Be warned, this review contains spoilers.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that 1967’s It! is seldom discussed, given the abundance of films that share its title. Factor in its considerable obscurity, and it’s no wonder that so few seem to have watched it. That said, if you can track down a copy, It! is an entertaining and effective horror picture – and I’m certainly glad to have finally seen it.
Roddy McDowall plays Pimm, the frustrated assistant to a museum curator. After a fire destroys much of the museum’s warehouse, Pimm and the curator find a grotesque statue in the ruins. Putting the mysterious figure on display, Pimm is increasingly unnerved by its unearthly presence. As it is revealed, the statue is the fabled Golem; and the increasingly-unhinged Pimm harnesses its power for his own ends.
It! wouldn’t be nearly as engaging were it not for Roddy McDowall. The film is peppered with several bits of dialogue that may have slowed the pace if it were another actor. However, with McDowall in the role, you’re always engaged. Be it a nervous scratch of his nose, a worried glance, or a slight twitch, McDowall adds depth to the character even when he’s not speaking. From the outset, we know that Pimm is not entirely sane; but McDowall never lets that be the summation of the character. Even after Pimm has invoked the Golem, there’s still a sense that he could be redeemed – and that’s down to the pathos that McDowall injects.
Through Pimm, the film realises the focus of the horror film as described by Vivian Sobchack; which is about, “the individual in conflict with society or some extension of himself.” In this manner, the Golem is the extension of Pimm. It lashes out at the world in a way that Pimm himself cannot. Both visually and implicitly, Pimm is a very insular character; but the Golem can assert his desires. Pimm talks to the girl he’s infatuated with (Jill Haworth) about smashing Hammersmith bridge, which the Golem then does. When he dreams of becoming museum curator, it is the Golem who ensures his promotion by way of murder. The horror is in placing that kind of power in the hands of someone who we don’t immediately consider dangerous. What is someone (not least a troubled young man) capable of if given the means?
The Golem itself is a monstrous sight. It’s a shame that It! has slipped into obscurity because the Golem’s design could easily stand with cinema’s other great monsters. We also get to see lots of it, too. Indeed, this isn’t one of those monster pictures in which the creature is withheld until the last reels. What this also means is that we truly feel the Golem’s presence; whenever it stands still, as the unsuspecting walk by, we know what lurks within.
Unfortunately, the film has a weak ending. This is largely because the climax is both contrived and wastes potential. Earlier in the narrative, as Pimm struggles with the moral dilemma of using the Golem, we’re treated to some great dialogue about what is essentially hubris – the idea that if the Golem is used for selfish purposes, its master will lose control and unleash an unrestrained power. Not only is this rich in thematic flavour, but it implies how the narrative will end; and yet, that is not how it ends. A word of warning for spoilers from here on out. Pimm kidnaps his love interest and heads out to an isolated castle. The military try blasting the Golem with artillery, but it is ineffective. Naturally, they decide to use a small nuclear warhead instead.
The warhead obliterates Pimm but leaves the Golem standing. While it must be said that the image of the Golem marching through radioactive dust is immeasurably powerful, it makes for a lousy ending. That Pimm escapes comeuppance at the hands of Golem disregards not just the narrative’s earlier discussion, but also our extra-textual expectations for these kinds of stories. It goes without saying that the jump from bullets to nuclear weapons is also difficult to swallow.
Nevertheless, It! is an effective, atmospheric, and engaging horror picture. Roddy McDowall sells the intrigue and mystery, and the Golem itself sells the horror. As cult titles like this continue to receive renewed interest thanks to outfits like Eureka and Arrow Video, one hopes that It! can rise (as if from radioactive fire) from the embers of insignificance and into the minds of audiences once more.