Twenty-seven years have passed since ABC first aired the miniseries ‘It’, a somewhat restrained television version of the ‘80’s Stephen King classic novel that freaked out an entire generation of teens. Some might even say that ‘It’ induced a collective coulrophobia (fear of clowns) that urban pranksters and the current season of ‘American Horror Story’ have recently capitalized on. The makers of 2017’s theatrical hit, ‘It’, have managed to create an adaptation that updates the material as well as fully utilizes the movie’s R rating in its’ depiction of foul-mouthed youngsters and the horrors they face.
Ostensibly following the structure of the book and miniseries, the film follows the exploits of a group of thirteen year olds, coming of age in a town with a dark undercurrent of malice. Instead of the book’s late ‘50’s setting, the film updates the main events to the summer of 1989, slyly utilizing the same rough time period today’s middle-aged viewers first experienced the terror of Tim Curry’s seminal depiction of Pennywise the Clown. The ‘Losers Club’, as they self-deprecatingly refer to themselves, is made up of convincing unknown actors and a few familiar faces. As they deal with the trials and tribulation of adolescence (bullies, hormones, girls, parents) they begin to be menaced by a malevolent force that typically takes the form of the creepiest of creepy clowns (Bill Skarsgard inhabits the iconic role of Pennywise as full-on gleeful tormentor with roiling eyes and CG-enhanced unnatural movement).
Any adaptation of ‘It’ lives or dies on the strength of its’ young players and this version truly delivers. The audience is quickly ensconced in the lives of the seven teens on screen, who all give genuine and relatable performances, no matter the time period. Standouts are Jaeden Lieberher as Stuttering Bill, a central protagonist whose younger brother goes missing in the film’s terrifying opening; Jeremy Ray Taylor as the passionate new kid Ben; Sophia Lillis, a revelation as the independent and tortured Beverly; Finn Wolfhard as the raunchily hilarious Richie, doing a complete 180° in character if not setting and basic plot from his ‘Stranger Things’ role; and Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie, unwitting victim of Munchausen syndrome. Each actor, along with the rest of the supporting cast members, convincingly embodies these disparate characters, quickly establishing sympathy from an audience primed for emotional horror.
Although ‘It’ is very capably directed by Andy Muschietti (‘Mama’), complete with novel and freakish new imagery, the movie is hurt by some questionable edits and suspensions of logic, particularly around the kids’ interactions with the adults in the town and even some of their reactions to the terrorization they’re subject to. The overwhelming sense of a deep, dark undercurrent amongst the parents and other adults in the town could have been handled with a bit more nuance. It’s jarring to move from scenes of abject terror to the kids’ semi-relaxed reactions in scenes with each other – on some occasions they are not realistically shaken by their experiences with both supernatural and grounded evil forces. The theme of ‘stronger together’ would resonate even more if the confessional scenes between the group went to a deeper level. Plus, some of the action beats come off confusing and hard to follow, cutting between perspectives in a disjointed way that comes off a bit messy. Overall, ‘It,’ is a surprisingly fun time at the movies despite the grim subject matter, buoyed by the strength of the adolescent performances. As evidenced by the box office returns and the reaction of audiences both young and old, this Pennywise is sure to haunt the collective consciousness once again for a whole new generation . . .
Directed By: Andy Muschietti
Written By: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, & Gary Dauberman
Running Time: 135 min.
* * * (out of four stars) -OR- B