IT has been a long time coming. Not only was this a film stuck in development hell, but it comes as an example of this generation’s property-driven adaptation streak that includes the prolific but often poorly adapted Stephen King. Each reworking of the unimaginably popular and massively prolific King is something like pulling the sword from the stone. So far only two have definitely done it: The Shawshank Redemption and The Shining. Kubrick’s The Shining altered the material enough to receive a full dismissal from the author, even as the standalone film is one of American cinema’s most extraordinary and cryptic works. The other was touching critically praised, but not in any way a horror film.
Andy Muschietti’s film (along with this summer’s other long-simmering King work, The Dark Tower) comes with introductory endorsement from the author himself. The reasons for a poor page-to-screen transition are numerous, let alone King’s winding, character driven epics. Even then, IT is an albatross, a cinder-block sized horror-text about childhood trauma, friendship and a decades-long wrestling match with an inter-dimensional being who appears as a clown. But the premise is simple, IT is a creature that preys on the fears of children.
So, take a minute King fans…horror fans. IT is a great movie--a worthy adaptation of King, an unrelenting visual delight and horror film first and foremost.
Set in the Derry, Maine in the summer of 1988, IT tells the story of Bill Denbrough, a junior high kid whose brother Georgie was snatched down a storm drain by a maniacal clown the previous fall. All the town knows is where he disappeared. As school lets out for summer, Bill and his friends (known as the Loser’s Club) discuss whether they will pick up the abandoned search for Georgie. Here, we’re introduced to a collection of stock roles and identities: Stanley Uris, the Jewish one (Wyatt Oleff), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) the hypochondriac and Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) the foul-mouthed one. They will add to their ranks Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) the girl, Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) the black kid and Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) the new kid/the fat kid. They are antagonized by a trio of shaggy haired bullies, lead by the mulleted Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). What pain isn’t inflicted by the bullies is portrayed by cartoonish parents who are dismissive, predatory or smothering. Given that nearly every character is given some type of minor arc the stereotypes are a way to identify a barrage of introductions and early interactions.
But IT loads the titular monster early. Pennywise the dancing clown (Bill Skarsgård) appears to each of the kids as a manifestation of their own fear or trauma. For instance, Mike Hanlon, having been orphaned in a house fire and raised by his grandfather, a livestock farmer and butcher, is confronted with a vision of the house fire and the clown, strung up on a meat hook, eyes glowing in the dark. Stanley Uris, sees the clown first as a creepy Edvard Munch-like portrait come to life. Each child is confronted by IT as Pennywise and IT as a creature. They have to find and confront the clown as a group or risk being picked off in isolation.
The script deals each bit of exposition with bursts of thrilling nightmares, all Dutch angles and swift editing. There is little time to catch your breath before the next scene and the narrative is incomprehensible. At 135 minutes, IT is barely contained, stuffed to crown of its encephalitic clown skull with wondrous and terrifying set pieces. Assembled more episodically, IT pulls away from the coming-of-age story to deliver a finely crafted creature feature. There’s some half-baked structure around how fear (literally) divides the Losers club, but the adventure lies in the variety and ingenuity of the scares.
Skarsgård wisely crafts Pennywise’s persona from scratch, trading the harsh taunting of Tim Curry’s 1990 portrayal for a childlike charisma that emanates wordlessly from the painted contours of Skarsgård’s face. IT/Pennywise is given no backstory and reigns in the immediacy of each encounter, bursting through slide projectors, rising from floodwaters, and menacing in a room full of clown dolls.
For horror fans, this is a must see. IT is old-school fun and deserves the experience of the big screen. The film leaves no doubt of a sequel, and remains highly re-watchable until that time.