Whoever came up with the idea to produce a new version of Stephen King’s It (the first for the big screen) 27 years after the original television miniseries is a damn genius, since a major component of the backstory of It is that whatever ancient evil lurking in the bowels of this small town in Maine returns every 27 years to swipe various residents (especially children) from its streets in a feeding frenzy.
That 27-year timeline will factor prominently in the inevitable second chapter of the It mythology, and that’s actually the tougher half of King’s story to get right. One of the many reason’s director Andy Mushietti’s (Mama) version works so well is that we all accept that there’s something inherently wrong with terrorizing children. But decades of successful horror movies prove that we don’t really have issues with horrific events aimed at adults.
But the child warriors at the center of It—the self-branded “Losers Club”—are, to a large extent, living in fear of the world before a demonic clown named Pennywise (a stellar take by Bill Skarsgård, who was featured in Allegiant and earlier this summer in Atomic Blonde) reappears in their town of Derry and starts taking children one by one, including the younger brother of lead Loser and chronic stutterer Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher of Midnight Special and The Book of Henry fame).
Each of the seven members of the Losers Club is an outcast in their own right, and it’s the thing that binds them. Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is an overweight newcomer to the town; Richie Tozier (Rinn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things”) is your classic-model, bespeckled nerd; Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) is seemingly the town’s only black kid; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a sickly, germ-phobic mama’s boy; Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff ) is Derry’s only Jewish kid; and the red-headed Beverly Marsh (newcomer Sophia Lillis), the group’s only girl, has an unearned reputation at school and more than her fair share of actual issues at home.
In addition to the unstable environment many of the kids live in, they also face daily threats in and around school from slightly older bullies, led by the practically psychotic Henry Bower (Nicholas Hamilton), who frequently brandishes a knife and seems intent on murder, not just mild injury. But there may be a reason for that, tied more directly to the Pennywise situation. From what I remember in the book (and it is hinted at in the film as well), Pennywise isn’t really a clown; he just takes a clown’s form to lure children, as he expertly does with Bill’s brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) in It’s opening sequence. He’s something more purely evil, something so rooted into the respiratory system of Derry that it has turned most members of the community into low-grade creeps as well. The local pharmacist has the air of a sexual predator, not to mention Beverly’s sweaty, overly attentive father.
There’s something of an acceptance of the child disappearances in Derry. The townspeople and police go through the motions of looking for them (missing children posters are plated one on top of the other), but they all seem to be in mass denial about what’s happening, as if it’s the price of living in an otherwise pleasant community. The screenplay—credited to originally planned director Cary Fukunaga, as well as Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman—has a great number of smaller, effective touches about life as a child in Derry, which all amount to “You’re on your own,” making the formation of the Losers Club so significant. It may mark the first time a group of potential Pennywise victims have banded together and helped each other not be afraid of him.
The film makes it clear (almost too clear) that Pennywise caters his torment to each victim by taking one’s worst fears and amplifying them. Something about killing a person when they’re at the height of their most scared is what truly feeds this entity, and when the kids finally work up the courage to face the clown in its own subterranean lair, they are a formidable force because they, for the most part, have stopped being scared.
Muschietti’s telling of It is not just a fairly faithful adaptation of the massive book (and remember, this film is only half the story) with a handful of wise adjustments and edits made, but it’s an artfully realized work that cares more about establishing characters than simply lining up a series of cheap scares. Not that the scares aren’t earned; this incarnation of Pennywise moves beyond Tim Curry’s exceptional television portrayal that relied a great deal on charm with the occasional flash of fangs. Skarsgård’s take is more inherently sinister, both in look and tone, but thanks to a dash or two of CGI, he’s capable of being more transformative than before, making the kids’ nightmare visions seem all the more fully formed. Still, his best moments remain his simply peaking out from behind a bunch of balloons.
The kids’ performances are fantastic across the board. I was particularly taken with Lieberher, who has proved himself again and again as being one of the finest young actors working today; Hanscom, who endures the greatest amount of torture and still finds the grace to be a true dreamer; and Lillis, whose dignified, mysterious take on Beverly really stuck with me. I can’t imagine casting directors not flocking to her after this high-profile work.
It is not simply a terrific horror film; it’s an extreme coming-of-age movie, with blood and grotesque sewers and a dancing clown named Pennywise. The film doesn’t always work as a generator of scares and screams, but its success rests in its strong performances and skillful direction. Add to that the consistently eerie cinematography by Chan-wook Park’s regular director of photography Chung-hoon Chung, and an almost pulsating, building score from Benjamin Wallfisch, and you should have most of your senses dancing while watching this one. I’m ready for the second chapter any day now.