D: Andy Muschietti / 135m
Cast: Jaeden Liberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert
Somebody somewhere knows just how many movie adaptations there are of novels, novellas and short stories (and random ideas) by Stephen King. But having that knowledge will also mean that if they’ve seen all those adaptations, then the ratio of good to bad is going to be firmly on the bad side. For every Carrie (1976) there’s a Graveyard Shift (1990), or an unwanted sequel such as The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace (1996). Then there are the TV adaptations, but even there the ratio is still predominantly bad over good, with the likes of The Tommyknockers (1993) and Trucks (1997) proving less than successful. However, one TV adaptation that had a better reception was It (1990), and mostly because of Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. A big screen remake has been in the works since 2009, and after a couple of false starts it’s finally here.
The first thing to mention about It is that it’s a far better adaptation of King’s novel than we could have ever expected. The script – a rewrite by Gary Dauberman of one written by previously attached director Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer – gives us several avenues down which we can explore, from the camaraderie of the Losers Club (the group of six boys and one girl who take on Pennywise the Clown), to the troubled history of their hometown of Derry, Maine, and the reluctance of the adults in Derry to acknowledge the evil that lurks in their town. The movie is also a coming-of-age story, as the members of the Losers Club try to overcome their fears and take on an evil entity that identifies and plays on those fears in order to feed every twenty-seven years. Led by Bill Denbrough (Lieberher), who loses his little brother, Georgie (Scott), to the sewer-dwelling clown who calls himself Pennywise (Skarsgård), the Losers Club is a select band of friends who become aware of Pennywise’s presence in Derry, and decide to do something about it. There’s motormouth Richie (Wolfhard), hypochondriac Eddie (Grazer), orphaned Mike (Jacobs), germaphobe Stanley (Oleff), new kid in town and local history buff Ben (Taylor), and in time, strong-willed Beverly (Lillis).
Their friendships are at the heart of the movie, adding a rich layer of emotional consequence that could so easily have been overlooked in favour of the next big scare. Instead, the hopes and dreams and fears of a group of young kids take centre stage, and thanks to the script and Muschietti’s adept direction it’s easy to feel anxious for them, whether they’re being bullied by older teen Henry Bowers (Hamilton) and his cronies, or facing up to the malicious intentions of Pennywise and his abductions of children. As each is drawn into a tighter and tighter circle of responsibility – they all realise that there aren’t any adults who could deal with what’s happening (or want to; there’s a pervading sense that the adults are complicit in Pennywise’s actions) – friendships old and new are tested like they’ve never been tested before, and they discover a heroism in themselves that proves to be their greatest achievement, both individually and as a group. They bicker, they argue, they prove their love for each other – even and especially Beverly – and they unite to defeat Pennywise… for the time being.
With the characters and the performances of the Losers Club locked in, Muschietti is free to concentrate on making It as scary and as terrifying as he possibly can, and he does so by making Pennywise a more vicious and intense incarnation of the Dancing Clown than was the case back in 1990. A little flirtatious, and tempting with it, the sewer-dwelling entity is an unnerving creation made all the more unsettling by the quality of Skarsgård’s portrayal. Using his gangly frame to excellent advantage, Skarsgård adds a serpent-like nuance to his performance, his physical presence (even when still) exuding menace at every turn. Aided by a terrific visual design, inspired in part by Lon Chaney’s portrayal of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Pennywise is the stuff of coulrophobics’ nightmares, and the movie exploits that fear in various clever and impressive ways; for once he’s just as scary out of the shadows as he is within them.
The movie is bolstered by a host of impressive performances from its young cast members, with Lieberher leading the charge as stuttering Bill Denbrough, evincing Bill’s grief at losing his little brother, and looking an unlikely hero in the grand scheme of things with complete conviction. Equally as good (if not slightly better) is Lillis as the tomboyish Beverly, plagued by the unsavoury attentions of her father and finding respite in the company of a group of boys whose own worries and concerns are easier for her to deal with. The unofficial mother and girlfriend of the group, Beverly dares and challenges them to be better than they are. There’s good support from Wolfhard and Taylor, though inevitably, and despite their best efforts, Jacobs, Oleff and Grazer are at the mercy of a script that can’t possibly focus on everyone equally, and so have less to do in terms of the overall narrative.
Structurally, the movie does suffer by having two confrontations between the Losers Club and Pennywise occupying the last hour, and there’s a sense that the longer the movie goes on, the less frightening Pennywise becomes, though this would be to overlook the notion that’s spelt out towards the end that the Losers Club are becoming less and less scared of It, and with their doing so, the entity itself becomes less intimidating. It’s another clever conceit in a movie that is dominated by a plethora of good ideas in terms of the adaptation carved out of King’s novel, and Muschietti’s assured direction is augmented and complemented by Claude Paré’s splendid production design and Chung-hoon Chung’s dread-fuelled cinematography. There are scares to be had throughout, some of them very effective indeed, and the movie maintains a morbid, chilling atmosphere from the first rain-soaked scene to the climactic battle below the streets of Derry. A definite winner as an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, if Muschietti and co are able to maintain this level of consistency in Chapter Two, then 2019 can’t come round quickly enough.
Rating: 8/10 – King’s sprawling tome is transferred to the big screen with a great deal of skill and enviable attention paid to the dynamics of the Losers Club and the vicious nature of its villain, making It a much better option than another more recent King adaptation; visually arresting at times, and a lot more uncompromising than a mainstream horror movie usually aims for (let alone achieves), this is an old-fashioned chiller that is both discomfiting and disturbing – and wants the viewer to know it.