Review: “It” Frighteningly Floats Above Expectations
2017 has managed to be a summer of Stephen King adaptations. Two new television adaptations hit the networks as his novellas The Mist and Mr. Mercedes both received the long form treatment of TV. In early August came the sadly critically maligned The Dark Tower and now comes the long anticipated It. This film is not the first time that the terrifying novel has received the silver screen treatment. Many are aware of the fairly well known 90’s miniseries adaptation. Tim Curry‘s turn as the titular monster has plagued the nightmares of a certain generation of kids and has helped make It iconic in pop culture. But King’s novel is full of much headier and mature material that network censors simply couldn’t let on-screen the first time, making It the rare film that begged for a remake. Or rather a proper feature film adaptation in the first place. Does the 2017 film do justice to the material and have the makings of a modern horror classic?
Initially helmed by Cary Fukunaga of True Detective fame, he eventually dropped out due to creative differences threatening to leave any chance of adapting It left floating in the dark. Andrés Muschietti then was brought in to direct after the success of his film Mama and script changes came along with it. All of these creative changes are typical signs of blunders to come. Yet Muschietti’s film manages to be a largely great success managing to bring the heart of King’s novel to life even if still not able to fully capture the darkness and terror of the book.
For those unfamiliar, It centers on a group of kids in the town of Derry, Maine known as the Losers Club. They aren’t the most popular kids at school and deal with neglectful parents and rough violent bullies. Kids disappear in Derry at an alarming rate yet most of the town seems to do little about it. The Losers Club eventually confess to each other that they each have had terrifying encounters with a creepy clown and must band together to find a way to save their town and themselves.
Many of the larger themes of King’s novel are brought to life beautifully in this film. Loss of innocence and learning to find your way in the world as a child are a large part of the story. Growing up isn’t easy and King’s novel builds on those themes via use of devices such as the parent’s obliviousness to the terror of the monster taking their children and ignoring obvious bullies. This film builds up the strong center relationships of the kids with its cast truly capturing youth. The setting of the novel’s 50’s childhood is updated to the 80’s yet never loses a step in conveying its themes. The script does a wonderful job of building out the banter of the group making them feel like authentic children. It also does what few King adaptations do well and that is to include King’s dark sense of humor. The film is surprisingly quite funny playing many scenes out for laughs especially via use of our funny man Richie Tozier played by Stranger Things‘s Finn Wolfhard.
Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) also gives a great performance as Bill seeming youthful enough to be a prepubescent teen and captures that sense of fighting forward with a purpose. His brother Georgie is the child killed in the iconic opening scene of a paper sailboat going down the drain making the fight against the monster more personal for him than anyone. Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wyat Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, and Jack Dylan Grazer round out the cast of the Losers Club who all give great performances even where the script may rush some of their character development. While the film does a great job of building out the group dynamic and tries to establish the individual fears of the kids, the film does ultimately struggle a little bit to break down the scope of the novel even while exorcising the adult half. Much of the character depth is lost as only some of the character’s personal situations get a decent amount of attention and opportunity to build out their pain and life problems.
Bill Skarsgård‘s role as Pennywise is fantastic. Key in the use of the clown is the friendly nature of the beast. The clown form is employed by the monster (truly a ancient evil spider entity) in order to lure kids in with a friendly image. Thus, Pennywise should be inviting to a degree which Curry’s performance never truly captured. Skarsgård’s does however making his turns into frightening all the more unnerving and scary.
Muschetti’s film wields an interesting visual dynamic as well. It’s tone manages to capture a nostalgic depiction of youth central to the themes of the story from the color grading of the film to the classic haunted house look of an abandoned house. Scenes featuring Pennywise zooming towards the children also manage to keep the clown’s face strangely in place while the rest of his body blurs creating a unique visual effect. While this film may rely slightly too much on the modern horror technique of jumpscares, the film does take some chances with some scenes weird or uneasy enough in tone to work. The scene from the trailers with the kids looking through photos on a projector actually works very well and is quite scary. Another scene where the kids are cleaning up a room full of blood with 80’s music jamming in the background is just plain weird and something that sets it apart from other major studio films.
The 2017 It manages to be many things. It’s an ode to childhood and growing up. The film’s beating heart draws you to the children emotionally and makes you invested in the story. The movie manages to be vibrant visually and captures some of the real terror of novel. Unfortunately, it can’t help but feel like a wasted opportunity to this author due to still not taking on the darkest aspects of the novel. Certainly scares vary by mileage but this film was ultimately not very frightening. The infinite otherworldly dark abyss of fear that the creature is from the novel never truly makes it to the big screen. Certainly Skarsgård’s performance is great and unnerving but some of the slight changes to the script take away from what made it hit home so well in the book. Even so, It is a success by any measure and should leave fans of the novel very happy if not entirely satisfied. General audiences will find It a wonderful homage to 80’s kids films and probably fairly scary. Perhaps most importantly, It feels true to King’s tone and character and brings to life most of what makes the book work so well.
Join audiences this weekend and maybe you’ll float too.