If I may be permitted a small pun, holy sh-IT.
Andy Muschietti's new adaptation of Stephen King's horror epic is stylish, lovingly crafted (Lovecraft?), at times very moving, and at others exhilaratingly terrifying. Muschietti and the screenwriters (Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman) have wisely stripped down King's sometimes disorganized, unwieldy narrative and presented the most effective components: a group of bullied, outcast children, a small town in Maine with a centuries-old curse, and an omniscient, wantonly evil entity that often takes the form of a demonic clown. But this film excels in its presentation of the details, and especially in its performances.
Films populated with child characters generally stand or fall based on the quality of the acting, and fortunately It boasts a tremendous cast of juveniles with tangible, easy chemistry together. Jaeden Lieberher brings a pervading sense of uncertainty and sadness as the leader of the kids' Losers Club, stutterer Bill Denbrough, whose younger brother Georgie was killed by It several months earlier. Jeremy Ray Taylor as overweight new kid Ben Hanscomb is precocious and studious, obsessed with researching the history of Derry, Maine and its inordinate number of child disappearances. Finn Wolfhard shows wonderfully natural comedic timing as the group's smartass Richie Tozier, who provides most of the film's laughs (Wolfhard's effortless sense of humor reminded me of a young Corey Feldman). But the standout of the bunch is Sophia Lillis as the group's lone female member, Beverly Marsh. Bev is the one member of the group who rises above the schoolyard bullying, displaying a defiant confidence and dignity that confounds her antagonists. And it's with good reason - compared to her father's inappropriate advances at home, bullying at school is a cakewalk.
The character building of the protagonists yields numerous sequences of warmth and camaraderie (King's novels, no matter how frightening, generally include very relatable characters and a kind-hearted tone); we care about what happens to the kids because we genuinely like them. Watching these kids interact I couldn't help being reminded of both The Goonies and another King-inspired film, Stand By Me. These actors legitimately seemed like they'd been friends for years, and even without the horror trappings this would've made an engaging coming-of-age story.
But the horror is where the money is, and It delivers admirably in that department as well. Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard is a horrifying force of nature as the monstrously abhorrent Pennywise the clown, with his high-pitched, flinty voice and oversized, slightly askew yellow eyes. Even when Pennywise isn't widening his mouth impossibly agape to reveal rows of shark-like teeth, Skarsgard takes palpable joy in conveying the character's otherworldly, vibrant menace. His presence hangs like a soul-crushing blanket over the film, despite Skarsgard's nominal screen time. The scares are mostly presented in typical modern Hollywood fashion (jump-scare with loud clanging noise on the soundtrack), and perhaps a more adventurous approach could've been taken to set these moments apart from their lesser horror counterparts. But Pennywise is such a haunting villain, Skarsgard's performance is so sure-footed, and the visuals so striking, that the rather safe execution of these moments worked for me in spades. Side note: I'm calling this now - Bill Skarsgard should be the next actor to play The Joker. Make it happen WB....
It's no secret that this film only covers half of King's massive tome - fitting the entire 1000-page novel into one feature-length film would be nigh impossible - so we only see these characters as children here, and we'll have to wait till 2019 to see what happens to them as adults. Given how successful opening weekend was, I have to think part 2 will be fast-tracked, and I can't wait to see how Muschietti & co. handle the remaining material. Will this film stand the test of time and become a perennial horror favorite like its source material? Hard to say at this point (a lot will depend on how the sequel turns out), but for me this adaptation got basically everything right, giving us an enthralling story of a group of childhood friends with one of the most legitimately terrifying horror characters in some time. It's appropriate that the events take place in the 80s because I often felt like I was watching a really effective 80s horror film. Nothing to sneeze at.
I give It ***1/2 out of ****.
Click HERE for a review of Chapter Two.
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