I’m a Stephen King fan, through and through. Having recently re-read his epic novel, IT, I was more than excited to go see the new film adaptation of this terrifying story. IT has seen a fair share of iterations, most notably a two-part television mini-series in 1990. Featuring Tim Curry as the Pennywise the Clown, many 90’s kids will vaguely remember his demonic smile and the nightmares that ensued from it. In fact, many could argue that the 1990’s mini-series ignited a generation’s fear of clowns. The newly released IT adaptation went through production hell, and I’ve been following it for some time. After reading countless script iterations, keeping up with casting changes, and generally being hyped as all hell, it’s finally time to judge the reboot’s efforts.
NOTE: This review will contain NO SPOILERS for the film.
Derry, Maine: 1989
It’s important to note that IT is not a remake of the mini-series, nor is it a page-by-page reproduction. Director Andy Muschietti and those responsible for the screen play (Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman) have formed more of an interpretation than anything else. For fans of the novel, this means that significant changes have been made.
Most notably, the film now takes place in 1989; the original novel and mini-series took place in the ’50s. With this time change comes a distinct change of tone. While it’s not as in your face with nostalgia like Stranger Things, there’s plenty of references and soundtrack choices to keep the facade going. Movie marquees display “Batman” and “Lethal Weapon 2“, characters are seen playing arcade games like Street Fighter, and the slow beats of bands like New Kids on the Block echo throughout each scene.
As an image of small town America, the location of Derry, Maine and its inhabitants perfectly evoke a retro yet comfortable feel. It’s easy to relate to any of the main characters. If your childhood allowed it, it’s easy to reminisce on leisurely bike rides and dangerous exploration while watching the Loser’s Club do the same.
The Loser’s Club
The film itself focuses on the aforementioned “Loser’s Club”, a group of seven kids enjoying their summer break. Although the characters start off separated, it’s not long before they form the Loser’s Club and the members start growing. As the group grows in size, we’re introduced to each new character in a relevant way, highlighting their fears and insecurities. One could argue that the character introductions can get a bit repetitive in formula, but the actual cinematography and variety of content makes each introduction (and ensuing personalized scare) entertaining.
Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) the natural leader of the group, is haunted by the thoughts of his missing brother, Georgie. After a tense and surprisingly graphic opening scene, Bill (and by proxy, the audience) takes it upon himself to go searching for Georgie. Along for the ride is Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), and Beverly (Sophia Lillis). These young actors are incredibly gifted, and many have great careers ahead of themselves. With the amount of characters and overall world building required, the over 2 hour run time of IT is not long enough to flesh out each character. Stanley, Mike, and Ben get the shaft in terms of backstory, but they all shine equally when dialogue starts running.
Of the ensemble, there are a few performances that rise above the rest. Jaeden Lieberher does an excellent job as the stuttering Bill, doing a great job of conveying his character’s internal struggles and gaining every bit of empathy from the audience he deserves. Sophia Lillis absolutely kills it as Beverly, her performance being even more impressive due to IT being her acting debut. Chosen Jacobs also does an amazing job channeling the emotions of Mike, an African American character who firmly believes himself to be an “outsider”. Ultimately, Finn Wolfhard takes the cake as Richie. With his “funny guy” persona, huge bug-eyed glasses, and foul mouth, Richie reminded me of myself at his age. While these performances stand out, every actor does a great job embodying their character, and everyone gets a chance to shine.
Pennywise the Dancing Clown
There’s not much else I have to say on the actual plot of IT, as I wouldn’t want to spoil anything even remotely critical to the story. I don’t intend to spoil anything about the antagonist Pennywise, either, as he is one of the best parts of the film. Bill Skarsgård does an excellent job portraying a much more sinister Pennywise than we’ve seen before. While his clown persona doesn’t pop up too often, the underlying dread of his presence is felt throughout the film. Feeding off each kid’s personal fears, Pennywise often takes forms other than the recognizable clown. I won’t spoil any of these forms for you, but they make for a great variety of visual effects and scares.
The ultimate question in regards to Pennywise is this: is it better than Tim Curry’s original portrayal. The short answer? Absolutely. While Tim Curry’s Pennywise was more playful and talkative, Skarsgard’s embodiment is truly strange and off-putting. After a few short encounters, it’s plain as day that this Pennywise ain’t your 1990’s version. Skarsgard’s voice work with Pennywise is decent, but his ability to inhabit the character and portray him as surprisingly alien greatly outweighs any of his flaws. Partially due to visual effects, but mostly due to Skarsgard’s on screen insanity, 2017’s Pennywise is unsettling in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s not that he’s incredibly grotesque (except for when he is) that gives Pennywise the scare factor. It’s just how non-human he looks and acts.
The Bottom Line on IT (2017)
IT is less of a horror movie, and more of a fun house thriller. Sure, it’s graphic and bloody at times. Of course there will be jumpscares and disturbing images. However, the one thing that has stuck with me about the film is its heart. IT is charming in a way that you rarely see in horror films. Pennywise is a strong leading component, but the film focuses on the true nature of being young and the feeling of summer vacation. It let’s the Loser’s Club breathe, develop, and express themselves. The dialogue between the kids is profane and believable, the cinematography and sound design is excellent, and the horrors that await are disturbingly relatable.
Everyone is afraid of something, and that’s exactly what Pennywise wants. Luckily, IT is more than just a scare-fest with underdeveloped characters and shoddy jump scares. The film isn’t perfect, but it far exceeds any expectations I had. It also exceeds my general horror film expectations in this modern era. In fact, it’s one of the year’s most charming, surprisingly funny, and emotional films. It’s also the best horror film I’ve seen in a long time. I’ll be heading back to the theater for a second, third, and probably fourth viewing before the month is out. For both Stephen King fans and newcomers alike, IT is a worthy adaptation through and through.