You’ll float, too.
According to author Stephen King, the titular ‘It’ — an ancient sharp-toothed, child-eating bogeyman — awakens every 27 years to feed on the terrors of its chosen prey. Surprisingly, this latest incarnation of the Master of Mystery’s hugely popular paperback comes exactly 27 years after the ‘so-so’ two-part ABC mini-series made its television debut back in 1990. Coincidence? You decide. Based on the preliminary branch of King’s 1986 masterwork, this newest It iteration utterly surpasses its ’90s counterpart (which spawned a bit of a following thanks to Tim Curry’s spine-chilling portrayal of the grimly iconic Pennywise), director Andy Muschietti giving the celebrated source material the respect and treatment it wholeheartedly deserves. In short, It is a freakishly frightful carnivalesque creepshow, the flick, while not pee-in-your-pants scary, sure to get under your skin.
It opens in 1988 during a heavy rainstorm in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, where a shy pre-pubescent stutterer, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), makes his younger brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), a floatable paper boat. Dressed in a yellow raincoat, we trail the carefree Georgie as he frolics through a rain-swept street, following his paper ship as it rushes along a flooded gutter, until it’s swept down a storm drain. Peering into the sewer, Georgie spots a pair of glowing ivory eyes. It’s there he meets Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), a creepy man dressed in an Elizabethan-era clown suit. After a brief chat, the eerie entertainer tries to entice Georgie into taking a balloon. When he refuses, the clown persuades him to reach down into the gap to retrieve his boat, only to reveal his true malevolent nature, the red-nosed predator ripping Georgie’s arm off before pulling him into the sewer to devour him whole. Suffice it to say, this disturbing prologue reminds us that the simplest things can sometimes be the most frightening.
Cut to June, the following year, where Bill is still being haunted by the memory of his missing brother, his parents having grown distant and cold towards him after losing their youngest son. With the school year drawing to a close, the guilt-stricken Bill is determined to spend the entire summer searching for his absent brother, who he believes is very much alive, convinced that Georgie had been washed out to the far reaches of the sewer system. Zooming around on his rusty bike named Silver, Bill drags his rag-tag crew of ostracized friends along to help him look. The group consists of Richie ‘Trashmouth’ Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), a wisecracking jokester who doesn’t take anything seriously; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), a pint-sized hypochondriac who lives with his overbearing mother (Mollie Jane Atkinson) and walks around with a fanny pack that’s brimming with medication; and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) a well-kept Jewish boy who’s supposed to be studying for his upcoming bar mitzvah. Dubbing themselves the ‘Losers Club,’ the boys are later joined by Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), an attractive tomboyish redhead from the poorer side of town, who’s eager to escape her volatile home life, Bev’s promiscuous reputation causing each of the lads to swoon over her.
It’s Beverly’s friendship with tubby loner Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) that gets him involved with the Losers, whom he meets after he’s brutally attacked by a pack of nasty bullies, lead by the sociopathic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) — Bowers turning out to be almost as formidable as the infamous Pennywise. Spending most of his time in the local library, it’s Ben who uncovers the town’s troubling history of missing kids, having researched its notorious past, including the blaze at The Black Spot and an Ironworks explosion during an Easter egg hunt. The last person to join the pack is the home-schooled African-American Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), who resides with his grandfather in a farm just outside of town, Mike struggling to conform to the brutality of his family’s meatpacking business. When the kids begin to see their inner fears come to life, they discover that their visions are inextricably linked to a terrifying clown responsible for all the disappearances, the Losers Club deciding to band together in order to take down the shape-shifting entity that feasts on young children’s flesh, a creature they call It.
Expertly handled by director Andy Muschietti, Mama (2013), who obviously holds the seminal bestseller in high esteem, this latest It reimagining is the strongest Stephen King book-to-film jump since Frank Darabont tackled The Mist (2007) some ten years ago. Working from a screenplay by Cary Fukunaga — who was originally slated to direct — along with Chase Palmer and horror maestro Gary Dauberman, Annabelle: Creation (2017) — the latter brought in for re-writes no doubt — It skilfully juxtaposes tender coming-of-age drama with pulse-pounding terror, this big-screen frightfest — think Stand by Me (1986) meets A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) — perfectly paced and rich in character and themes. And while, yes, the movie does deal with some dark and challenging subject matter — i.e. parental abuse and the deceitfulness of those in power (namely adults) — it’s surprisingly fun and humorous, too, It an emotionally loaded rollercoaster ride — you’ll laugh, you’ll shriek, you’ll quiver.
With moviemakers choosing to split King’s lengthy 1,138-page novel into two distinct ‘chapters,’ (the grown-up action left for a future follow-up), audiences are wholly able to witness (and really invest in) each era of the central players’ lives — their formative years and (later) the mundanity of maturity — It telling a gripping, self-contained story while laying the groundwork for that inevitable next installment. You see, this initial outing examines that delicate transformative age, pre-pubescence, the film looking at loss of innocence, the power of friendship and overcoming trauma and hardship, while exploring life as a kid in the 1980s, Argentinian filmmaker Andy Muschietti taking the time to carefully develop his characters, who are rendered relatable by the film’s talented young cast.
As it turns out, each member of the Losers Club is on the verge of puberty: Beverly is grappling with menstruation, Stanley (pushed by his Rabbi father) is forced to live up to the strict practices of his Jewish upbringing, while the boys, chiefly ringleader Bill and book-nerd Ben, are lusting over the rebellious Beverly, the sole gal in the outcast cluster — ah, the pangs of first love. While these ‘fears of growing up’ are presented in a rather realistic manner (because, hey, life as an early adolescent can be an awfully scary time), they’re chillingly reflected in the youths’ respective delusions, these lurid daydreams a ghoulish delight; we have ominous floating balloons, blood-spurting sinks, spooky homesteads and a variety of nightmare-inducing nasties (my fave, a ghastly surrealist painting come to life), each of these horrid hallucinations a different manifestation of the carrot-haired clown. Alone, our damaged protagonists are hapless victims, terrorized by the ravenous Pennywise, but together, as part of a pack — their group working as a sort of rite of passage for the youths — they learn to stand up for one another and face their own personal demons dead-on, both the monstrous and human kind.
It also helps that our young leads are well cast, each performer bringing levity and heart to their individual characters. Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special (2016), is excellent as Bill, the group’s anchor, whilst Sophia Lillis, 37 (2016), is a revelation as the spunky Bev Marsh, the young actress conveying that awkward flirtation synonymous with pre-teen male-female friendships, mainly when she’s sharing the screen with Lieberher’s Bill and Jeremy Ray Taylor’s Ben — who happens to be a closet New Kids on the Block fan. Best known for his role as Mike Wheeler in 2016’s Netflix sensation Stranger Things, Finn Wolfhard steals all of his scenes as the band’s gleefully crass, coke-bottle-glasses wearing comedian Richie, the lively 14-year-old clearly having the time of his life unleashing waves of profanity and snarky remarks. Even Jack Dylan Grazer, Tales of Halloween (2015), shines as the fast-talking worrywart Eddie, who refuses to go anywhere without his asthma inhaler.
Rather than replicating Tim Curry’s greasy portrayal of the child-gobbling foe, Bill Skarsgård, Atomic Blonde (2017), redefines the classic monster entirely, the Swedish-born actor carving his own path in horror history. Utilizing his younger age, Skarsgård sinks into the villainous role, his performance sure to give certain patrons the heebie-jeebies (especially those who suffer from coulrophobia), this new Pennywise a playfully sadistic hunter who enjoys the chase, sorta like Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger. Unnerving, menacing and enigmatic, this body-contorting, googly-eyed joker is sure to evoke more than a few screams.
Not having dabbled in the pages of King’s novel directly, one can assume that Muschietti’s picture, while forging its own identity, has been faithful to the spirit of its acclaimed source — well, it doesn’t deviate too far from the story most already know. There have, however, been a number of alterations, the most noticeable being the ’50s backdrop, which has been substituted with the 1980s, this time swap giving proceedings more of a contemporary vibe. Still, the period-piece setting oozes with nostalgia, the standout production design by Claude Paré, Night at the Museum (2006), devilishly detailed, the highlight being Pennywise’s twisted subterranean lair, this grotesquely gorgeous junk-heap made out of a mountainous pile of century-old playthings. Moreover, the film is decked with cool little intricacies; there are subtle ‘missing persons’ flyers stuck on lamp-posts and printed on milk cartons, with era-specific nitty-gritties fully selling the timeframe — Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), for instance, is screening at the local movie house, this displayed on the theater’s marquee — the first-rate costumes by Janie Bryant, The Last House on the Left (2009), equally as authentic and exhaustive.
What It lacks in jumps and jolts, it certainly makes up for with sheer atmospheric dread, the movie not as bloodcurdling as its trailers would have you believe. But, hey, no need to fret, as, image-wise, It is a real house of horrors, a smorgasbord for those genre aficionados, plus it’s genuinely unsettling, the splendid cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung, Oldboy (2003), really heightening the tension; a scene in which a slide carousel glitch sees Bill’s ginger-haired mother morph into the macabre melon-headed merrymaker, this via a flashing flutter of projected pictures, is hands-down nerve-wracking, Chung employing expressive lighting to amp up suspense. Look, some have moaned and groaned about the film’s over-use of CGI, but honestly, the VFX work does seem justified, Muschietti opting to use computer effects as a means of serving or supporting the story, not as embellishment — either way, I never found them to be a distraction.
Ultimately, this kid-centric portion of Stephen King’s It is an unflinching piece of cinema, a visually striking revamp that’s elevated by a first-rate script, the narrative chock-full of creative set pieces and empathetic characters we’d love to revisit. Holding a run-time of 135 minutes, It can be a taxing sit through (for some), but considering the book’s length, this stretch feels somewhat warranted. In any case, Andy Muschietti and his behind-the-scenes team have managed to pull off the impossible, It a worthy adaptation of a text that many have deemed unadaptable, this shuddersome crowd pleaser, which is destined to float to the top of the box office, one of the best films you’ll see all year!
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner