It is clown’s gloves down my favorite Stephen King novel. Written over the course of a few years at a time when King planned this as perhaps his last horror novel, It contains everything that you could possibly want from King in one place. The nearly-1500-page book contains plenty of horror and gore, kids coming of age, narrative jumps between kids and their adult counterparts, lots of music references and an intricate construction/layout that surpasses his other works. Such a monstrosity skews it more toward the unfilmable category, especially if you want to do it justice. The 1990 two-part miniseries was a good attempt, but you really need about 10 or 12 parts. This new version of It aims less for an adaptation and more for a film that captures the spirit of the novel in its own way. It exceeded my expectations as a horror experience that feels like a close cousin to the source material.
It went through a few hands before the final film. Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and screenwriter Gary Dauberman (Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation) took over the project and carried it to the finish line. After a prologue in 1988, the story takes place over the summer of 1989. A group of seven kids encounter and later challenge an evil presence that takes many forms, including a menacing clown, in their hometown of Derry, Maine. Led by Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher of The Book of Henry), who suffers from stuttering, the group also includes wisecracking Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things), bullied fat kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), abused Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), worrywart Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), scaredy-cat Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) and farm boy Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs). A series of escalating terrors and attacks force the friends to take on the evil in its lair. The scenes with the children at play or exploring the woods or river feel a lot like Stand by Me.
The child actors inhabit their characters so perfectly that this is perhaps the best cast of children since the main actors of the Harry Potter series. Every single member of the team shines heroically, and the filmmakers smartly establish these characters early on. There are a few standouts. Wolfhard steals the show at times with his sass, sarcasm and comic timing. Grazer whines until you want to slap him silly. Lillis is a dreamy combination of beauty and toughness. As a dead ringer for a young Amy Adams, the filmmakers would miss an obvious choice if they don’t sign up Adams for the adult Beverly in the eventual sequel. Jackson Robert Scott charms with his cuteness as Bill’s brother Georgie. The fine acting extends to the bullies who torture the group, notably Nicholas Hamilton as the mulleted Henry Bowers and Owen Teague as Patrick Hockstetter. A nice touch for It depicts almost all of the adults in Derry as extremely weird or off, especially Beverly’s father (Stephen Bogaert), Eddie’s mother (Molly Atkinson) and the town pharmacist (Joe Bostick).
Given the focus of this vision of It, perhaps the most important casting decision was Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Although Tim Curry generated nightmares in the miniseries, moviegoers with a fear of clowns will be apoplectic after seeing Skarsgård. From the opening scene and every appearance throughout, Skarsgård brings a higher level of terror to Pennywise that keeps you unsettled during the entire movie. It’s not just the way that he looks or acts, but his very particular way of speaking also draws you in. You never know when he’s going to show up, and when he does, you don’t know what nasty things that he might do. Expect to see plenty of versions of this Pennywise at Halloween… if the municipalities around the country allow it. Unfortunately, It has renewed some of the wariness of clowns from the past few years. I grew up going to the circus every now and then, so clowns never scared me. For those who find these painted characters creepy, It may just touch all of the wrong buttons, especially in one scene that could perhaps be overwhelming.
It feels like a roller coaster ride of terror with very few downs and more ups. I personally love films that keep pushing the envelope further and scaring you at every turn. You know your own level of comfort with horror, so choose accordingly. Although there are some expected jump scares with Pennywise and other spooky sights, the best parts are the extended scenes and the variety of terror. I recently saw Annabelle: Creation, so I give credit for this more creative approach to Dauberman. The inventive horror involves creatures like Pennywise and his other incarnations to be sure, but equally frightening scenes introduce something new around every corner from the exploration of the ultimate haunted house to Beverly’s unforgettable bathroom break.
I would be remiss to not comment on the success of It as an adaptation of the novel. I’m not going to offer any spoilers per se, but if you would rather avoid this kind of analysis, skip to the next paragraph. The opening scene closely reproduces the first chapter of the book, but after those first few minutes, you just need to let go of your memories of the novel and go along for the ride. The book takes place in 1958 and 1985 because It’s evil rears its ugly head about every 27 years, whereas this film and its originally planned sequel of the adults’ stories shot for 1989 and (at the time) present day of 2016. This isn’t a big deal and actually leads to some good music on the soundtrack and some jokes between Ben and Beverly about Ben’s music tastes. The film uses the novel as a jumping off point and puts the characters in almost entirely new situations, which felt fresh and exciting even to someone like me who loved the original. To use a DC Comics analogy, I look at this movie as a kind of Elseworlds version of the book where you take familiar characters and build a different plot around them. The bullies are somehow old enough to drive here. The Neibolt Street house takes on a greater significance. Character details of the children’s parents are modified or lost entirely. The avoidance of the true nature of It may have been reserved for the second film, but if the sequel simply involves more clown stuff and doesn’t go deeper, then it will be a failure to purists. In short, fans should forget what they know and they’ll likely love the movie as it is. King’s novella The Mist was successfully adapted into a 2007 movie that was faithful to the story, while the TV series that aired this summer only borrows the title and the concept of a mist enveloping a town. This It lies somewhere in the middle.
For those who missed the title card that marks the year, the prominent posters of Beetlejuice and Gremlins and the theater marquee listings of Back to the Future and Batman plant It firmly in the ‘80s. These background details certainly carry over to the incredible production design for the Neibolt Street house and the setting for the finale. The real town chosen to stand in for Derry feels authentic, and the score mostly keeps you unsettled even if some of the cues in scary situations are a little too obvious. Rumors have already started about the production of the companion film to It. No matter the direction or degree of adaptation of the sequel, I hope that the experience rivals It and the intense terror generated in theaters.