It | Andy Muschietti | September 8, 2017
Stephen King’s 1986 novel It is ingrained in the cultural consciousness not only as an acclaimed novel but also as a 1990 mini-series with a memorable performance from Tim Curry that stuck with many, especially when they heard the word clown. The mini-series came out nearly three decades ago and admittedly hasn’t aged all that well, giving Hollywood a chance to offer a new feature film version that actually feels warranted and not just a rehash for a big cash grab at the box office. Thankfully for us, careful thought and consideration was put into the production of this new version, resulting in what is one of the better mainstream horror films of recent memory.
This revamped version of It takes place in 1988 in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. Lurking in the sewers and shadiest parts of Derry is Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), an evil being who takes the form of a creepy clown and feeds off of people’s fears. Our introduction to Pennywise is a shocking one, where he lures in George (Jackson Robert Scott), a 7-year-old boy whose paper sailboat (made by his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher)) floats right into the sewer where the hungry clown is waiting to lure him in. It doesn’t take long for director Andy Muschietti to not only impress with the rather artful manner as to how he frames this sequence, but also the shocking amount of gore that the scene amounts to, diving headfirst into its R rating. This scene instantly sets the tone and it’s clear they aren’t messing around.
The reason that Muschietti’s version works isn’t because of the gore or even the creepy suspense or anticipated jump scares. Where It really shines is in its devotion to building up a group of characters that you actually care for. Bill, the brother of the unfortunate Georgie, brings together his friends and fellow outcasts and victims of bullying to form “The Losers Club,” banding together against bullies of all ages and sizes. This group of kids is perfectly cast and, unlike most characters from big-budget horror films, they are well written, fleshed out, and developed. The script, written by Cary Fukunaga (who was originally set to direct), Chase Palmer, and Gary Dauberman, takes its time to let us warm to each of these characters, giving us a film that feels like equal parts The Goonies and Stand By Me, placed into an unshakable world of horror.
You enjoy spending time with these kids, quickly becoming attached to them at the same instant that they realize the special bond that they now share after a summer spent warding off an evil clown. While watching them hang out, it’s hard not to yearn for those simpler times spent during your youth, just enjoying your first experience with love or new exciting friendships. But with this youth comes the price of being misunderstood and mistreated by those older than you, and that is the root and the spirit of King’s story and this essence of being a young teenager on the brink of adulthood is captured wonderfully by these young performers.
Leading the pack is Jaeden Lieberher as Bill, a boy struggling to cope with the loss of his brother and for him not being there to protect him. Lieberher’s has already proven himself with eye-opening turns in St. Vincent and Midnight Special, and he offers a strong and capable leading performance here. Sophia Lillis is the real revelation as Bev, the lone girl of the group, dealing with a troubling relationship with her abusive father at home. Lillis offers a rich performance full of dynamic range, offering heartwarming light that is well needed in such a grim tale. Finn Wolfhard does steal the show as Stan, a foul-mouthed goofball who has quick comedic wit and a comeback for literally every situation. Wolfhard is already well known for his work in Stranger Things, but his performance is hilarious and charismatic, and almost literally every line from his character is comedic gold. The rest of the group is rounded out with equally affecting work from promising young actors such as Jack Dylan Grazer, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wyatt Oleff and Chosen Jacobs.
Of course, the whole picture does rest heavily on the shoulders of the actor playing the titular It, and Bill Skarsgård nails it. He isn’t hamming it up in the way that Curry famously did, but rather offers a slightly more subdued approach, allowing the creepiness of his presence do enough of his bidding for him, and slowly letting the tension build and build until he eventually does explode, allowing for maximum effectiveness. Sometimes less is more, and a more patient and lingering presence works like a charm for Bill Skarsgård.
Muschietti offers a steady hand with a good eye for atmosphere that can be equally sublime and beautiful as it can be terrifying and creepy. There’s a timeless gracefulness to the way he and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung capture the time spent with The Losers Club, and yet he’s able to easily flip a switch and capture the moody horror (along with Benjamin Wallfisch’s nostalgic score) that lurks behind every corner with an equally artful eye.
This balance in tone is where many horror films stumble, but it’s where Muschietti absolutely succeeds, and it makes all the difference. While the film does go for the conventional jump scare – some are damn effective, such as one involving a projector – and there may be a few instances where the horror sequence is a bit too played out, all of the set pieces are so well made and crafted that you are still able to find an appreciation for them, especially if they give Wolfhard another chance to utter another profane sentence. At 135 minutes, it probably could’ve been trimmed to a much tighter 120, but considering it is setting up for the eventual sequel, you can let it slide. It never lags or feels bogged down, but at the same time, it probably didn’t need to run past two hours.
Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of horror. But I enjoyed my time spent in the world of It as a member of The Losers Club because these characters were so likable and actually given enough heart and development that I actually cared for them – a statement that almost never rings true for the genre. But at its core, this is a simple story about friendship and being on the cusp of adulthood and all the confusion and memories that come in-between that time and eventually come back to haunt you in the future. We will soon meet these characters again as adults in the second installment, but in the meantime, I will have no problem spending some more time with them in this one.