It isn’t afraid to let the kids take the lead, and succeeds because of it.
When you’re a kid, you think that you’ll always be… protected, and cared for. Then, one day, you realize that’s not true. If you open your eyes, you will see what we’re going through. ‘Cause when you’re alone as a kid, the monsters see you as weaker. You don’t even know they’re getting closer. Until it’s too late.
The literary world will probably always be divided on if Stephen King is or isn’t a good writer. For everyone ready to take up arms supporting King’s abilities in tone and character development there’s someone else decrying him as an author of penny dreadfuls, that National Book Awards lifetime achievement award be damned. It’s not even a particularly fun or clever debate anymore, and I’ve settled for simply telling people that King is a master storyteller (praise that I think King, himself, would actually prefer).
The thing about King’s writing that has always worked for me is his incredible gift for writing adolescence. Somehow, deep into his forties and fifties, King remembered what it was like to be twelve years-old and channeled the thrill of adventure, the fear of the unknown, and the camaraderie of childhood friendship into his work — especially that last one. It’s that bond of adolescent friendship that makes another film based on King’s work, Stand by Me, work so well, and the same is true for the new adaptation of It.
It opens with Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) prepping his little brother Georgie’s paper boat for a trip down Derry, Maine’s water-logged streets during a rainstorm while the stuttering Bill is too sick to go out himself. Bill brushes the boat with wax to keep it seaworthy, and sends his little brother out into the storm with a quick brotherly hug.
When the boat accidentally disappears down a storm drain, Georgie is confronted by an ethereal being who calls himself “Pennywise the Dancing Clown;” he suddenly appears in the sewer and offers to gift Georgie his boat back. The clown, or rather the being pretending to be a clown, is unquestionably eerie, with haunting eyes that belie his tales of circuses and popcorn, and for good reason. When Georgie reaches for his boat Pennywise bites his arm off at the elbow before quickly pulling the boy into the sewer, leaving behind nothing but a bloody puddle for anyone to discover.
Months later, nothing has come of the case. Georgie is just the latest in a series of children who seem to disappear with alarming frequency before being quickly forgotten about by everyone but their families. And so it is with Georgie, largely forgotten except by Bill and the friends in his direct circle who he enlists to help him search the city’s spillways for any sign of his brother’s body on weekends, with a major investigation into the city’s sewer system planned for over summer vacation.
There’s Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard, Stranger Things), Bill’s loudmouthed best friend; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), an asthmatic with an overbearing mother; and Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), a Jewish boy on the cusp of his bar mitzvah. The group runs the streets of Derry on their bicycles, self-deprecatingly calling themselves the Losers Club, and trying to avoid run-ins with bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). As their summer adventures unspool, the group is joined by Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Davies), the overweight “new kid” from their classes, Beverly “Bev” Marsh (Sophia Lillas), a redhead buffeted by rumors of her “getting around,” and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), a homeschooled African-American boy who the group saves from a clash with Bowers.
Each of the group is secretly haunted by things they’ve seen around Derry, their own nightmares come to life, and adults’ blatant brushing away of their concerns about them. Concerns about evil, along with the memories of missing children, seem to simply wash away into the city’s sewers. But when the subject is finally broached, each member of the Losers Club has a story to tell about terrifying visions and an ominous, unexplained clown that seems to appear in them — with the notable exception of Richie, who can only wisecrack in the face of their stories, putting him at odds with his best friend and the other Losers desperate to finally be believed.
It’s the bookish Ben who’s finally able to offer the history to ground the stories, showing the rest of the group historical records of murders, explosions, and disappearances from every period of the town’s history, reoccurring in 27-year cycles. Even more notably, a map of the incidents aligns perfectly with the town’s sewer grid, an ominous sign that something is lurking, waiting for them.
I had huge concerns about this production of It when original director (and still co-writer) Cary Fukunaga walked away from the project after a lengthy production, followed by rumors of budgetary restrictions and “differences of vision.” I thought Fukunaga’s skills and a focus on the more psychological horror structure was the perfect match for the story, and finally could bring the best version of the film to theaters after years in development hell, but I’m willing to admit that I may have been wrong.
I can find little to fault with the film that Andrés Muschietti and his collaborators brought to theaters — from the casting, to the story, to the effects, and focus. It all works. Much of the praise still goes to Fukunaga for his excellent script’s focus on character, but Muschietti’s biggest win comes from the additions he made to the screenplay to bring it much closer into line with King’s source material, keeping character names the same, adding more scenes, and upping the number of Losers Club members to match King’s story. As someone who loves the original novel, I was surprised at how happy I was to see those things on screen, only realizing how much I would have missed them once I saw them. The film’s time update from the 1950s to the 1980s even pays off without a hitch, providing several of the film’s moments of humor that keep it from being a slog.
I’m also endlessly impressed by the team’s representation of Pennywise. Let’s face it: the evil clown is one of the most overworked ideas in horror. There’s definitely something creepy about clowns, how the human’s true emotions seem to be masked by layers of makeup, providing an incongruence between someone’s face and their true intentions. That a symbol for pure joy and happiness could actually be capable of hidden violence is discomforting. But the modern popular culture has shifted clowns into beings of such horror that you’d never get close enough to one for them to hurt you in the first place, replacing creep with misplaced overt horror (see: Twisty the Clown).
It’s Pennywise never makes the mistake of just being a clown. Rather, Bill Skarsgård and team never forget that it’s merely something posing as a clown, and that actually makes a huge difference. It’s the way the Skarsgård will occasionally lapse into his native Swedish as an alien tongue, how his eyes look in different directions, and how his voice modulates like something horrible trying desperately hard to seem harmless that makes Pennywise truly work, and any reservations you have at the film’s beginning will be long flushed away by the end. Tim Curry’s oppressively humorous, ironic Pennywise from the (way campier and seriously less scary than you remember) 1990 miniseries are long gone, replaced by a performance that’s properly calibrated to be unnerving. Still, it’s unlikely that any film with a simplistic evil clown premise would hold an audience’s attention in this day and age (even if it’s based on the source material that popularized the entire idea). Again, thankfully, we have those bonds of adolescent friendship.
I’m enormously impressed at the performances that Muchietti has coaxed from his young stars, especially Lillas and Davies. The script is wise enough to treat them like people with real problems, and not just kids to be terrorized, and that decision to boldly keep the camera focused on the Losers instead of the demonic clown that’s always lurking in the corner is why It is such a success. The characters get the chance to overcome the stereotypes of their two-sentence introductions and flourish while keeping the villain shrouded in necessary mystery for as long as possible.
Muschietti’s team also gets praise for keeping the film aimed at adults, and earning their R rating not through gore, but by tacking issues like puberty, the pain of death, and child abuse; the exact sources of horror and pain that make Pennywise’s transformations and fear-feasting make sense. Again, child characters with real-world problems. Still, the novel’s most controversial sequence was wisely dropped from the film as there are some things that are a bridge too far for audiences even after 135 minutes of child murder.
I’m sure there’s plenty to be said for the film’s technical construction, especially Chung-hoon Chung’s excellent cinematography (the haunted house sequence is a masterclass in the effectiveness of Dutch angles when used properly), but I was simply enjoying myself too much to take notes. What’s most important is that the film simply works, and I walked out of the theater furious that a second installment wasn’t already in post-production, ready to be deployed in six months. I wanted more. Yes, a second installment focusing on these characters as adults will probably be made, but it’ll be years down the line at this point.
That’s a minor complaint, though. For now, we have this film, and it’s a winner. They finally got It right.