2/10 The titular monster in “It” comes out of the sewer every 30 years to feed, so remaking the movie, which was originally a 1990 made-for-TV miniseries, makes a ton of sense. Given the 1,100 page Stephen King novel’s massive scope and breadth of themes and 30 years of technological advancement, you can create a very different movie while remaining uniquely true to the original novel and previous adaptations.
There’s just one problem: modern horror can really suck sometimes.
“It” follows a group of seven middle school children who call themselves “The Losers’ Club.” United by a common bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), group members confess they’ve each individually been haunted by a seemingly omnipresent creature that can take the form of their deepest fears but most commonly appears to them as Pennywise, the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). To avenge his kid brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), who is killed by Pennywise in the film’s first scene, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) leads the losers into the sewers to confront the creature, which they dub “It.”
I walked into this movie expecting to hate it for several reasons, and I did for those exact reasons. “It” is hovering around 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, so expect less picky viewers’ mileage to vary widely, but I maintain that there’s a lot objectively wrong with this movie.
There are a couple of things we knew about this movie going in that helped form my negative opinion. The novel “It” is split into two halves, one about teenagers and the other returning to the same characters in their early 40s. We knew this movie was going to spend 135 minutes on only the first half of that story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — both halves of the book have their own themes and create new ones when they join. The 1990 show cuts both halves together very effectively, but splitting them into two movies works just fine and gives us a perspective that hasn’t been put to film before.
The problem here is we get less thematic material and more time for jump scares. “It” adheres to the prominent but absolutely absurd idea that the longer the audience is waiting on a jump, the scarier that jump will be, so the movie is for the most part divided sharply between plot scenes and scare scenes. The theory is this keeps the audience engaged and draws out a scene’s tension for as long as possible, but in practice it creates boring, over-long movies.
The 1990 “It” is a spectacular counter-example — the movie doesn’t suddenly fall silent every few minutes to signal that a jump scare is coming, meaning the conditions for an encounter with Pennywise are always active, meaning the scares come out of absolutely nowhere when they come, meaning the audience is always on its toes. Instead of that, this remake comes with a big flashing red sign telling viewers when to cover their eyes and when to relax.
We also knew from the marketing that it was going to lift scenes directly from other recent horror movies, and … oh boy.
In the first scene in which Georgie is killed, you’ve got the soft children’s choral music popularized in “The Conjuring” movies playing over the production logos, then the opening credits play over tight close-ups of Billy constructing a paper boat, which is straight out of every creepy doll horror movie ever made, most recently the “Annabelle” franchise. Then, the movie almost immediately transitions to a fake-out jump scare scene as Georgie goes down to the basement. This sort of thing is super lame and in a ton of modern horror movies, but this scene in particular was done almost exactly in the first “Conjuring” as well. Finally, after a discussion with Pennywise, the scene ends with that dragged-away-from-the-camera shot made famous by the first “Paranormal Activity.”
That’s just the first few minutes. Over the course of the movie, we go on to get scenes ripped straight out of “Sinister,” “Lights Out” and the 2013 “Evil Dead” remake. Pennywise’s shifty, choppy movement is lifted from 2014’s “The Babadook.” The emphasis on adventurous kids solving their own problems with an ’80s backdrop was done better and more famously by Netflix’s “Stranger Things” — Finn Wolfhard noticeably stars in both. They even cram Damsel in Distress and True Love’s Kiss scenes in there.
But most of all, we knew “It” was a remake released in the late 2010s. It was probably going to be overstated, darker, edgier and generally more extreme, whether or not that served the story. This movie absolutely reeks of the sort of grandstanding that comes with recent remakes.
Even beyond pilfering from recent movies entire scenes at a time, “It” rises above that to reach a higher, truer form of creative bankruptcy. This movie captures the soul, the very essence of lowest-common-denominator focus-group 2017 filmmaking. The losers’ individual ticks, instead of being aspects of rounded characters, are magnified to become defining characteristics. Stutters in real life are anything but predictable or convenient, but Denbrough’s stutter pops up every third word like clockwork. Every line Group hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) has is about how he’ll catch a disease. Group comedian Richie Tozier (Wolfhard) can’t go more than a sentence without an f-bomb or a sex-related boast or put-down, because that’s comedy. Everybody finds that funny.
Reducing characters to a single identifiable tick gets really problematic really quickly when that “tick” is nothing more than being black, Jewish or female, problems that “It” dives headfirst into. Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff) isn’t Jewish, he’s JEWISH. He’s the rabbi’s son. He walks around middle school with a yarmulke on, for crying out loud. It would be one of the most reductive characterizations in any movie for a long time were it not for the group’s girl, Bev Marsh (Sophia Lillis).
That’s what I didn’t know — how heavily they were going to fetishize the 11-year-old Marsh, and that’s what really damns the film. Understanding that the novel includes a seven-page preteen group sex scene, sexualization of children is always going to be a touchy subject for “It.” This movie cut that scene for obvious reasons — feel free to pat yourself on the back for being classier than Stephen King — but went to lengths to play up the boys’ attractions to Marsh and sexualize her father’s abuse, but what makes this really awful is asking the audience to join in. There’s a clear line between addressing pedophilic subject matter and making a pedophilic movie, and that line is amorous tracking shots of Lillis’ now 15-year-old butt.
Obviously a lot of people are enjoying “It” and there’s a good chance you will too, but I see racism, I see fetishization of minors and I see a boring, derivative movie.
For more, head over to Leopold Knopp’s movie blog at reelentropy.com.