Stephen King is one of the most recognizable names in American literature. For the last 50 years, King has had a constant stream of novels and film adaptations take the horror genre by storm. Some of them are brilliant. Some of them are terrible. Some are scary, dramatic, funny, fantastical, every category you can imagine. Some books, he doesn’t remember writing thanks to the mountains of cocaine he’s flung himself into. One feature all of King’s works share: they are flat out weird. King writes massive tomes filled with unfathomably bizarre details, which makes his writing exceedingly difficult to translate to screen. Some attempts have succeeded (The Shawshank Redemption), others have not (Maximum Overdrive). Thankfully, Andrés Muschietti’s newest adaptation of IT falls to the former.
IT is the story of a group of kids, the “Losers Club,” banding together to investigate and battle an ancient evil plaguing their town. For such a large cast, these kids are amazing. Jack Dylan Grazer (Eddie), Chosen Jacobs (Mike), Jaden Lieberher (Bill), Sophia Lillis (Bev), Wyatt Oleff (Stan), Finn Wolfhard (Richie), and Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben) make up the main ensemble and there isn’t a single weak link among the bunch. Not only are the individual performances stellar, but when these kids are together, it felt like sitting in on a group of life long friends. So often child actors have passable performances, but lack in group chemistry. Not with this cast.
Another challenging thing this film masters: making the kids feel like kids. They drop their bikes in the street, they make fun of eachother, they swear. They swear. When the scares hit, they act like kids would. A lot of times, what makes this movie scary isn’t what happening in terms of action, but the way the cast reacts to it. Finn Wolfhard was particularly gifted at this. In one scene, he manages to see something fairly harmless, react to it in a way that fills the viewer with fear, all while putting on a brave face so not to look afraid infornt of his friends. Anyone who thought his was a stunt-casting to try and capitalize off the Stranger Things craze is sorely mistaken.
The cast member with the largest target on his back was Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise. It doesn’t matter how well written the source material is, to make an audience believe there’s a clown running around the sewers killing children is no small feat, and Skarsgård more than delivers. There’s something so off-putting about his performance, and even though he got a CGI assist when the scares ramp up, there is a solid foundation laid. The way he delivers a line is so menacing, switching from an excited giggling to deadpan and chilling, all in the span of one second. Even though he was fighting an uphill battle against the iconic Tim Curry performance before him, Skarsgård manages to not only deliver an chilling performance, but clearly has some fun doing so.
IT doesn’t chicken out in the scares department either. This movie opens with a young boy being brutally mutilated, and it doesn’t slow down from there. Pennywise can transform and become the embodiment of his victims deepest fears, and the 135 minute run time is littered with him doing so, only getting more intense as the film moves along. They aren’t just cheap thrills thrown in to get a reaction from its audience, the movie earns its scares by slowly ratcheting up to a boiling point, then briefly letting all hell break loose before moving to the next one. There are jump scares, but never useless ones. When theres a jump in the theater, it’s because something sinister lurks around the corner.
All that said, this movie had such an amazingly balanced tone. Part of what truly made these kids feel like kids is how well they were able to transition from the scares to seriously funny comedic moments. Thinking back on it, almost every time the kids are near the end of an intense sequence, there is a button of comedy transitioning them into the next scene. This was never done so in a turbulent way, however. If you see this in a packed theater, after any one of horrifying moments is over, you will hear quiet laugher around you. People naturally want to balance out fear with humor, and Muschietti incorporates that fact in such a natural, subtle way.
Not only is IT a strong horror film, but also a surprisingly faithful adaptation of one of King’s greatest works. This movie captures the spirit of the book and includes many of the iconic moments, but it never does so at the expense of telling a cinematic story. The opening of both the book and the film play out nearly the same, and all throughout are tons of scenes and homages to the source material. The house of Neibolt street, the forms It takes to scare the Losers, the Apocalyptic Rock Fight, all of these are included, along with tons of easter eggs and references to the source material.
With a 1200 page novel, you simply can’t include everything into a 2 hour film, and Muschietti also made some very wise decisions of what to leave on the cutting room floor. For instance, one of the books main antagonists, Patrick Hockstetler, has a chilling origin story that was one of the most scaring aspects of the novel. In the movie, that is largely jettisoned. However, there are small hints with Patrick and other characters that, even though it isn’t explicitly shown, book readers can fill in the gaps for themselves. Also left out of the script is one of the most controversial scenes King ever wrote. While this scene is wisely omitted, the narrative function the scene served is incorporated by other aspects of the film.
One of the ways Muschietti narrows IT’s focus is by shifting telling the story from a child’s perspective. When Georgie looks into the cellar and the music swells signaling something dark coming for him, the movie isn’t trying to manipulate its audience, it’s accurately conveying how he felt looking into that dank basement. Kids are afraid of dark basements. They’re creeped out by pharmacists. They look at their female friends like the only woman left on the planet. All this may seem like an over dramatization, but it did a great job at putting the film in the kids shoes.
While telling the story from the Losers perspective is a smart one, some of the adult characters suffer. If you’ve read the book, you know that It has a way of infection the town of Derry, making the adults sinister and oblivious to It’s actions. That’s hinted at, but never fully fleshed out, cueing in non-readers to why all the adults are acting so weird. This leaves the adults feeling thin and more like plot devices than realized characters. Hopefully this can be addressed in Chapter Two.
The film also loses track on some of its central characters. The middle section of the film features many moving parts, and with a principal cast of seven, it’s nearly impossible give every character their due. Mike (Jacobs) and Stan (Oleff) in particular are nearly forgotten about in this section. The inciting event for the individual stories is a wholly original, and feels manufactured just to add character drama. This is upsetting, since the coming-of-age and coming together story at the top is so compelling, it feels unnecessary.
The third act also suffers from this decision. The device that propels the Losers into the climax of the film is a tired cinematic trope, and sticks out like a sore thumb. Once they begin their final adventure, some of the more noticeable horror tropes start to show, and a few characters have an intense case of “Horror Movie Logic.” For a film so daring and inventive in the genre, it was disappointing how the Losers get to their final conflict. Thankfully, the final confrontation pays off, but the road getting there was rocky.
One final nitpick, the visual effects on Pennywise are impressive, but nearly anywhere else is subpar. Numerous times throughout, the VFX are disillusioning. Since this is a film about the fears of childhood, it’s forgivable for the visuals to look more stylized, but when settings are clearly greenscreen, it was just distracting.
IT is one of the all time great Stephen King adaptations. Not only does it pack serious scares, but also brings surprising emotion from a stellar cast of young actors, and a star making turn from Skarsgård. Wisely omitting the more off-putting details of the book, all while capturing the spirit of the source material makes this the most faithful of King’s films. As a standalone horror film, IT is a refreshing, horrifying, heartfelt, new take on a classic tale.
Rating: 3.75 – Really Good