directed by Andy Muschietti
written by Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman
starring Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs,
Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott, and Bill Skarsgård
The wait is finally over, and 2017 finally brings Stephen King’s magnum horror treatise IT to the big screen. Much like the cycle in which the titular It sleeps and feeds, 27 years have passed since IT emerged from the pages of King’s novel and onto the small screen in the form of a miniseries which starred Tim Curry as Pennywise, the child-eating clown. After years of cinematic gestation, IT has returned; this time as a big screen blockbuster, directed by Andy Muschietti (Mama). IT has been hotly anticipated by fans, and expectations have been set high by an impressive set of trailers and a promising, frightening Pennywise played by Bill Skarsgård (Hemlock Grove). Films based on King’s work, however, are largely a hit-or-miss affair, and IT is both a well-loved book and a fondly remembered (if mostly for Curry’s incredible performance), yet flawed miniseries, so the prospect of a big screen adaptation still seemed a daunting task. 2017’s IT is mostly a triumph, full of old school, spook house energy, some impressive horror set pieces, and wonderful performances from its cast.
A word of warning: here be spoilers.
IT begins one rainy afternoon, in 1988, as Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) chases a paper boat, made by his older brother, down a street in Derry, Maine. The boat is sucked down into the sewer by the swollen current; Georgie peers down into drain in hopes of finding his boat, but instead finds a clown — Pennywise the Dancing Clown — who offers Georgie the lost boat, as well as a balloon. It is from this moment that IT begins; children are disappearing from Derry at an alarming rate, and the adults seem ambivalent — or unaware — of the danger. Soon after, Georgie’s older brother, “Stuttering” Bill (Jeremy Ray Taylor), along with a group of friends that soon refer to themselves as “The Losers Club,” seeks to stop the slate of child disappearances, as well as (hopefully) find Bill’s brother. The Losers Club — comprised of Bill, red-haired Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), trash-mouth Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard, Stranger Things), hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), cautious Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), and home-schooled Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) — band together through their shared encounters with the monster-that-is-usually-Pennywise, as more grounded, real-life horrors: sexual abuse, bullying, racism, and, in the case of Eddie, Munchausen-by-proxy.
IT, while being known by the mass public as A HORROR NOVEL, was always going to live and die on the merits of the young actors who would be portraying the protagonists, and, thankfully, IT’s biggest strengths reside in its cast. The Losers Club makes for a formidable bunch — think a serious-minded Monster Squad — with solid performances from its young cast. All of the young actors do well in their parts, with Lillis’ Bev, Wolfhard’s Ritche, and Grazer’s Eddie being the standouts. While all of the Losers have their moments to shine, Ben and Mike get the short stick in terms of character building; both young actors give excellent performances, and, while both characters have meaningful moments, both are seriously underwritten when compared to their literary counterparts. Continuing with that unfortunate trend, alpha bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang are sorely underwritten. In the novel, as well as the 1990’s miniseries, Bowers and his shitheel friends are a constant source of dangers to The Losers Club, while here they seem nearly incidental, really only existing to deliver Ben and Mike into The Losers Club as a sort-of mullet-wearing deus ex machina. Despite the understandable, but nevertheless unfortunate, excising of material from the film, IT still seems closer to Stand By Me in terms of acting quality than the myriad clunkers from within the “based on Stephen King” filmography.
Of course, the biggest question that seemed to resonate through IT’s fandom is how Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise would compare to that of Tim Curry’s, which is, understandably and unequivocally, iconic. Curry’s performance is remembered fondly for a reason; while 1990’s IT definitely has its charm and merits, it is Curry’s performance that makes it work. Fans need not worry, however — Skarsgård’s Pennywise is the best horror icon in recent years, and his performance, both in its character and its physicality, is damned near perfect. Skarsgård is lank and lean, and his Pennywise taps into the inhuman, unearthly side of the child killing monster. The character design for Pennywise is excellent, making his clownish visage strangely childlike in appearance, as well as trading the stereotypical modern-clown jumpsuit with something more Victorian and classical. It’s a shame that much of Skarsgård’s performance is augmented, or, at times, obscured, by computer effects that arguably seem less effective than what is (or could be) achieved practically; Skarsgård’s use of an actual lazy eye is brilliant, and gives Pennywise an even further inhuman affectation. Make no mistake, Skarsgård is wonderful in IT.
So — the cast is good, and PENNYWISE is good — so, is the film good? Short answer — yes; IT is one of the better horror films of the year, and definitely one of the better King adaptations in recent memory. Muschietti’s film is beautiful, both visually, thanks to the amazing cinematography of Chung-hoon Chung (cinematographer of the original ), and in terms of its treatment of the material; it is simply astounding that this much money, energy, and, honestly, love for the material has been poured into a horror film, even if it does come from the biggest name in horror literature. IT is the most gorgeous mainstream horror film that has hit the big screen in years, and also doesn’t flinch in its depiction of violence towards children; make no mistake, IT is a serious, adult horror film. There are some truly terrifying set pieces in IT, notably Pennywise’s attack on Georgie, as well as the projector scene teased in the marketing campaign (rest assured, the teaser trailer did not spoil the surprises of this scene). IT means business, with a bit of a caveat (more on this below).
IT is not without its faults, however — while most of the film is engaging, two of the biggest problems of the film pulled me out of the story. The most egregious error of the film is the treatment of Bev in the third act, where the film takes a character who can be tough and strong (her relationships outside of The Losers Club notwithstanding) and basically puts her into the role of “damsel in distress,” or at least puts her into a situation where she is completely powerless and has to be rescued by Bill. This change in story and in character was not only completely unnecessary, but Bev’s cinematic fate could have been melded into that of Stan’s, which could fuel his character’s tragic future even further. Arguments can be made that events in the third act serve to make Bill’s character more complex — is Bill heroic or selfish in his pursuit of It, — but it still doesn’t justify Bev’s sudden need for rescue.
IT’s other problem is almost more troublesome for the film: it’s just not that scary. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is, for the most part, frightening, and there are certain sequences (the aforementioned scenes with Georgie and the projector, for example) in which he is downright terrifying. Much of the film, however, is subject to some terrible CGI, as well as some uninspired, and, in the case of Stan, piss poor, monsters/scares. Muschietti has spoken about the flute-playing woman who stalks Stan, but the effect is laughable, not frightening, and much too reminiscent of Muschietti’s Mama. The filmmakers have discussed in interviews how they were trying to stay away from the monsters which informed Pennywise’s many guises in the novel and to bring something more modern, but, in the end, it seemed more generic and poorly executed than frightening. Yes, IT features a few effective jump scares, and Pennywise is, when allowed to be mostly Bill Skarsgård and some greasepaint, quite terrifying, but, for the most part, IT’s scares are fairly tame… or, in the case of Pennywise’s attacks on Georgie and Stan, frightening, but hampered by the CGI execution.
IT, while not without its flaws, is an excellent horror film. It is an adaptation that changes nearly as much from its source material as it honors, but stays true to the tone of the original story — which, honestly, is as much as an audience can (probably) reasonably ask. There are beats, moments, and themes that do get lost in IT, both due to the breaking up of the story into multiple films, and due to the fact that some of IT’s magic can really only be conveyed through the written word. As Stephen King has stated, though, “books and movies are like apples and oranges — both are different, but both are delicious,” and this sentiment thoroughly captures Muschietti’s adaptation. Hopefully, the success of this IT, identified at the beginning of its credits as “Chapter One,” carries through into “Chapter Two,” and Muschietti, Skarsgård, and company deliver a satisfying and, hopefully, terrifying conclusion.