Stephen King’s 1986 magnum opus, about a deranged murdering clown named Pennywise who haunts the children of Derry, Maine, has now been adapted twice, to varying degrees of success. According to King, It is one of his favorite books that he has written, and in a recent interview, he praised the latest adaptation. The movie, which lingered for a half-decade in pre-production, represents the first time It has been brought to the big screen (the first was a television mini-series) and judging by online reactions and the current 88% Tomatometer score, people seem to love this new take. King isn’t wrong to praise the film – It is among the best Stephen King adaptations ever made, not because it is scary (because, truthfully, it isn’t) – but because director Andrés Muschietti’s vision is extremely funny, entertaining, and, most importantly, heartwarming.
At 135 minutes, It covers only the childhood half of the book, saving the adult portion for the upcoming sequel, set 27 years later. The decision to split the movie in two was a wise move on the part of the studio since it allows the filmmakers more time to flesh out both the story and the large cast of characters. As in the novel, children are disappearing in the small town of Derry, courtesy of Pennywise, who appears every 27 years and terrifies kids to death by manifesting himself as their worst fears. Shifting the timeline of the book forward three decades, It opens in 1988 and revolves around a gang of seven high school kids who form “The Losers’ Club.” The leader is Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), a melancholy, brave boy whose little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), has gone missing. He enlists his posse of similarly bullied outcasts to help him investigate the supernatural forces haunting both the children and their small town. In his mission to uncover the reasons behind the disappearance of his younger sibling, he is joined by wise-cracking, foul-mouthed trash-talker Richie (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard), high-strung rabbi’s son Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a lonely girl who desperately tries to escape her sexually abusive father. The other three members include Mike (Chosen Jacobs), an African-American orphan whose parents died in a mysterious fire; the new kid on the block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a chubby bookworm who becomes obsessed with uncovering the town’s dark seedy past, and finally, Eddie, a hypochondriac mama’s boy played by Jack Dylan Grazer, who pretty much steals the entire show.
As with Stand By Me, another Stephen King adaptation, what sets It apart from most modern Hollywood horror films is the movie’s stellar cast. In fact, the best parts of It have nothing to do with the cackling manifestations of the murderous Pennywise but with the camaraderie, bickering, and curiosity among these kids, who, unlike many on-screen teenagers, seem like real kids. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the movie’s most memorable scenes are the quieter ones — most notably when the losers’ club gather together in their underwear for an afternoon swim in the town quarry.
Of course, criticism has been made that while every one of the young actors is perfectly cast, we wind up knowing little about these kids outside of their lone identifying trait (the fat kid, the Jewish kid, the black kid and so on), with the final stereotype being Sophia Lillis’s Beverly – the lone female member who becomes victim to a poorly handled romantic love triangle involving Bill and Ben. There is some truth behind these criticisms and It is far from a perfect film, but the underlying allegory of these characters facing their deepest fears as they enter adulthood gives the movie emotional weight — and regardless of if we get to know these characters or not, It is a chilling examination of what it’s like to grow up living in fear, be it the onset of puberty or something deeper and far more disturbing, such as neglect, abuse, discrimination, poverty, and/or violence. In fact, the film’s true villains – older kids like Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and the adults like Beverly’s abusive father or Eddie’s controlling mother – are monstrous themselves. Of course, this is still a horror movie, and when the children begin to disappear, our group of young heroes is faced with their biggest inner demons when they square off against Pennywise, whose history of murder and violence dates back for centuries.While many have drawn comparisons to Stranger Things, the movie that It resembles most is actually Wes Craven’s 1984 masterpiece, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Pennywise, after all, is no different than Freddy Krueger: both are among the most recognizable modern horror villains and both a supernatural force that feeds on deep childhood fears. And like Freddy, Pennywise is also the literal, deadly manifestation of the evil that man is capable of committing. Emerging from the long shadow of Tim Curry (whose interpretation of Pennywise is the biggest highlight of the TV mini-series) is Bill Skarsgard who does a marvelous job stepping in as the creepy, dancing clown with outsize yellow teeth, a high-pitched squeak of a voice and a knack for terrifying kids. Much like Elmstreet, only the children in Derry see the supernatural forces and like Craven’s original film, nearly every scene builds to some sort of climactic jump scare.
There’s quite a few scenes that will have viewers shrieking, such as the scene where a charred, headless corpse chases Ben through a library, the leprous zombie who menaces Eddie outside the abandoned house, the menacing portrait of a deformed flute player who magically comes to life, or even the bathroom sink that sprouts fountains of blood on poor, helpless Beverly. But the best scene in the entire film is without a doubt the scene that takes place in the garage.
Two of the most famous moments of the original source material involves Georgie’s photo album. In the first scene, Bill is flipping through the photograph and when he lands on a picture of his little brother, the image of Georgie in the photograph winks at him. The second scene, known as the “Bloody Photograph,” comes later when Bill shows Ritchie the photo album and a photo of downtown Derry begins to move before Bill’s hand gets severely cut after being momentarily sucked into the picture. The movie replaces these scenes with something even better.
As mentioned above, the second attempt to adapt King’s 1,100-page novel focuses entirely on the childhood-set portions of King’s book and the centerpiece of the entire film takes place in Bill’s garage when he sets up a projector so he and his friends can study the town’s layout. It’s a crucial scene that marks the first time all seven kids work together in order to combat the evil that threatens them and the first time all seven kids simultaneously see Pennywise. And as Bill often reminds his friends, the seven kids are stronger together than apart, and the unique bond that forms among children is far more important than what differences separate them. It after all, is a story about friendship and each one of the members of the Losers Club is a loner, and only really start to blossom through the friendships they make with each other. Not only is the scene unforgettable in how effectively well it manages to scare the audience, but it also represents the moment the seven kids truly form an alliance.
The scene also gives further insight into the backstory to both Pennywise and the town’s cursed sewer system. Most people associate Stephen King with Maine and Maine with Stephen King and with reason. King almost exclusively writes and sets his stories and uses these locations to increase the authenticity of his stories, painting them as all part of the same fictional universe. In stories like It, he borrows liberally from real places and director Muschietti does well to capture the pulsing menace of Derry itself, a place that lives under the imposing threat of a curse placed on the town centuries ago — a curse it seems powerless to keep from perpetuating, one generation to the next. One could argue that Derry itself, is one of the most important characters in Andy Muchietti’s movie and thankfully the filmmakers find various ways to explore the small rural town, even if it’s via small details like projecting the town’s map against the wall.
The effects in this scene stand out as well — Pennywise crawling out, larger-than-life, from the projector, is an astonishing visual. Combine that with the booming sound effects, the meticulous production design, and the gorgeous visuals by cinematography Chung-hoon Chung, and what you have is the most memorable scene of any horror film released this year. Muchietti creates an air of dread that begins with the projector being turned on and never lets up, subtly incorporating elements from Hideo Nakata’s Ringu. It’s a deviously engineered set-piece that’ll crawl under your skin and if It is to be remembered as a collection of frightening, hallucinatory, and grandiose nightmarish imagery; the projector scene stands tall among them. As the clown cackled and grinded his rotting teeth, and wiggled his devious eyebrows, I could feel my palms sweating before my hands gripped on tight to the armrest. Beverly’s Carrie-like encounter might be the bloodiest scene in the movie, but watching the terrified reactions of all seven kids trembling in fear as Pennywise emerged from the screen, is by far the most terrifying – and the only scene that truly had my audience jumping from their seats.
- Ricky D