most of them can be identified by one basic characteristic.
Bev, the girl, is the only one I can remember by name (aside from Georgie, but that’s only because his brother says his name about three hundred times over the film’s runtime), and she’s probably the most complex out of the group as well. She has a kind-hearted nature but refuses to just take people’s shit, and is fairly smart to boot. Her home life is among the darkest material in the film, and gives one of the few moments that genuinely fills me with dread.
The main character, by comparison, is almost solely driven by his desire to find his little brother, which works in some scenes, but comes to completely define all of his actions to the exclusion of any other traits. He has a best friend who is easily the most annoying character in the group because of his insistence on cracking what eight-year-olds think of as edgy jokes, most of them sexual, so of course he’s the character I’m going to suspect of having a hard-on for the main protagonist. The character is much more interesting if you choose to read him as gay, though the film isn’t prepared to go so far and outright suggest its characters are anything but heterosexual.
Alongside the needless bullying and the oversexualization of the girl (who seems to be about three years older than most of these kids anyway), there is a pointless love triangle that comes out of nowhere, bogs down the story, has an unsatisfying resolution between Bev and the dull-as-a-log protagonist, and generally makes me dislike all of the characters involved. Despite a few dull or agonizing moments, though, the group of kids also gets plenty of good interactions. Most of the child actors are decent, and even though they tend to be fairly two-dimensional, they still express themselves colorfully. The hypochondriac kid especially gets several good lines when interacting with his overbearing mother. Even the token minority characters who get shafted in favor of the boring protagonist and the love triangle have a few memorable scenes related to their initial interactions with Pennywise. More than the characters themselves, I think the character interactions help paint the picture of a small social group of outcasts, and the darker surrounding environment drives this point home.
Throughout the film, there is a theme of adults being weird, ignorant, or violent, often to a surreal degree. At times, it can be distracting (mainly because however competent the child actors are, the adults almost unanimously give terrible performances), but the rest of the time it feels like an illustration of what it’s like to be a kid. As a kid, you are mainly aware of your immediate social circle, and everyone outside of it, from adults to other people at school, seem to interact with you through a filter. The film captures that mindset through its style. The characters, though archetypical, are still decent, and their group dynamic makes the film. I think the plot suffers because at no point did I really feel any of them were in much danger; had one of them, even one of the more minor characters like the hypochondriac or the best friend, died, I think the story would have had more teeth. Considering it’s willing to kill off small children without any caveats, I’m kind of surprised it doesn’t take advantage of that leeway. The characters are good enough that I might actually have cared if one of them died.
Part Three: This Film Really Loves Its Dutch Angles
My general assessment of the story is that it is adequate – an entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking exploration of the lives of some outcast middle schoolers that doesn’t provide so much challenge that it strains the brain. The aesthetics of the film are much the same; the music is fine, the cinematography is fine, the costumes and setting and color saturation are all fine, but little more. I might give the film some credit because it does present itself as though each shot was a deliberate call by the director. The opening sequence, as anyone who has seen the trailers likely noticed, takes careful note to show small details like the name of the street, the neighbor’s cat, and the brother’s application of the cement sealing on the little boat. A careful eye can readily identify a fondness for the source material in the cinematography, as the film goes out of its way (occasionally at the cost of being pandering) to emphasize nonessential elements. I have not read the book, like I said, but given how much the film wants the audience to remember that the main character’s bike is named “Silver,” I would imagine it has some importance to the story.
In some ways, the film’s ability to balance a story that is coherent to a new audience with fan service is laudable; I feel far too many mediocre film adaptations fail miserably on one front or the other, especially for major franchises. However, the constant references to the book are blatant and can become grating, as they frequently serve no purpose other than to highlight book content that couldn’t be worked into the plot. There is a difference between throwing allusions to the source material into the background for hawk-eyed fans to catch, and proudly displaying those shop names that mean absolutely nothing if you haven’t read the book, which many theatre-goers haven’t. Why does the camera pan down to show the bike’s name on two separate occasions? Why does it introduce an abusive father character for the bully twenty minutes from the end of the film? Why does a different bully write “loser” on the one kid’s cast, and why does he take the time to write “lover” over it when the cast also isn’t introduced until the last third of the film? Because they were in the book.
The lighter references don’t severely detract from the main story, so the film feels it has a bit of room to pander. In some scenes, this adds to the visual identity of the film, which is full of warm colors, dark spaces, and a distorted lens or filter during shots that emphasize the blur between reality and surreality. Often, though, it makes the film seem like it thinks it’s much more artistic than it actually is.
Speaking of which, I’d like to dedicate a little time to talk about the use of Dutch angles in this film, because boy does it like to make sure the audience notices them. The first use is in the opening, where the shots from inside the gutter are tilted to give the audience a sense of unease (as though a clown in a gutter needed to be more suspicious). It works there. The next time it comes up, however, is one of the silliest shots I’ve seen on film; a character notices a painting hanging ajar on the wall, and the next shot is of the painting’s perspective, with the camera tilted. This itself would be a subtle if a little predicable use of the Dutch angle, but then the character reaches out and corrects the tilt by hand, with the shot still from the painting’s perspective.
After that, the camera tilts and cuts abruptly to tilted shots in some of the oddest moments of the film, especially right before and right after jump scares, often at a high angles like thirty or even forty degrees. That is too much Dutch angle for the shots they capture. I can recall one effective use of the Dutch angle aside from in the opening, and that was during the attempted rape scene. There the angle is fairly low and transitions from a stable plane to a tilt during an intensely eerie moment to subtly highlight the unease felt by the character as she realizes the danger she’s in. More often, though, the camera tilt technique is used to fill in for atmosphere that is otherwise lacking. It isn’t anywhere near Battlefield Earth levels (and I wouldn’t doubt I missed a few of the more subtle uses of the technique), but I recall noticing the Dutch angles on four or five occasions in the film where it served more to distract from than enhance the scene.
Ultimately, the cinematography is competent enough to seem exceptional at times, until you notice it testing the limits of its own skill and falling flat on its own self-worth. With almost all of the film’s elements structured this way, it develops a unique identity despite being overall mediocre. I can understand this film being underwhelming to some, but I found its good points engaging and its flaws educational for my own analysis, making the whole ordeal worthwhile.