Written by: Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga (screenplay), Gary Dauberman (screenplay), Stephen King (novel)
Directed by: Andrés Muschietti
Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, and Finn Wolfhard
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"If we stick together, all of us. We'll win."
In a landscape crawling with reboots, remakes, and revivals, few properties are better suited for resurrection than It. I say this not to slight Tommy Lee Wallace’s underappreciated miniseries but simply to acknowledge towards Stephen King’s built-in cycle for the monstrous entity haunting the town of Derry. Every 27 years, It re-emerges to feed on a new batch of children and reawaken the traumatic memories of those it once haunted, so it’s appropriate that Andrés Muschietti's reimagining of King’s novel arrives now, exactly 27 years after Wallace’s film left an indelible scar on an entire generation. There’s a nice cosmic symmetry to that, one that bridges that bunch—who are now essentially watching themselves on screen—to the next group that will be able to claim this iteration as a touchstone…assuming it leaves that sort of impression, anyway.
While I obviously can’t speak for them, I can say that Muschietti’s film is a reasonable attempt at capturing the broad strokes of what ends up being a chunk of King’s notoriously voluminous tome. Anyone in Muschietti’s position would be tasked with an enormous, virtually impossible proposition of capturing that hefty, 1100-page text in the space of two films, meaning the best one can hope for is to capture its essence. For the most part, Muschietti and a trio of screenwriters have done so in a cosmetic sense—this is very much recognizable as It in terms of the characters and iconography. Appropriately enough, however, time will tell if this endeavor will capture the complete soul of King’s writing: without a second half and the gravitas of the novel’s adult portions, this feels more like a solid foundation that’s more Nightmare on Elm Street with tweens than it is King’s novel.
Obviously, that’s fine, especially given my fondnessfor that franchise, which at least gets a well-deserved shout-out in the film since Muschietti and company have shifted the events of the novel to the 80s. Specifically, it opens in October of 1988, with a torrential downpour beating down on Derry’s streets, where raging floodwaters make a perfect stream for little Georgie Denbrough’s (Jackson Robert Scott) paper boat—at least until it veers off course, right into a sewer drain. Within lurks Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), who lures the child into an innocuous conversation that grows deadly in a reprisal of the novel’s most famous (but certainly not most infamous) scene.
As an overture, it announces the film’s intentions: there’s a familiarity to it but also the slightest whiff of distinction in both Skarsgard’s more playful turn, not to mention Muschietti’s insistence on capturing the unpleasantness of it all: within a few minutes, we’re treated to poor Georgie sprawled out on the street, bleeding out from his missing arm before being pulled into the sewers. An elderly neighbor witnesses it all but says nothing, a spine-chilling moment that captures the sinister, callous nature of Derry, a Rockwellian town plagued by an eternal, recurring darkness.
From there, the film actually grows somewhat breezier: we’re introduced to various members of the Loser’s Club, with most of them enduring one last, hellacious day of school before embarking on what should be a carefree summer. Ominous curfew reminders and missing children posters cast long shadows, however; so too does the presence of Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), the bully whose gang has intimidated most of this group and new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor). Eventually, everyone’s paths cross, with the group adding Ben, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) to their ranks. De facto leader Bill (Jaeden Liebrher) is still haunted by missing brother Georgie, and his excursions into the town’s sewers lead to the growing realization that the group is being terrorized by an ancient, malevolent entity that may be embedded in Derry’s DNA.
Somewhere around that realization, It gains some traction: up until that point, it’s the slightest bit rudderless (which, to be fair, is also true of King’s novel at times), as viewers are treated to each child’s individual encounters with It, allowing Muschietti to introduce the twisted funhouse, spook-a-blast vibe he infuses into this story. Even if that’s not exactly where my mind goes when reading It, Muschietti’s approach results in some startling images and suspenseful sequences, with only a handful-such as Eddie Kaspbrak’s (Jack Dylan Grazer) disgusting Neibolt Street leper—carried over from the novel.
Otherwise, Muschietti has conjured up a new batch of horrifying sights and sounds to unsettle viewers, like the contorted vision of a spooky painting that comes to life to terrify Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff). Rather than take the form of pop culture icons as in King’s novels, It manifests as more deeply personal fears to each child, a conceit that sometimes feels like a letdown (imagine if Muschietti had revived an 80s horror icon or two) but mostly works out. This is especially true when Richie Tozier’s (Finn Wolfhard) fear of clowns blooms into an entire goddamn room of nightmarish imagery as the poor kid finds himself engulfed by a cacophony of laughing, screeching Pennywise lookalikes (including one very familiar-looking one, if you catch my drift).
Of course, it’s not the individual scares that linger with It so much as it’s their coalescence into that vague yet inexorable sense of pure evil lurking within Derry. It’s the quintessential King motif, and you sense it growing organically out of these scenes once the Losers Club begins to piece together the puzzle. It’s at this point the town’s long history of inexplicable horrors—dating all the way back to the initial charter and weaving through ironworks explosions and racially motivated nightclub arsons—unfolds before the Club thanks to Ben’s (rather than Mike’s, for whatever reason) research. Much of the novel’s intrigue derives from this mythology—which is part Lovecraftian, part King going fucking wild right before going sober—and it registers here, even if that rich history is again confined to brief, passing mentions (it’s so tempting—and easy—to imagine an elaborate television series that could dedicate entire episodes to these sordid chapters in history).
The sense that something is wrong with Derry hangs over the proceedings: in the growing void of absentee parents (Bill’s parents aren’t glimpsed after the first reel), in the unsettling indifference of adults (Ben is forced to look on in horror as a car passes by, its elderly passengers unwilling to help him in his encounter with the Bowers gang), in the broad, outlandish nature of those bullies (another King staple), in the perverse overtures of Beverly Marsh’s abusive father. Something profoundly awful lurks in the sick, decaying soul of Derry, and it’s no wonder it’s taken form to prey upon its youth. Muschietti is keenly aware of this, even if it’s not overbearing to the point of turning It into the weighty, grim affair King envisions in his novel.
There’s an argument to be made that this It is perhaps too fun, if that makes any sense. It’s almost weirdly breezy and hasn’t yet found the gravitas or overwhelming bleakness of King’s novel, though you have to assume that’s on the horizon since this one is ultimately titled It: Chapter One in the end credits. For now, Muschietti has provided a rollicking first half full of spirited, playful scares, a rich setting, and wonderfully realized characters. What the film may lack in matching King’s distinct voice in tone, it more than makes up for with its commitment towards making this story feel alive. King will ultimately be remembered as the greatest horror writer of his generation, largely because he creates tableaus of time, place, and people like no other. So much of his work hinges on the resonant character work, and It is no exception.
More than anything, Muschietti realizes this, and he’s brought the Losers Club to the big screen with aplomb. What’s most striking is just how natural this cast is: it’s a cliché, but these kids feel like actual kids perched on the verge of adolescence and all the awkwardness that entails. Bill might take on the responsibility as the leader but wilts in the presence of Beverly, who’s prone to reducing all of these boys to puddles of puppy dog affection. There’s a nervous energy to the boys’ early interactions with this girl that’s sweet and immediately endearing. Ben and Beverly’s exchanges especially thrive on that childhood gawkiness, as he helplessly tries to play off his love of New Kids on the Block after she needles him. These two—and eventually Bill—become the heart of It, and Muschietti does right by all of them, save for a late turn of events that turns Beverly into a damsel in need of rescuing.
Up until that point, Lillis is undoubtedly the film’s breakout star as Beverly, who best embodies the plucky but vulnerable spirit of the Losers Club. Outwardly, she exudes more confidence than any of the boys, yet she finds herself paralyzed in front of a row of tampons in the drug store, a crucial image that captures the adolescent anxieties found in King’s novel (and one that gives the eruption of blood in her bathroom an entirely new, existential layer of meaning). At its core, this is what Muschietti’s film is about: navigating these treacherous waters with friends because nobody has this shit figured out at this age.
Richie’s motor-mouthed bluster only compensates for his obvious insecurities, while Stanley’s wears his status as the group’s most nervous member on his face. Sickly Eddie can’t get out of the shadow of an overbearing mother, and Mike—a character who is otherwise disappointingly short-changed—is recovering from his parents’ traumatic death. Separately, they’re ripe for Pennywise to feast upon; together, they’re capable of gathering strength and overcoming their fears. In many ways, It is yet another King story about characters learning they never had any friends like the ones they had when they were 12 (Jesus, does anyone?). And while the It novel is about this and much more that goes unseen here, Muschietti could do worse to hang his hat on this thematic coming-of-age hook, which served Elm Street well in its heyday.
My mind kept drifting back to Elm Street during It for various reasons, not only because of the thematic overlap (which has always been present between the two works, it should be noted) but also because Pennywise is certainly of a kin to Freddy Krueger. Skarsgard plays him as much here, imagining him as a cackling, sardonic boogeyman, albeit one with a weird, unsettling lilt in his voice. It’s an admirable performance in that he’s not at all trying to recapture Tim Curry’s original turn, and his best scenes are the quieter, more subtle ones that allow him to lurk as an almost elusive menace.
The star attraction of Muschietti’s deranged funhouse, Pennywise pops up to unnerve and jolt in equal measure: one moment, he’s the jarring, uncanny presence in a children’s television show, where he implores Bowers to kill his own father. The next, he’s lurking in the Denbrough basement, emerging from imaginary floodwaters and puppeteering Georgie’s corpse, an image that surely doesn’t require the obvious, shrieking punctuation Muschietti tacks onto most of Pennywise’s appearance. If has any glaring weakness as a filmmaker, it’s this over-reliance on unnecessary, loud jolts and the overwrought CGI creations that plague the climax in both this and Mama.
But this and the disappointing sidelining of Mike Hanlon (and the erasure of Derry's racial animus it entails) are the only nagging qualms here—well, pending the continuation of the story, of course. At the moment, It: Chapter One is an rousing, charming, and often thrilling entry point back into Derry, where further, even more inexplicable horrors await. Unmoored from the novel’s intertwining structure, this adaptation does feel like it’s missing some connective thematic tissue that the sequel will need to expound upon, and the bifurcated structure here seems to be aiming for a stark contrast rather than an intertwining reverie about nostalgia, trauma, friendship, and King’s preoccupation with the dark side of Americana. Shifting to the 80s has little effect so far and feels more like an attempt to pander to nostalgia than to undercut it, though that certainly could be in the cards a couple years from now (though one wonders if it could ever have the same weight as perverting that 50s golden age nostalgia).
While this isn’t nearly the first film to hinge on a follow-up, few have left me so desperately hoping it sticks the landing. If Muschietti and company deliver on the promise glimpsed here, the It duology could be a rarity: a sweeping, epic horror tale anchored by affecting character work and underpinned by thematic heft. A glimpse at the Deadlights in It’s lair here—which also boasts a vortex of victims’ bodies and a mound of their lost possessions—hints that Muschietti is also keenly aware of the scope, scale, and imagination that defines the novel, too. Years from now, we may speak about It in the same reverent tones reserved for the finest King adaptations; for now, it's a fine return to glory after a long decade of disappointment following The Mist, as Muschietti invites viewers to "remember the simplest thing of all: how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark."
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