Director: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott
Running Time: 135 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
The experience you had watching a movie can often far surpass the movie itself, frequently causing confusion between the two. Strangely, such an experience accompanied my early 90's viewing of the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's It. And while I exactly remember the when, why and where, it's more difficult to recall a single thing about the actual movie other than it being overlong and mostly terrible, as the King TV adaptations tended to be. But that second half featuring the child characters as adults was particularly disappointing, sucking whatever entertainment value remained from watching Tim Curry's evil clown wreck havoc in this small Maine town. And while it definitely wasn't scary, it's hard to point to any miniseries of the era that was.
It's fitting to discuss memories and nostalgia when examining the many merits of Andy Muschietti's reimagined vision of It since that's how he makes this interpretation connect. And if there's one thing we've learned about the frequently unadaptable works of Stephen King, it's that you need to find a way in. His mind goes to these strange, weird places, and unless the filmmaker can find a suitable entrance, it can all seem kind of ridiculous. In this case, that door was in front of our faces the whole time: Stand By Me-era King meets 80's Spielberg by way of Stranger Things. At the risk of simplifying it, that's the key, and the rest of the pieces just fall into place.
Anyone doubting the extent of Stranger Things' pop culture stranglehold needn't look any further than It, since this couldn't or wouldn't have unfolded the way it does without that series. But it would all mean nothing if they didn't put in the work and get it right, taking an approach that's exactly appropriate for material that now suddenly feels purposeful, possessing a palpable sense of time and place entirely absent from its predecessor. If someone asks what this is about, you can now actually tell them with a clear conscience. But why bother, when the film does such a magnificent job conveying that all on its own, earning a spot alongside the likes of Stand by Me, Carrie, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption and Dolores Claiborne on any essential list of the most successful cinematic King adaptations.
It's October 1988 in Derry, Maine when nervously stuttering Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) makes his 7-year-old little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) a paper sailboat, which he loses down a sewer drain in the middle of a rain storm. While attempting to retrieve it, he comes face-to face with a terrifying clown who calls himself "Pennywise The Dancing Clown" (Bill Skarsgård). After initially earning Georgie's trust, he viciously attacks the boy, dragging him into the sewer, never to be seen again.
Flashforward to the following year and Bill hasn't given hope finding his little brother, despite his parents' and much of the town believing him to be dead. But when there's another mysterious disappearance under similar circumstances, Bill enlists the help of his friends, foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) and reluctant Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), to to go to a local marsh called the Barrens and investigate the possibility Georgie's still alive. While there, they encounter teen bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang who have been tormenting overweight new kid, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), whose hours of research in the Derry library has provided the group with more than a few ideas about these child abductions.
Joining them is another Bowers Gang victim, orphaned African American student Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and the only female member of what eventually becomes "The Losers' Club," tomboy Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), whose rumored promiscuity has also made her a bullying target, even as a smitten Bill and Ben compete for her affections. Soon, the kids all realize they've had visions of the same clown, the sadistic Pennywise, who assumes the appearance of whatever they fear most. And each of them have personal demons to overcome before attempting to stop this unpredictable entity who knows just how to exploit those fears, aiming to resume the reign of terror he wrecks on the children of Derry every 27 years. To beat him they'll have to bravely band together, despite the clown's best efforts to drive them apart.
Freed from many of the creative constraints that hampered previous King horror adaptations, this one rips the band-aid off right away, with a declarative opening sequence that lets you know this It means business. Shot in a washed-out VHS-era haze and backed by an unnerving, foreboding score by Benjamin Wallfisch, an unmistakable atmosphere is established that was certainly missing in the original. An "R" rating isn't necessarily a must for any horror entry, but in this specific case it really bolsters the material, at least due in part to the fact that we're just not used seeing characters this age acting authentically and being terrorized to the degree they are here. Much like Stranger Things and 80's classics that inspired it, the young actors actually look and behave like kids, and among a fairly large cast, each are given distinctive personality traits that equip them differently in dealing with the evil clown.
Muschietti masters what so many previous filmmakers adapting King's work have failed to grasp by effectively picking his spots, knowing the trigger buttons for maximum fright, as well as how hard and often to push them. After a terrifyingly graphic introduction, Pennywise's subsequent appearances are strategically placed to count, as the focus turns to building the groundwork of the kids' relationships to each other so when the time comes for that ultimate showdown, we'll care.
The more we get to know the group, the more we eventually start seeing of Pennywise, menacingly played by Bill Skarsgård in a performance that shuts down any and all comparisons to Tim Curry's portrayal, if only because the presentation feels so wildly different this time around. Skarsgård brings an innocent, almost childlike playfulness to him that somehow seems even more sinister and monstrous, as he attempts to meet them on their level. King's story always had the advantage that clowns are inherently creepy, but you can't help think this reckless incarnation is more dangerous, frequently calling to mind the differences between Ledger's and Nicholson's Jokers.
Since Pennywise is used so sparingly in the opening hour, when the time arrives for him to take center stage in the battle with these kids, it actually means something. There are moments of true terror in not only their encounters with Derry's sadistic antagonist (particularly one suspenseful scene involving a slide projector), but in their everyday lives. Darker, more adult elements of King's novel were cleaned up for a suitable network TV presentation over two decades ago such as vicious bullying, child abuse, kidnapping and murder are given a more fully fleshed-out treatment here by Muschietti. Of course none of it would work if not for the casting of these kids, each of whom overdeliver, with one delivering one of the most memorable on screen interpretations of a King character in years.
Jaeden Lieberher ably takes the lead as the reluctant but determined Bill while Jeremy Ray Taylor seems to channel a young, chubby Jerry O'Connell from Stand By Me as chronic bullying victim, Ben. The latter's story arc is sure to remind many of Stranger Things, with Nicholas Hamilton's sociopathic delinquent, Henry, baring more than a passing resemblance to the similarly psychotic Billy from that series' sophomore season. But it's ultimately the work of Sophia Lillis as the abused and ostracized Beverly that makes the strongest connection, both with viewers and the source material.
Handed the most emotionally challenging of the main roles, Beverly carries with her a knowledge and world-weariness that seems years beyond her age, even as she remains paralyzingly stunted and a prisoner of her own fear. Or more accurately, the fear of her evil, abusive father. If ever there was a bridge between the first and second chapters of this saga, it's Lillis who builds it with a performance that basically dictates where that installment needs to go, even prompting many to acknowledge there's no better actress fit to take over that role than Jessica Chastain. Aside from the obvious similarity in looks, that she might be the only one to do it justice speaks volumes about what Lillis accomplishes.
If that casting possibility is the very definition of a no-brainer, figuring out a way to make Chapter 2 as involving will still be the biggest obstacle given King's penchant for sloppy, unrealized endings. There's a reason the most successful cinematic adaptations of the author's work have frequently deviated from their sources in unexpected ways. With this being the narratively stronger section, Muschietti manages to get away with not doing much of that but it'll be intriguing to see what tricks he'll have up his sleeve to further develop the story and characters following the twenty-seven year time jump.
That the ending has us looking forward to that second chapter is something few thought was even possible after the project was announced and then spent some time in pre-production purgatory. And even fewer still could have ever guessed It would become the all-time highest- grossing horror film to date. Watching the last thirty or forty minutes should be a strong reminder why, as that slow, simmering build peaks, and the kids are forced to stare fear straight in his face. And while they do see a terrifying clown, 2017's version of It understands that their true challenge comes in dealing with their own worst fears reflected back at them.