It; 2 hrs 15min; Rated R
When I was 11 years old, my dad took me to see a sci-fi film titled “The Thing.” I was simultaneously riveted and terrified. There was one scene in which the Thing, an enormous, man-like creature from another world stood on one side of a door and two scientists stood on the other side, debating about turning the knob. It’s a familiar trope, but for me, a kid whose imagination could slip into overdrive at even the prospect of walking down the stairs into a dark, dank basement, well that moment to this day remains, still, unforgettable.
I think of it as the meta-creepy, hair-raising sweet spot. Put another way, it’s that place where our labyrinth of fears reside, fears that can define part of our childhood — kids are not as insulated from the terrifying as are adults (though in truth none of us is immune) who are more jaded by their life experiences.
And it is in this sweet spot that Stephen King resides, coming at it from a myriad of angles with a prolific talent that seems without end. But regardless of the novel — and “It” is a perfect example — he is able to find that cluster of fear that resides within the reader/filmgoer and nudge it, provoke it until a sense of rising fear can morph into a nugget of sustained dread, most times with astonishing quickness. What King understands, and this is his genius, is that it is part of human nature to carry a nugget of unresolved uneasiness, of a willingness to suspend one’s disbelief and enter into that dark geography that has overtly and subtly haunted us as kids and remains still as adults.
It’s why standing on the top step of a dark basement, the ominous smells wafting up, then turning on the light switch and finding that the lights aren’t working so resonates.
It is, of course, a cliché; yet it is also instantly effective for what it represents.
And therein is the power and effectiveness of the film “It.” Once again, using the image of the benign and joyful clown and turning it, so to speak, on its head, King takes the expected and transforms it into the most frightful.
Part of the brilliance of this film, set in the small town of Derry, Maine, in 1989, is that it starts with seven middle-schoolers, all just released from school with the summer stretching before them. At the outset they are not a crew, though each resides on that outcast edge of the school experience.
They slowly come together and tentatively share their encounters with a shape-shifting clown called Pennywise (Bill Scarsgard). In fact, the initial set-up of the movie begins with Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) constructing a small boat made out of paper and covered with wax for his younger brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), who wants to go outside and play in the rain and float the boat in the water-filled gutters while he chases behind. That is until the boat disappears into a storm drain and, of course, Georgie kneels down and looks into the opening and there, holding the boat, is Pennywise.
What is also immensely important is that Pennywise begins to represent those moments of disbelief and then terror, eliciting from the kids their personal anxieties and apprehensions and unresolved fears that will remain with them for a lifetime.
Realize that you are not watching a horror film per se. Although King is thought of as a master of the genre, it’s a shallow definition. Know that it is not Pennywise who is at the center of the story; rather, it is the kids, as a group and as individuals, that give this film its essence and texture. Each is dealing with standing at the top of the basement stairs and finding that the light switch is broken, and with courage and massive amounts of will, each takes one step then a second into that space defined by their own imaginations.
The novel “It” is over 1,000 pages long and is divided into two parts. This just-released adaption focuses just on the kids; it’s also subtitled, as the end credits begin to roll, as Chapter One. In fact, there are no adults of any substance. The few that do appear are abusive and even malevolent.
Chapter Two will arrive sometime in 2019 and will involve the kids now grown into adulthood. In the denouement of Chapter One, the seven stand in a circle and take a blood oath, swearing to return to Derry if ever need be. And so they do. Not to face Pennywise (it was never about Pennywise), but to finally face their unresolved fears.