The literary works of Stephen King have been celebrated for decades by critics and fans alike, but the same can’t always be said for their film and television adaptions. Though some of his novels have owned their translation from page to screen and become classics in their own right, others have left much to be desired. Written in 1986 and adapted into a television miniseries in 1990, It has been revered as one of King’s finest creations. Now, director Andy Muschietti (Mama) returns to the mysterious town of Derry to revisit one of the most iconic villains in all of horror cinema, and to make a whole new generation afraid of clowns.
The story takes place in 1989 in the dreary town of Derry, Maine – a town where people disappear or die far above the national average. Missing person posters are plastered outside homes and businesses, but no one seems to stop and notice. A year has passed since Billy (Jaeden Lieberher) lost his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), who vanished down a storm drain while playing with his paper sailboat. Billy can’t shake the feeling that his brother is still out there and sets off to find him. Soon, he discovers the sinister truth – that Georgie was the victim of a murderous entity that feeds on frightened children. When Billy and his friends are all haunted by their worst fears come to life and a dancing clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), they must come together and take on the monster themselves.
Though dated, lacking in story and generally underwhelming, the two-part miniseries was memorable for the incredible Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise. Curry played the role with a gleefully dark level of menace and bitterness that impressed despite the restrictive budget of a television production, giving audiences a bad case of coulrophobia. In this adaptation, it’s a thrill to watch Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, and there’s a lot more emphasis on the real terror lurking beneath the circus exterior. Skarsgard’s rictus smile and manic stare give a whole new dimension to this much-imitated monster, whose dancing clown is just one of many manifestations of fear that the titular entity takes on.
That being said, the real stars of this film are the kids themselves. The band of protagonists are affectionately referred to as the ‘Loser’s Club’, in contrast with the bloodthirsty gang of bullies lead by Henry Bowers. Everyone delivers a performance way beyond their age, with every young actor oozing star quality. Jaeden Lieberher is endearing as Billy, a boy unable to move past the loss of his little brother. Sophia Lillis smoulders as Bev, a girl walled in by insults, rumours and a disturbed father with her innocence always threatened. Finn Wolfhard brings laughs and charm to Richie, the foul-mouthed joker of the group, in a role that contrasts greatly with his work in Stranger Things. Rounding out the ‘Losers’ are Mike (Chosen Jacobs), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Stan (Wyatt Oleff) and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), all of whom bring personality and vulnerability to their performances. These kids are a true pleasure to watch on screen, their friendship truly believable over the course of the narrative. Additionally, Nicholas Hamilton deserves heavy praise for his brief but intense role as Bowers, channelling the rage and calculation of Jack Nicholson in the adaptation of The Shining.
With an excellent cast creating real emotion and empathy, it’s hard not to get sucked into the world of It. You’ll undoubtedly find yourself falling in love with the ‘Losers’, willing them to team up and take down the vicious Pennywise. The various tricks and scares that It plays on each of its victims are brilliantly executed, packing some very chilling imagery into quick-fire bursts of ramping tension and a satisfying payoff. For all intents and purposes, It is an old-school horror with a modern feel, delivering the jump scares and shock value that is expected from today’s genre fodder but with a strong sense of building fear and raising the stakes. Though some critics have been dismissive of how effective It brings the scares, it’s hard to deny its effectiveness. With the exception of one hideously edited sequence that attempts to shock but ends up coming off cheap and nasty, the terror on screen is very well crafted indeed.
One of the key changes from the source material is the relocation of the story from the 1950s to the 1980s. Though there are a number of loving homages to 80s pop culture, the film tends to play it straight and never lets the period overshadow the action. Those who enjoy Stranger Things will get a similar kick out of It, from the way the kids travel through town on their bikes to the loving friendship on display, just don’t expect as much nostalgia as the Netflix original. The film is undoubtedly a cine-literate vision, drawing visual parallels to Carrie, Halloween, Stand by Me and The Goonies. Whilst it’s rare for a horror film to feel truly believable in its setting and characterisation, It ranks right up with Halloween in relation to creating a thrilling, immersive world.
It’s easy to recommend It to those looking for a stripped-back horror experience. However, it’s important to stress that the film pulls no punches when it comes to the violence that is inflicted upon the young cast. The opening scene kicks off with a particularly grisly moment that almost managed to turn my stomach. As an unashamed, hardened horror fan, it’s amazing that this film found a way to make me feel uncomfortable. As Pennywise unleashes his shape-shifting abilities, the violence steps up so be warned – when you see those demonic eyes rolling back into his head, it might be time to cover your own. Like Deadpool, It serves to show just how slack film censorship has become over the last few decades, so don’t take the BBFC 15 rating as a sign of being watered down.
Andy Muschietti has delivered a dark and serious treatment of King’s classic novel, whilst also creating believably joyful scenes of friendship, love, and affection. The constant shifting between summer highs and horrifying lows never feels forced or jarring, made possible by the incredibly talented cast. Bill Skarsgård owns his performance as Pennywise, making him a truly terrifying cinematic entity and bringing the inhuman nature of his being to the surface. Along with The Conjuring series and Muschietti’s own Mama, it’s great to see the horror genre being treated seriously once again. If you like your films to deliver long-lasting scares that will stay with you long after the credits are rolling. Come join us… you’ll float too.