This adaptation of the Stephen King classic might lack true terror, but coulrophobes will want to stay clear of this creepy clown.
If you grew up in the 1990’s and went through a Stephen King phase, as most of us did, you probably have fond memories of sleeping with the lights on after watching the 1990, made-for-television version of King’s epic-length classic It. I was so scared of that movie just based on the box cover of the videotape that I couldn’t bring myself to watch it until I was, I think, fifteen or so, and was subsequently disappointed by how dated and not scary it was. The turning point between cowering in fear of the 90’s It and laughing at it is practically a rite of passage into adulthood. This year’s adaptation of King’s most popular novel has laughs too, though, unlike it’s corny predecessor, you won’t be laughing for all the wrong reasons.
In the bucolic and otherwise boring hamlet of Derry, Maine (the setting for most of King’s stories and his home state; just based on his works, I don’t think I’ll vacation there) a clown-shaped terror awakens every thirty or so years to steal small children off the streets. And while this balloon-toting menace named Pennywise serves as a backdrop for the story of It, the new film, directed by Andy Muschietti, realizes what dearth of bad Stephen King adaptations don’t: the monster isn’t important. It’s here and It’s hungry for children and that’s all you need to know.
The film is buoyed not by the razor-toothed clown, but by the impressive cast of young actors that bring King’s gang of outcasts and misfits who affectionately call themselves the Losers to life. There’s Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), whose younger brother Georgie has gone missing, an early victim of Pennywise; Bev (Sophia Lillis), the sole girl of the group; Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the chubby new kid; Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a little hypochondriac; Richie (Finn Wolfhard), the class clown; Stan (Wyatt Oleff), who’s Jewish and very reluctant to go on a clown hunt; and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the only black boy in town. Together, these seven likeable and foul-mouthed kids form the heart and soul of the movie.
The 90’s film failed in this regard: it leaned too much into the clown, because the filmmakers knew that Tim Curry was the best part, and the kids felt like an afterthought. What works about King’s book and now Muschietti’s film is that it captures the feeling of being a kid. The adults in this film are either useless or predatory and the town bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), is a murderous goon armed with a switchblade. Viewed at face value these elements of the story might come off as over-the-top, but I’d tell anyone with that criticism to think back to their own childhood: school bullies do feel maniacally, unstoppably evil; adults do seem distant, uncaring, and manipulative. It’s an emotional approach to filmmaking over a literal one. This is the story of It: seven children coming into adulthood and realizing that the world is full of people you can’t count on where scary, violent things happen and the more you see it, the more numb you become. You survive only through friendship. It’s not by coincidence that the two children closest to maturity are the two that commit shocking acts of violence.
Muschietti’s It plays footloose with its source material, keeping only the elements that worked—no giant alien turtles or infamous child orgies to be found here. (Yes, those are in the book, look it up!) The best parts of King’s novel are highlighted here, with the classic first encounter with Pennywise in a storm drain and the haunted house at Neibolt street as standouts. Like the book, each of the Losers has their own encounter with the shape-shifting It (none of which are terribly scary) before they team up to take down the clown. One of the improvements made is that here, the monster reflects the fear the children encounter in their own lives. Bev, afraid of her father’s increasingly predatory advances as she begins her period and reaches puberty, sees It as a geyser of blood. Eddie, manipulated into hypochondria by his Munchausen-by-proxy mother sees It as a contagious leper; a walking, talking illness coming right at him. One character is, rather conveniently, only scared of clowns, making it an easy day on the job for Pennywise, but the movie is cerebral on a level that most horror flicks don’t bother aspiring to.
There is a clown in this movie, by-the-by; I suppose I’d be loath to end this review without talking about what most see as the main event. I got the feeling that Muschietti was less interested in the horror aspect of the film, instead preferring to focus on the kids and put his spin on another classic Stephen King tale: Stand By Me. After Pennywise’s introduction in the storm drain the clown is benched for the following hour and a half, making only brief, silent appearances as he attempts (and fails) to make a meal of our heroes. I’m not sure if giving each of the Losers an encounter with It was a great idea, as each time Pennywise fails he looks more and more like a punk.
Played by Bill Skarsgard, this Pennywise is clearly an alien creature that feeds of the fear of children, capable of imitating humanity just enough to lure an unsuspecting child. Like most of this movie, Pennywise is more creepy than scary. The best jump comes early on, when Pennywise locks his rows and rows of shark like teeth around an unsuspecting child; beyond that, he does a lot of standing, leering, and posing, probably too often. On the flip-side, the writers manage to one up King’s novel by giving It a character arc of Its own as the creature grows increasingly desperate and fearful as It’s power of the losers begins to fade and they start fighting back.
Fans of the novel and TV movie will remember that Pennywise does eventually return. Yes, this movie is the first “chapter” (their word, not mine), the second of which is to follow dependant on this movies success. The film does feel lacking of a true conclusion once the credits roll, but as box office projections have the film poised score an $80 million opening weekend, go ahead and mark you calendars for “Chapter Two.”
It was going to be a difficult task to make It feel fresh again; the book and TV movie are so ingrained in pop culture that even I couldn’t get through this review without drawing comparisons. The blockbuster novel has a host of homage-ing children, most recently the Netflix smash hit Stranger Things, which borrows liberally from It and other works by King. All obstacles considered, we’re left with a film to settle somewhere between The Shawshank Redemption and Misery on a list of the top five Stephen King adaptations.
Verdict: It might be a little light on scares, but it’s heavy on heart, humor, and suspense, making it one of the best Stephen King adaptations to date. Just…stay away from storm drains.