IT (2017)

Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Nicholas Hamilton, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Bill Skarsgard,

Directed by Andrés Muschietti


For thirty years, Stephen King’s IT has been one of the great modern horror tales, sparking a wave of imitators and scaring several generations off clowns for life.

I first saw the original 1990 mini-series during its initial airing, and as a ten-year-old kid, it absolutely thrilled and terrified me. Like any good horror addiction, it immediately started me down the road of Stephen King novels and turned me into a lifelong fan and constant reader. To this day, IT remains my all-time favorite horror novel. Sadly, the mini-series hasn’t aged nearly as well: Aside from a few memorable scenes and a fantastic Tim Curry performance, it’s a largely cheesy affair, full of Lifetime level drama and silly sequences that jettison most of the book’s best qualities.

IT‘s road to the big screen has been a long one, going through several false starts, budget woes, and changing of the guards, now finally coming to us on a massive hype train courtesy of Mama director Andy Muschietti. So how does this new version float?

I’m happy to say that all the stars (or, in this case, balloons) have aligned against all odds: IT is an instant horror classic and as good an adaptation as I could’ve ever hoped for. It’s the rare King movie that nails everything we love about the material and gives us a full-tilt freak show roller coaster that’s scary, emotional – and yes, fun.

Updating the book’s 1950’s setting to the summer of 1989, IT is part one in a duology (that thankfully still stands on its own) and tells the origin story of The Losers’ Club – seven children in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, who form a unique spiritual bond to face an ancient evil. “It” awakens every 27 years and feeds off the fear and flesh of the town’s children, taking whatever form terrifies them most – its favorite being the razor-toothed and psychotic Pennywise the Dancing Clown. When his younger brother Georgie becomes Pennywise’s latest victim, Losers’ Club leader Stuttering Bill unites his childhood band of social outcasts to take down “It” while contending with town bully and gang leader Henry Bowers as well as the underlying darker influence that seems to have infected the entire town.

Directing with confidence and class, Muschietti deftly juggles all the characters, layers, and themes behind the novel while cranking up the jump scares to 11 and still finding room to explore the dense mythology. Despite its 80’s setting, there’s something timeless and haunting about the town of Derry, captured perfectly by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. It’s among the most gorgeous looking modern horror films you’ll watch, and those astounding visuals are aided by music and sound design that have the ability to quake your insides and raise hairs during the most horrific moments.

Of course the million-dollar question is: “How is Pennywise?” For the generations that grew up terrified of Tim Curry’s commanding performance, a completely new clown has been a tough pill to swallow, made evident by the countless Internet reactions to the early photos (“He’s nothing like Curry!” “Looks too evil!“etc., etc.). After seeing this new turn, I can’t imagine a single skeptic that won’t be immediately won over by Bill Skarsgard’s terrifying version.

Sporting a more vintage look and serial killer aesthetic, the new Pennywise is instantly iconic from the second he opens his mouth. While Curry went for the smoker-voiced, evil Bozo approach, Skarsgard channels his dialogue and physicality in truly unsettling ways, bouncing from high-pitched children’s show host to guttural monster in the space of seconds. And the various forms and set-pieces he takes are equally unsettling. Make no mistake; if you have a fear of clowns, this movie will do you in like no other (every single Pennywise scare ended with mass audience applause in my screening).

But coulrophobia can only take a good horror movie so far, which is why the real heart and soul of IT isn’t the title monster, but The Losers’ Club. Think long and hard about this: When was the last time that you genuinely felt and cared for the protagonists in a studio-driven horror movie? The Hollywood fare of the last few decades has had a history of treating its heroes like cattle, at best providing fleeting moments of humanity like, say, the Elvis sequence in The Conjuring 2.

IT works so well because it bucks the trend and makes us fall in love with a terrific cast of kids. The Losers embody the nuance and realism you get from the youths in Stand By Me or the Freeling family in Poltergeist, while retaining the fun and charm of ensemble casts like The Goonies or The Monster Squad. They’re the reason why the film works in grand 80’s fashion – not because it throws nostalgia or references in your face – but because it harkens back to the glory days of Amblin, when genuine care and affection were being put into its protagonists (the crowd favorites here clearly being Finn Wolfhard’s wiseass Richie Tozier and Jeremy Ray Taylor’s adorable Ben Hanscom). There isn’t a weak link in the cast; and through every minute of the film you’ll cheer, laugh and be scared right alongside these characters.

Even at 2-1/2 hours (a run time that flies by), there’s a lot to the children’s story that needs to be covered. Thankfully, Muschietti and the screenwriters do a masterful job condensing and adapting King’s massive tome in a way that will satisfy purists and newcomers alike. Everything from the Losers’ Club to Bowers’ sociopathic gang to the town of Derry itself is given its due, without feeling rushed or glossed over. And while the second half of the film plays out much differently than the novel or mini-series, it all works while retaining the spirit of King’s story from start to finish. Even when it goes off the beaten path into original scenes and set-pieces (all of which are scary and imaginative), Muschietti has huge reverence for the source material, even going so far as to sneak in visual nods for eagle-eyed fans. (Watch out for the turtle!)

Is IT a flawless film? No, because those don’t exist. You can gripe about a few obvious CGI moments or throw out purist complaints about how they made Ben the historian instead of Mike – but this is such a well-realized work of horror that any gripes feel like the kind of petty “Get off my lawn!” variety you see on the Internet. No amount of obsessive online nitpicking can distract from the fact that this is one of the best Stephen King films yet; and in an age where the theatrical experience is slowly dying in a haze of bad franchises, iPhone texters, and over-priced tickets, IT stands as a grand reminder of why we love going to the movies. This is a crowd pleaser in the best sense and deserves to be seen on the largest screen with the most shrieking, enthusiastic audience you can find.

The final title card reads “End of Chapter 1,” confirming that we’ll soon be seeing the adult half of the story (hopefully with a wonderful vintage title like IT RETURNS or IT LIVES AGAIN). And while the next installment has a lot to live up to, this film leaves no doubt that the future of Pennywise and The Losers’ Club is in good hands. I can’t wait to float again.

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Andrew Kasch

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