It’s been 27 years since Stephen King’s IT premiered on the small screen, instilling an entire generation with an almost irrational and somewhat understandable fear of clowns. Since then the mini-series has gone on to be one of those rare made for TV adaptations that even today has a loyal cult following. While I only recently caught up with the original on Blu-ray, I have to say the latest incarnation feels like the film that those who saw IT and was terrified as children would recount when they would later describe it today.
The source material here is broken up into two parts and what’s in theaters on Friday is chapter 1, subtitled “The Losers Club”. The film spends its entire runtime in 1989 (In the original this portion of the story took place in 1957-1958) with no flash-forward, not even a glimpse after the credits. (Sorry folks!) This helps a bit though to not only focus the narrative, but to also cash in a bit on the Stranger Things phenomena to ensure a sequel. While the mini-series felt more timeless probably due to budgetary restrictions, this rendition is dripping with nostalgia and even stars Finn Wolfhard as Richie ‘Trashmouth’ Tozier. This is a great bit of self-aware casting that has everyone’s favorite sensitive hero from the Netflix series playing against type letting loose some hilarious profanity laced tirades and one liners.
If you’re not familiar with the book by Stephen King, originally published in 1986, IT is about a small town Derry in Maine where every 27 years children mysteriously go missing. The children we learn are taken by a shape-shifting creature, which uses fear to hunt them, gathering food for its next hibernation cycle. A group of kids known as the “Losers Club” led by Bill Denbroughare (Jaeden Lieberher/Midnight Special) who’s brother goes missing in the opening of the film, are determined to stop the threat once and for all. It’s a story that thanks to its Steven Spielberg meets Stephen King approach to the source is as scary as it is touching in its coming of age story of a band a misfits in a small town haunted by hate and violence.
Directed by Andrés Muschietti (Mama) IT ramps up the horror and creepiness to give what could be one of the better Stephen King adaptations, since probably the 80s for that matter. The film’s ensemble with clear standout Sophia Lillis, is nearly flawless with my only pet peeve being Ben Hanscom’s (Jeremy Ray Taylor) awkward exposition dumps that often feel like they come out of nowhere to shuffle the plot forward. While I understand the need to keep the story going, they feel a bit less than organic to the overall story structure. Thanks to the film’s time frame the narrative has a very clear trajectory as we see the friendships that will empower the Losers Club in their first battle against Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), who is pretty damn scary here.
Thanks to the film’s R rating we of course get a more faithful take on the subject matter, more colorful dialog and definitely more gore and violence. While the violence here is definitely ramped up compared to the TV version, Muschietti still chooses to still leave some things wisely to the imagination. While IT does love its jump scares, it does so in a way that doesn’t feel too cheap or gets annoying. Skarsgård’s menacing take on Pennywise who is sometimes a mix of CGI and practical effects genuinely makes your skin crawl every time he’s on screen. The actor hits every creepy note with an almost pitch perfect precision imbuing the character some much needed teeth for a more desensitized generation, no pun intended.
IT is a new horror classic or at least 50% of one given we still have to see how this film finally shakes out. But it’s a great start, and an engaging throwback to the heyday of Stephen King adaptations, giving audiences the scares that only one of the masters of literary horror can deliver. Even with its liberties IT is an almost flawless translation to film for the property by Andrés Muschietti that gets the spirit right, even without the creepy orgy at the end. With a great ensemble and gorgeous cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung (Almost every film by Bong Joon-ho) IT is one of those rare ideas that is as great on screen as it was on paper, making the anticipation for the follow-up now almost unbearable.