Filmmaker Andy Muschietti’s crowd pleasing and overall terrifying adaptation of (half of) Stephen King’s gargantuan 1986 novel It is good enough to erase any trace of the unbalanced, scattershot 1990 made-for-television movie from the same source. Coming down tonally like a cross between The Goonies, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and King’s Stand by Me, It does everything possible to remain faithful to its intricate source, wringing a good bit of nostalgia from the material. Most importantly, Muschietti delivers a well made and performed bit of scary movie fun.
Moving the action from the 1960s where the novel was set to the late 1980s but retaining the small town vibes of Derry, Maine, It tells the tale of a tormented community where children have been disappearing at an alarming rate. The adults (or at least those who don’t have missing kids) seem oblivious to any sort of problems, but the shape-shifting evil lurking within the sewers of Derry has become more brazen in its attacks. Often taking on the appearance of a clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, an inspired choice), the creature lures youngsters to their doom by promising them something they might want and then keeps them down in the sewers by bombarding them with their greatest fears.
The heroes of It are a ragtag crew of outcast 13 year olds who band together mostly because they’re either picked on or they don’t fall into any pre-destined social cliques, each played nicely by the actors portraying them. Ostensible fearless leader Bill Denbrough (Jaden Lieberher) stutters and lost his little brother Georgie to the lurking evil. Richie (Finn Wolfhard) is a tough talking nerd. Beverly (Sophia Lillis) has unfairly been branded the town slut and has to contend with an abusive lout of a father. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the new kid in town: a kind, bookish softie who prefers spending his afternoons researching town history in the library while harbouring a secret love for boy bands. Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is one of the few Jewish kids in town and son of the local rabbi. Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is allergic to pretty much everything under the sun and has a couch potato mother. Mike (Chosen Jacobs) lost his parents at a young age and is now being groomed by his uncle for an unwanted job future as a cattle farmer. They bond over their shared encounters with the monster and make a pact to do something about it before the killer clown comes to claim them all.
Muschietti (Mama), working from a screenplay credited to Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman (the Annabelle films), and Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, director of the first season of True Detective), has crafted a spot on approximation of King’s knack for character and atmosphere. It is a slow burn for the first hour or so, building up each of the characters as best it can without mounting a mammoth running time greater than its already lengthy 135 minutes. Even a sadistic local bully (Nicholas Hamilton) will turn out to have a full character arc by the time the third act rolls around. Sure, some of the characters could stand to become a bit more fleshed out (Richie and Stan, in particular), but the characters, situations, and themes that do get elaborated upon are well rendered and rich. The grander picture of It is played for spooks, scares, and nail biting tension that’s not unlike the work of Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, or any number of 1980s era filmmakers that Muschietti seeks to emulate visually and thematically, but the problems, issues, and subtext at the heart of King’s source are always played straight and with a great deal of empathy.
The set-pieces where Pennywise torments the children of Derry owe a lot to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, which makes sense given how King envisioned them on the page, and while they’re deliberate homages, they’re no less effective. After about an hour of set-up (that’s still peppered with some well place jumps and jolts to make sure the audience has been paying attention), Muschietti’s tone turns more relentless with the fears of each kid crashing into each other. The result is a film that feels somewhat overwhelming at times, but Muschietti uses the “muchness” of the material to his advantage. It never stays stagnant and keeps moving forward and evolving while giving horror movie audiences exactly what they want. It’s the rare example of a spook-show that’s surprisingly literate.
A sequel to It is all but inevitable and admittedly necessary, since the plot revolves around a curse that returns to Derry every 27 years and King’s novel also included the grown-up versions of these characters dealing with a resurging evil, but instead of laying the foreshadowing on with a trowel, Muschietti and his team have made sure they were making as good of a stand-alone film as they possibly could. While most King adaptations can feel forced or tossed off, this first chapter of It feels assured, confident, and self-aware. It should also get people excited for a sequel naturally rather than making them feel like a follow-up is something they should go see out of obligation.
Is It essential viewing?
While the summer went out with a whimper at the box office, It represents a good reason for people to go back to the movies in the early fall and is one of the most watchable and entertaining films of the year.
It opens at Cineplex locations across Canada on Friday, September 8, 2017. Check their website for more details.