Under less forgiving circumstances, 2017 could have marked a disastrous year for Stephen King adaptations. As is? Andy Muschietti’s It atones for the slog-heavy sins of The Dark Tower, all but erasing Matthew McConaughey’s apron intimidation tactics from cinematic relevance – but approval wasn’t instantaneous. “Pennywise is too scary to lure children!” some cried upon early image releases. “Bill Skarsgård will be a worse clown than Will Poulter!” others claimed. True Detective favorite Cary Fukunaga placed Muschietti behind an 8-Ball the minute he vacated directing duties, but the whimsically sadistic Mama director crumbled under no circumstantial weight. Expectations surpassed, King’s name restored. What a splendid chill to start the Fall season with.
In the town of Derry, children fight to survive. A new “Missing Persons” poster seems to be hung every week, never with a clue left behind. Young Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) loses his brother to the phenomenon like so many before, but unlike others, Bill refuses to let the situation die. His little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) disappeared one rainy day without another word spoken, and Bill demands to know why. With the help of his “Losers Club” companions, summer fun turns into a detective story with a sinister twist. A curse hangs over Derry, taking the form of an orange-haired clown who calls himself Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). If the Losers don’t watch themselves, it’ll be their faces printed on milk cartons and flyers. So much for a relaxing vacation…
Coming as no shock to Mama fans, It proves that Muschietti can balance the HELL out of youth-based horror and dark, insidious details. The film’s very opening is a manipulation of malformed innocence and blood-fanged brutality; no hesitation, full ferocity. From here it’s about a group of bullied middle schoolers who must fight a collective evil as one (sweet), except said evil is a shape-shifting man eater who snacks on kiddies (twisted). Muschietti never forgets what the Losers Club represents – nerdy “outcasts” finding themselves – nor slouches on King’s titular tormentor. Where Mama was a charcoal-charred fairy tale, It is a midnight-black coming-of-age introspective on a collision course with Coulrophobia. Always heartfelt, and lyrically sinister.
Skarsgård becomes a beast when spackled with white face-paint and devilish red streaks, quelling Pennywise doubters who scoffed at “too scary” designs. Jump scares are earned, but they’re all hinged on Pennywise 2.0’s performative flamboyancy (think circus act from Hell); buck-toothed grins and a very on-camera tone of voice that hides the monster underneath.
Day or night, Pennywise has the ability to resurrect your deepest nightmares – Muschietti makes goddamn sure we never feel safe. A jolly Pennywise dancing a jig of death while we gaze into his fiery orange eyes, us helpless to break his gaze. He can do everything Tim Curry did – a testament to Skarsgård (and the costume/makeup crew, possibly more) – yet claws his own signatures into helpless victims. A vile, slobbering demon with a smile and soul-sucking eyes.
Some will argue It – the film – is not “scary enough,” which, based on traditional definitions, I wouldn’t *fully* argue – but It doesn’t deserve such a generic, BOO!-first fate. Muschietti hits upon the heart of Stand By Me and the horror of Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead remake (seriously, that basement water scene is almost a straight rip). Rock fights and sunny cliff-diving escapes draw the children together, because the tighter their bond, the more meaningful their actions become. These scenes chew up a 135-minute running length, unleashing Pennywise in smaller bursts. This isn’t a slasher flick or found footage affair. You’re here for a near-perfect cast of adolescent actors who continually lament about their summer days being wasted on dangerous creature hunting. Their foul-mouthed enthusiasm and hawk-a-loogie competitions ever the generational time machine. Without these characters finding strength, It is worthless. Luckily, the Losers play up a very Goonies-like chemistry.
Atmosphere is everything in It. From the town of Derry to Pennywise’s cavernous metallic cistern, Muschietti contrasts an angelic light (colorful childhood memories) with consuming dark (Neibolt House). When he wants to warm, kids do what they do best – be kids. When he wants to scare, a bathroom sink vomits blood until every inch of wall is layered in red, syrupy goo (Nightmare On Elm Street style). Don’t be thrown by my talk of summer vacation shenanigans. It gets MEAN, from Pennywise’s gargantuan garage scare to recurring television chants that subliminally mention wells and clowns. The big and the small. This is about the full horror experience and offering more than throwaway jolts – we get enough of that already. Muschietti aims for something more, feeding on fear itself. Something deeper, something more lasting.
It’s this wholesomeness that leads to developed, dynamic characters who make up the Losers Club. Finn Wolfhard will be loved as the the motor-mouth with his unending assault of mom jokes and dick comments (Richie). Jack Dylan Grazer brings the pill-popping neuroticism needed for Eddie’s fear of just about everything. Jeremy Ray Taylor nails the hopeless romantic who is Ben, Jaeden Lieberher leads well as sullen brother Bill, Wyatt Oleff the religious good-boy and Chosen Jacobs the farmhand with a tragic past.
So many shining roles, but none brighter than their female companion – Sophia Lillis as Bev. It’s not until she enters the gang do the boys hit their full stride, as she becomes the catalyst for so many internal pushes (cooties be damned). Her roguish rebelliousness stems from mistreatment at home, leading to a complexity that’s handled without pause by the up-and-coming starlet.
Are there issues? In my eyes, minor ones. A certain arc with Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) is a bit rushed and, like most two-hour-plus movies, scenes could have been snipped (not to mention how creepy all the adults are, despite obvious intent). Yet, there was never a moment I wished for It to end. Andy Muschietti builds the world of Derry, Maine in the palm of Pennywise’s hand, as the killer clown clenches tighter with each passing second. Muschietti’s tone a weapon, and Bill Skarsgård’s transformation never in question. As far as mainstream horror goes, It is a brilliant example of what can happen when equal attention is paid to story and scares. From the smallest performance (Jackson Robert Scott as Georgie) to the grandest Gothic screams (Richie’s clown room encounter), there’s something to unlock discomfort in all audiences. That’s what separates a “horror film” from a *good* horror film – and It surely floats to the top.
Andy Muschietti's It is a wholesome adaption that never sacrifices story for cheap scares, which makes for a brilliantly chilling tale rooted in heart and fluent in screams.