Stephen King seems to be a polarizing figure to most people that consider themselves an avid reader. His concepts are usually above reproach. His prose are as elegant as anyone around. But with all the good comes some negatives: he has trouble ending his stories, he overwrites, and he can be all over the place (thanks, cocaine). The above paragraph is exceptionally exemplified in his flawed masterpiece, It, the story of Pennywise the Dancing Clown and the cursed town of Derry, Maine.
I never saw the miniseries of Stephen King’s It from 1990. My parents let me watch most of his miniseries that came out in the early to mid 90s, but It came out just a little too early for that sort of permission. The Stand, The Shining, The Langoliers were all first-run viewings for me, but It eluded me (I should say, until this past weekend, when I caught it on Spike). I’ve seen enough from clips and online reviews, though, that my interest was piqued.
This summer, it became my mission to make it through Stephen King’s It in time for the release of the brand-new film by Andy Muschetti. Having never read it before (nor any other book that clocks in above 1,000 pages for that matter), this became my Everest. You know, if Mt. Everest was something you could climb on your commute. After about 4 months and around 1,500 Kindle pages later, I can happily say that I accomplished my goal with just about 3 weeks to spare. I loved the book, but there are definitely some things that I felt were out of place at best and completely useless at worst. That being said, I was still anticipating this new adaptation.
What did I think of it? In short, Andy Muschetti’s It: Chapter 1 manages to stay faithful to the book, while updating it for newer audiences, streamlining the narrative, and removing some of the things that I cared little for. Even shorter, I loved this fucking movie.
It takes place in the town of Derry, Maine in 1985 (updated from the 1958 setting of the novel and miniseries). We pick up the story as Bill Denbrough sits in his bedroom sick with the flu as a rainstorm keeps most of the town indoors, except Bill’s little brother Georgie. Equipped with a paper boat and that iconic yellow slicker, Georgie sets out to send his paper boat sailing, only to come across Pennywise the Dancing Clown, who just so happens to be hanging out in the sewer Georgie’s boat when floating down. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward a few months, to the last day of school, when we meet back up with Bill and the rest of the crew that will eventually be known as the Losers’ Club. Richie, the smartass, Eddie, the hypochondriac mama’s boy, and Stan Uris, the unassuming Jewish kid just short of his Bar Mitzvah. Their lives up until this point is your standard summer for children of their age: long days riding around the town on their bikes, running from bullies, and dealing with adults that have forgotten the terrors that accompany childhood. The four eventually meet Ben Hanscom, the day-dreaming chubby kid, Mike, who may be the only black kid in town, and Beverly, the fiery redhead with a bit of a reputation. Together, they must face the terror of Pennywise the Dancing Clown and the manifestations of their own fears as they leave childhood and head towards adulthood.
The novel is not an easy thing to adapt. Multiple timeframes, tangents, weird cosmic mythologies all cram themselves within the pages of a story that wants to be a simple ghost story, but means so much more. Andy Muschetti does a fantastic job of turning this ambitious tome into the coming-of-age story with monsters that is, at the novel’s heart, the most interesting aspects. This is a story of children forced to grow up fast, whether it be due to an overbearing or lecherous parent, a weight problem, or the tragic death of a sibling. The horrors are just as much a driving force in the plot as the main villain of the film: a murderous clown that hangs out in the sewer.
For a movie like this to work, the kids need to work; they need to be likable, they need to be relatable, and they have to be decent to good actors. I’m happy to say that It happens to bring together one of the best core of young actors that I have seen in a while, maybe since Super 8. They’re all great, but that doesn’t mean that no one stands out. The most familiar face in the young cast is Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things, who not only has the best name, but he’s also the one that gets to bring Richie Tozier to life; luckily, the writers changed Richie’s MO from “weird kid that does impressions” to “funny kid that can’t keep his mouth shut”. Wolfhard manages to steal scenes with each quip, which shows how versatile he is at such a young age, as his Stranger Things character is a much more reserved, thoughtful character than Richie. Regardless, Richie gets to say some fantastic lines and may even get the best one at the final showdown with Pennywise.
The true standout here, though, is Sophia Lilles, whom has the heavy duty of playing Beverly, the lone girl of the Losers’ Club. It’s a start-making performance, as she needs to deal with some of the darker elements to this film. She has to be so grown up in this film, and she knocks it out of the park and is captivating to watch whenever she’s onscreen. Expect great things ahead of her, as well as Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Eddie Kaspbrak, the asthmatic hypochondriac. He steals his fair share of scenes and is able to get a few laughs.
I’ve mentioned laughs a couple of times here, and that’s one of the most surprising things about this film, just how funny it is. The relationships of all these kids is really what makes this film special. Much like we’ve seen in Stand By Me, Stranger Things, Super 8, The Sandlot, and any other movie about kids that succeeds in bringing in a more sophisticated audience, the film is more about what it’s like to be a kid. Surely, this is a darker version of this aesthetic, but they’re all essentially cut from the same cloth.
I can’t go much further in this review without mentioning how I felt about Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise. In short, he’s a force to be reckoned with. He does a fantastic job of creating a different sort of Pennywise than what we saw out of Tim Curry, which is what makes it able to stand on its own. Tim Curry is essentially the only thing that holds up from the original miniseries; his demented sense of humor really carries the film. Skarsgård’s Pennywise is anything but comical. He’s just plain evil. That said, I wish he had more scenes where he builds the terror. The opening scene with Georgie is one of the few moments where he’s more than just a monster. One thing Curry was able to bring out of the character was a sense of charisma; Skarsgård’s version is just about bombarding the children with terror.
It manages to do what few horror films try to do these days: they manage to build the relationships of the main characters ahead of all else, almost making the scares a second priority. Don’t get me wrong: there are moments in this film that are pretty frightening, but this is more a story about growing up, in a world where a killer clown could be the least of your problems.
But still: that goddamn projector scene is fantastic.
RATING: 9 out of 10