Director: Andy Muschietti
Stars: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard
The world is ready for IT. Following last year’s breakthrough Netflix plagiarist pop hit Stranger Things, there’s a hunger for 80’s nostalgia mixed with paranormal / horror elements in a heady mix that’s suited for mass consumption. This new adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller absolutely caters to that hunger and even shares an integral cast member in Finn Wolfhard. This new film starts out very much aping Tommy Lee Wallace’s beloved miniseries of the early 90’s (which imprinted on so many of our teenage upbringings; it was one of those titles we watched before we were really supposed to).The opening mirrors Wallace’s effort almost shot-for-shot til director Andy Muschietti reveals that his attentions are to go far deeper and to bite harder than previously. His is a more elegant offering. It is sleeker. And way, way scarier.
The snatching of little Georgie Denbrough may open both variants, but Muschietti’s IT almost immediately makes its radical structural changes apparent. In King’s novel and in Wallace’s adaptation memory plays a huge part and the stories of the seven children are told through the memories of their adult selves. Their grown-up incarnations are nowhere to be seen in this chapter of the movie (we’ll have to await news of their casting in the run-up to Chapter Two which should arrive sometime next year). Instead film one focuses purely on the children and on that front introduces us to a whole roster of future talent waiting to break through. This movie will mark the source for several future before-they-were-famous collections of clickbait text.
The changes aren’t just structural. There are shifts in locations and events that happen, enough to define this film as its own beast, cleaving closely to King’s novel but also stretching out feelers in its own directions. This actually works in the film’s favour incredibly well. The book is vastly well-known, as is the TV miniseries. So one of the significant hurdles that the film had to vault was suffering from over-familiarity even before it got out of the gate. By making these deft adjustments here and there, Muschietti and the screenwriters have managed to breathe new fear into its twists and turns (some subtle, some less so), while wherever it remains faithful it provides fan service through recognition. It’s a balancing act that could not have been played better.
The other main change is that this version of IT pulls the childhood events up from the 50’s to the 80’s. The two sensibilities have often mixed in King’s writing and there’s an aftertaste of that here too. Muschietti litters the film with cultural signifiers (New Kids On The Block, A Nightmare On Elm Street 5), but doesn’t get too preoccupied in playing for nostalgia points. The production design often feels as though its evoking a more mid-twentieth century vibe; as though the damned town of Derry exists in a temporal sinkhole. Given the malevolent entity that preys upon it, this sense of time getting lost is actually most welcome.
The ‘losers club’ here is made up of the same seven; stuttering Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), foul-mouthed joke cracking Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), abused tomboy Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), germaphobe Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), fearful Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), tubby new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and home schooled outsider Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs). They are all separately menaced by sewer-dwelling psycho-clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard); an embodiment of a far more ancient evil that has been plaguing the land since men printed a written history of it. Ben plays detective, sleuthing that a rise in disappearances and tragedies occurs every 27 years. Time has come around again. For Bill, this time it’s personal, as the savage loss of his little brother Georgie makes clear.
King adaptations vary wildly in quality, but the best of them always bloom because they understand the author’s gift for character. Muschietti’s IT kindles fond memories of Rob Reiner’s knack for tapping into this with Stand By Me, and while the horror elements come thick, fast and frequent, there’s still enough naturalistic development to these characters for IT to slot alongside Darabont’s adaptations, for instance, in terms of just how much we’re encouraged to care. The movie may play in broad strokes, but it does so with the expertise of a seasoned master; quite a revelation considering Muschietti’s previous, Mama, memorably failed to capitalise on its initial promise.
For his part, Skarsgard more than gives Tim Curry a run for his money, warping Pennywise into one of the most unsettling horror villains to have graced our screens in years, maybe even decades. Some of his various incarnations suffer from that overly smooth CGI sheen, but this is countered elsewhere with some truly beautiful VFX work. The horror here can be unexpectedly beautiful; a late literal depiction of just how all of Pennywise’s children “float” is the kind of thing Tim Burton could only dream of conjuring at this stage in his career.
The young cast is uniformly excellent, though particular props go to Lillis for channeling Molly Ringwald in her incarnation of Beverly Marsh (shame the movie felt the need to address it), while Lieberher (Midnight Special) and Wolfhard’s prior experience on our screens has clearly lent them a level of relaxation in front of a camera. Elsewhere, mullet-wearing ringleader Henry Bowers is effectively embodied by Nicholas Hamilton, but the performance is added much-needed texture when we are encouraged to sympathise with this little monster. Here the screenwriters keep hold of one of the integral themes of the book; that evil or a passivity to evil is sculpted through abuse, and that all too often villains are also victims too.
There are nitpicks. As the clown drives the core characters together, there’s a sense of continual reset as we hop from one nightmarish experience to the next getting all our ducks in a row (this stop-start repetition is rewarded come the last reel, however). Some characters are better serviced than others (Jacobs’ Mike Hanlon could’ve used a little more of the spotlight, especially considering his importance in the second half of this story), while the very fact of IT being the first half of a novel lends it an inevitable sense of anti-climax. Muschietti’s established instinct from Mama that more-is-more doesn’t always pay off either. Some fears might’ve been better left inferred.
But taken as an entity in itself and especially framed within the standards of modern mainstream horror, this is a colossal triumph that actually manages to exceed some pretty weighty expectations, evoking the epic feel of classic blockbusters like Alien when it comes down to hunting an unknowable beast in the dark during its breathless underground finale. Great as the kids are, the MVP in all of this is surely cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, whose work with light or the lack thereof paints IT in a visual language we immediately associate as classic. You can already imagine a new generation of kids watching copies of this way before they’re really supposed to. In that way the movie feels like a generational handover; something already on its way to being beloved, allowing it comparable status with King adaptations like The Green Mile.
A potty-mouthed story of fear and friendship with the inventiveness of Elm Street Craven and the warmth of ET Spielberg, and one that resonates for an America swept up in monstrous fear-mongering, so there’s relevance as well. To borrow the expletive-strewn vernacular of Richie Tozier, I fucking loved it.