That Tim Curry performance as Pennywise in the 1990 TV miniseries might be iconic, but beyond that, Stephen King’s magnum horror opus ‘It’ never really got the film adaptation it deserved. Only those who have read King’s indulgent novel knew what made the material is so chilling and resonant. Until now.
In some ways, the new ‘It’ might be a rare adaptation that improves upon its origins. Conceived as an epic two-part production, the film hits screens exclusively telling the first and finer half of King’s convoluted novel. That means it’s a near perfect piece of mainstream horror filmmaking with dangling mysteries that only add to the unsettling effect. Whether or not director Andy Muschietti and his screenwriters will be able to fix some of the issues with the back half of the book remains to be seen. For now, it doesn’t matter. This version of ‘It’ contains all the best bits, the things you remember, whether you like it or not. The new Pennywise ain’t bad either, which helps.
The film opens with the iconic scene of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) snatching Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) into the sewer, but now with the gore that previously only existed on the page. We then jump ahead to the end of the school year. Georgie’s brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is still struggling to deal with his brother’s death. He spends days escaping with his closest friends: the wise-cracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard), the sensitive Stan (Wyatt Oleff), and the perpetually ill Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer). The good friends are known as “The Losers Club” because they’re perpetually bullied by the local thug gang led by mulleted teen psycho Henry (Nicolas Hamilton). They also get a few new members in Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the first girl willing to speak to them.
‘It’ plays out with very naturalistic ‘Stand by Me’ vibes until the kids all start getting visited by Pennywise, who appears in evil clown form or as the embodiment of their deepest fears (horror movie characters for the stable kids and living embodiments of past traumas for the troubled ones). Eventually, they admit they’ve had the same visions to each other, around the same time they meet the final Losers Club member, Mike (Chosen Jacobs). They slowly learn that Pennywise is somehow connected to the haunted history of their town and decide to topple the evil specter for good.
Obviously, ‘It’ has a rather dense narrative for a Hollywood horror film, clocking in at almost two and a half hours to cram in only half the original novel. However, director Mushietti and his screenwriting team do a remarkable job of condensing that story, honoring all the characters, capturing Stephen King’s distinct sense of dysfunctional blue collar realism, and providing a near constant onslaught of scares. The filmmakers acknowledge the importance of emotionally investing audiences in the characters to pull off deep scares, and also recognize the poignant central metaphor that equates horror chills with childhood trauma. The film operates on several layers with the first and foremost being to scare the crap out of viewers.
That stuff is all great, but what’s impressive is how well-rounded all the kids are in broken, sweary, messy, and realistic ways. There’s no precious posturing. All the young actors are brilliant and raw within the stylized setting. This feels like a real place with truthful friendships, and frighteningly real traumas. It just comes wrapped up in a package with arguably the most terrifying evil clown ever created.
And oh yes, is this new Pennywise ever good. While Bill Skarsgård’s creepily high-pitched and weirdly childlike performance isn’t the same as Tim Curry’s more theatrical version, his Pennywise is arguably more horrifying once the weight of comparison to Curry’s work fades. It’s different, yet more faithful to the concept of Pennywise as a monster who feeds off the innermost fears of his pray. The character scares on a primal level and all the different visions of Pennywise that appear work in different ways, with the clown remaining the nightmarish constant.
Muschietti proved in 2013’s ‘Mama’ that he has a knack for delivering deeply resonant horror atmosphere as well as a fairy tale metaphor within the genre trappings. Unleashed on Stephen King’s most ambitious nightmare, the director takes no prisoners. His set-pieces are master classes in various types of visceral cinematic horror. He goes for the gut and will make audiences shriek en masse, but also stays surprisingly true to the themes and naturalism of the story. There’s striking intelligence to how this killer clown yarn plays out with emotional sensitivity. It helps that the filmmaker also ignores the most tasteless and pseudo philosophical extremes of King’s often indulgent novel. This may be the first chapter of a horror epic, but ‘It’ has also been streamlined to its essence and left open with enough mystery for viewers to project and ruminate. That’s quite an achievement, especially for a Hollywood product driven by IP franchise potential.
On the other hand, the movie has a few underdeveloped characters and underexplored plot threads in the name of momentum and scare count efficiency. (In particular, Mike feels sadly reduced to a token sidekick, although there are plenty of opportunities to expand and deepen his role in the sequel.) Some of the late ’80s period details are a bit on-the-nose and a few of the harsher explorations of childhood trauma lean towards cartoonish exploitation.
Still, these issues are quibbles relative to what this adaptation could have been. This is a blockbuster adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘It’ that gets almost everything right, easily tops the rather overrated TV miniseries, and in some ways plays out even better than the book thanks to creative editing and expansion. There likely won’t be a better horror film released this year, certainly not by a Hollywood studio. Only ‘Get Out’ did better things in the genre this year. Believe the hype. This is the cinematic vision of ‘It’ that Stephen King fans have dreamed of since his phone book-sized novel was published. Now let’s all hope this team can pull off the sequel.