Incredible to think that after the plethora of Stephen King film adaptations over the years (this year alone boasts five), that his beloved Horror story It, has – until now – not had a big screen retelling. The nearest we have gotten is the flawed but ambitious Tommy Lee Wallace Mini-Series from 1990, which featured an iconic turn by Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. However, if you only have this version of the story in mind upon entering Andres (or Andy as he is credited) Muschietti’s adaptation, you may be a little startled, as this is far darker, far more intense and truly the king of King adaptations.
Utilising the dark cinematography (by Chung-Hoon Chung) and CGI-aided scares that helped him make a mark with his 2013 debut Mama, Muschietti beautifully and savagely captures the essence of the source material, while leaving a distinctive imprint of his own. Set mostly in 1989 one year after the disappearance of young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) has not given up hoping and searching. However, Georgie is not the only child to go missing, and as more and more begin to vanish or die, Bill and his friends Bev (Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stan (Wyatt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) & Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) (known collectively as “The Losers Club”) begin seeing terrifying visions orchestrated by a clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard).
Many know the story but this telling is truly horrific, with dark sequences, a lingering atmosphere and a perfectly rendered setting. Playing out like Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me meets Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, by way of James Wan’s Insidious and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (perhaps the biggest influence), this is one of the greatest big studio backed Horrors of the decade. Not only because of the joltingly effective fear factor but also because of the attention that has gone into the craft (see the numerous Horror easter eggs throughout) and the brimming heart beneath the rough, scuffed and evil exterior (It is a rare studio Horror that captures that worn and dirty indie aesthetic, at times evoking Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Indeed these kids are assaulted, attacked and abused (be it by their home life troubles, the vicious bullies from school or by the title monster) but the film’s key to success is in its powerful way of telling this story. Moments are hard to watch (the savage victimisation and blind eye turned by the residents) but hope is never extinguished and the script allows each character to flourish, as they unite against malice and the fear it wields as a weapon, to escape their fate and in turn their prison of abusiveness.
This is a film about looking forward not back and dealing with loss, pain and anxiety and the screenplay by Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman and Chase Palmer scares because it cares, both about these characters and the audience, and works well in doing this tale justice. However, this passionate directorial hand and well-assembled screenplay is allowed to flare thanks to the efforts of an exceptional ensemble effort. The young cast of mostly newcomers, are all fantastic and connect together onscreen and, perhaps more importantly, relate with the viewer. Their performances feel on-point and applicable, with Lieberher being grief-stricken yet resilient as Losers leader Bill, the (at times) scene-stealing Taylor bringing to life the investigative Ben, Stranger Things’ Wolfhard instilling some much needed comedy as the profane but charismatic Richie, Oleff doing great as Stan – the pressured son of a Rabbi, Jacobs as the troubled but strong Mike, Grazer brilliantly playing the rapid-mouthed hypochondriac Eddie and Lillis is remarkable as Bev and emanates an unshakable spirit and resilience.
The young stars are a stupendous core to the movie, that allow the themes to shine even more so, however their clashes with Pennywise deliver soul-shakingly memorable scenes. And this is in no small part down to Skarsgard’s exemplary turn as Pennywise, wisely avoiding Curry’s portrayal, Skarsgard instead embraces the animalistic facets of the character and chills to the bone with his otherworldly glare. Feeling like a combination of Heath Ledger’s Joker and Spider-Man villain Carnage, Skarsgard sinks his teeth into the role (pun intended) and as the freaky, monsterous, child killing entity he creates one of the most effectively ambiguous onscreen monsters since John Carpenter’s The Thing. While the town of Derry itself is every bit as evil, reeking of a clammy and sweaty untrustworthiness and acting as an untruthful cap, hiding the evil that lurks both within and beneath.
There is hardly any grounds to pull It apart on, this is Horror done right because it is Horror done with confidence, care and love for the characters and material. As the opening studio logo has a red balloon drift ominously across the screen, with Benjamin Wallfisch’s score combining the echoing choir vocals with the atmospheric shuddering sounds, you know you are in for a treat. However, this is far more than a simple treat, it is an outstanding offering that excites you for the upcoming second chapter of the narrative (that will be a real test for the filmmakers, considering the notoriously tricky ending) and easily sits alongside recent Horror masterpieces like Babak Anvari’s Under The Shadow, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.
It has already been a monster hit and it deserves every penny, as it honestly is one of the best films of 2017. It is meaningful, frightening, poignant and assuredly & carefully constructed. You’ll float too; you may struggle to sleep though, especially if you have coulrophobia!