Of all of Stephen King’s novels, you could argue that none is more beloved and cherished than ‘It’. The 1986 novel has become a touchstone for horror over the last 30 years, delivering one of the genre’s most iconic villains, the maniacal Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The genius of the novel though is that it is so much more than its villain - a melancholic, often disturbing but unexpectedly beautiful meditation on childhood, how the world mistreats this important phase in our development, and what our relationship is with our own. Those who love ‘It’ (like myself) love it passionately, and the release of this new big screen adaptation has been met with a mixture of anticipation and dread. With so many horror properties (and King adaptations) watering down heart and humanity for cheap scares, would the soul of the novel still be there?
This first chapter in the two-part adaptation focuses on the childhood section of the novel, moving it from the 50s to the 80s. In the town of Derry, Maine, children are going missing - a lot of children - but while a curfew has been put in place and posters of missing children are posted everywhere, none of the adults seem that concerned about it. One group who are becoming progressively more unsettled though are the Losers Club, a group of misfit kids held together by "Stuttering" Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), whose little brother Georgie is amongst the missing. All of them start to see strange and frightening things, their worst fears physically manifested, but only when they start to share these with one another do they realise a common pattern - the presence of a vicious and horrifying clown that calls itself Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). Convinced that this creature is linked to the disappearances, the Losers Club decide to track down Pennywise and stop it if they can before it takes anyone else, including them. Pennywise feeds on their fear though, and "it" intends to feed as richly as it can.
There were so many ways this film could have gone wrong, but director Andy Muschietti has delivered a worthy, often wonderful adaptation of King’s novel, so much so that I think fans can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Almost instantly, you can feel the love and respect Muschietti and his team have for the source material, but they don’t allow that love to get in the way and cloud their judgement, permitting the film to also carve its own path. Executed in a classical 80s style akin to ‘Poltergeist’ and ‘The Goonies’, including a rich orchestral score from Benjamin Wallfisch, the film has a nostalgic summer feel, caught in the tones, sounds and textures of childhood where every moment is a potential adventure and in every shadow is a possible danger. It’s been a long time since we've seen a studio-led horror film that balances the scares with humour and heart as well as ‘It’, making it all the more vivid and affecting. Muschietti understands that the appeal of this epic story isn't the shape-shifting Pennywise, but the kids themselves, and both the screenplay and the resulting film approach them with great integrity and cheeky abandon. Chung-hoon Chung’s lush cinematography conjures Derry as a town of memory, exaggerated in the way childhood memories can, as a kingdom full of good that must be protected and evil that must be vanquished.
Audiences don’t come to ‘It’ though for a vivid recollection of childhood, but to be scared out of their wits. On this, the film once again subverts that expectation - the film isn’t particularly scary, but neither is King’s novel. More importantly, accurately and effectively, the film is far more unnerving and disturbing, balancing on the edge of tipping into insanity. King’s supernatural premise acts as an allegory for child abuse, and Muschietti wisely maintains that, giving the film a lot of its emotional impact. Derry is a town filled with monsters, adults and parents ignorantly engaged in collective abuse, whether being neglectful of their children, possessive or sexually violent. In many ways, this primes the audience and puts them on alert for when the Big Bad appears, and any worries that Pennywise would disappoint disappear almost immediately. Skarsgård’s performance and Muschietti’s realisation of Pennywise is consistently impressive and deeply unsettling - there is nothing human or compassionate about this thing, driven by the insatiable need to feed and to obliterate. It’s a creature of sport, terrorising its prey to increase the pleasure of the hunt. Skarsgård gives us Pennywise as a vicious, instinct-driven animal, one whose possessive, almost sexual pleasure in concocting fear in the children of Derry acts as a kind of cypher for the abuse from the town in general. This is a Pennywise far closer to what we see in King’s novel than in the 1990 miniseries, and in many ways is far more frightening, unpredictable and thrilling.
It’s been a long time since we saw a studio-led horror film that balances the scares with humour and heart as well as ‘IT’, making it all the more vivid and affecting.
Quietly though, the success of the film really rests on the strength of the young ensemble, all of whom offer distinct and stellar performances. Jaeden Lieberher as Bill is deeply sympathetic, but also manages to be heroic without it ever feeling facetious. Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer and Wyatt Oleff are a terrific trio as Richie, Eddie and Stanley, delivering some of the best quips and one-liners in a film bursting with them. As Ben, Jeremy Ray Taylor bolsters the heart of the film, occasionally acting as our anchor in the film as the newest member of the club, and Sophia Lillis is excellent as Beverley, managing to balance beautifully that push-and-pull that occurs as childhood morphs into the teenage years. The only character that never quite gets there is Mike, though this isn’t Chosen Jacobs’ fault at all. I suspect that much of Mike’s story will feature more prominently in the second film, especially as Mike ends up spearheading a lot of the adult narrative that will form the basis of what’s to come. And when Pennywise appears, with its crazy eyes and dripping teeth, the whole ensemble manages to concoct a sense of fear that’s so palpable, the horror of the film only gets more potent.
And there’s no doubt there will (and must) be a Chapter Two for ‘It’. The only major criticism of the film is that it feels unresolved, unfinished and oddly too short. I could have quite happily sat for a further half an hour, so engrossing and charming and thrilling was the story and its telling. Andy Muschietti has done a stellar job bringing Stephen King’s masterpiece to life, and the clarity of his and his team’s vision demands the right to finish it. There are a few corny moments and tired horror tropes that sneak in, but the film is ultimately so satisfying and thoroughly entertaining that they hardly matter. ‘It’ is a blockbuster thrill-ride, moving and funny and horrifying in all the right ways, bolstered by a superb ensemble and a Pennywise worthy of the name. Chapter Two can’t come soon enough!