Clowns. Why’d it have to be clowns?
There are currently 73 movies/mini-series made from (or directly inspired by) Stephen King‘s stories and books — it’s true, I even ranked them recently — but while the vast majority of them are categorized as horror very few of them are actually scary or unsettling. It’s an odd realization about the cinematic works from “the king of horror,” but aside from Pet Sematary, Cujo, and a couple of others they’re a far from frightening bunch. One of the exceptions is 1990’s mini-series of King’s epic novel, It, and now that the book has reached the big screen fans have finally gotten something long overdue… 2017’s IT is the Stand By Me of King’s horror canon.
It’s 1989, and as kids spill out of school excited for summer vacation something evil is at work in their town of Derry. Children are going missing, and it’s a truth young Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special) knows all too well as his younger brother Georgie disappeared a few months prior while playing too close to a storm drain. Bill’s a stutterer who keeps busy with his friends, a group affectionately known as the Losers Club, including bespectacled wise-ass Richie (Finn Wolfhard, Stranger Things), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and nervous Stanley (Wyatt Oleff, Guardians of the Galaxy). The quartet soon adds three new faces to the mix with the chubby new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the home-schooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and an icky girl named Bev (Sophia Lillis). Each of the seven faces troubles at home and/or with bullies, but together they find acceptance and fun in the safety of true friendship.
As the film unfolds we see these kids growing tighter but are also witness to a darkness in Derry’s soul. Bullies young and old run rampant, and while there are adults actively threatening the children the population’s collective crime is an apathy towards the younger generations. It’s a town under siege by indifference, and it’s become the perfect feeding ground over the last century for an unspeakable, unnatural evil. The Losers are faced with all of it over the summer, and as each of them receives a terrifying glimpse of a wickedly perverse clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, Atomic Blonde) they find themselves in even more immediate danger. Worse, they know that they’re the only ones with a chance at stopping the monstrous cycle of violence.
IT is a standalone horror thriller, but it’s also just the first half of an epic two-part adaptation of the novel with a sequel set to focus on the Losers as adults. The book and subsequent mini-series move back and forth between the “then” and the “now,” but this new adaptation succeeds by focusing the story on the children. There’s less distraction — the mini-series shifts time periods every time it gets interesting — and even at 135 minutes our attention remains locked onto these kids and the story at hand.
Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and writers Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman channel the horrors, both visceral and emotional, as well as the feeling of childhood’s tenuous nature into a rare studio horror film that’s actually terrifying. There are a handful of (mostly effective) jump scares, but the majority of the film’s terror comes in atmosphere, dread, and the boldly in-your-face appearance of Pennywise. Skarsgård’s performance is a delicate balance of the inherently creepy (clowns being clowns) and the utterly ferocious. The human effect of his own expressions is paired with practical make-up and cg manipulations that result in a being who’s scary standing still but absolutely horrifying in motion.
The scary set-pieces run the gamut poor Georgie’s bloody dismemberment to a blood-drenched bathroom to a creepy figure from a painting that reminds favorably of last year’s The Conjuring 2. Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (The Handmaiden) and production designer Claude Paré help to make the horrors of this world beautiful to behold though with a textured look that feels alternately lived-in and nightmarish. Benjamin Wallfisch‘s (A Cure for Wellness) score accomplishes a similar feat on the aural side of things with compositions highlighting the kids’ playfulness as well as their terror.
Too many horror movies these days seem content filling the screen with loud noises and lazy jump scares, but IT succeeds better than most with the knowledge that characters matter. Like the recent The Devil’s Candy, this is a film that makes viewers care about its characters. What happens to them matters, and whether the threat they’re facing is human or otherwise we can’t help but pull for them with clenched fists and hopeful smiles. Every part of the production plays a role in making this work, but the most important element is the casting.
Child actors are a notoriously risky proposition, but more often then not the young talents collected here deliver the goods. Lieberher leads the way with a strong, affected turn as a boy battling the grief and guilt of his brother’s death, and little Jackson Robert Scott (as Georgie) is equally compelling during a pair of intense sequences. Taylor turns the generic “fat kid” into a sweetly humorous and lovestruck soul with whom we can all identify, and the tremendously-named Wolfhard proves his Stranger Things charms and comic delivery were no fluke. If there’s a star-making turn here though it every bit belongs to Lillis. All of the kid characters face threats here, but Bev’s are among the most emotionally challenging with multiple beats of not only physical terror but real trauma as well. She’s equally engaging and mesmerizing in her softer, quieter moments of solitude or time with her new friends.
King’s novel is ultimately a tale of friendship, the power of that bond, and how the strength of true relationships can overcome most any obstacle. The film understands that and captures it beautifully amid the clown’s carnage by spending time with these kids and allowing each of them moments to shine both alone and as part of the group. You believe they’re friends, you can see why they come together, and if you’re lucky one or more of them will remind you of someone important from your own childhood. As Stand By Me recognized, our youth is where our greatest friendships existed, and to that IT adds the second realization that childhood is also home to our greatest fears.
IT‘s faults are mostly surface level with a pair of low-level effects — an ill-fitting and unnecessary fat suit stands out — and a handful of spotty performances among them. While most of the child actors are terrific a pair of them fail to carry their weight instead alternately going the direction of the bland and the exaggerated. Least of all, a couple of Richie’s numerous f-bombs feel forced and out of place.
The eventual second film is required to complete this adaptation, but this first, wholly self-contained chapter of IT is among the very best film versions of King’s work. It’s scary, funny, terrifying, and sweet, and it reminds us of not only the friendships we had as children but also of the nightmares. Both made us who we are today, for better or worse, and while some grow up to forget it all others find themselves celebrating those bonds or fighting the same demons as adults.