Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgard, Sophia Lillis
Director: Andre Muschietti
Running Time: 135 mins
Synopsis: It is the Summer of 1989. Derry, a small town in Maine, and kids are mysteriously disappearing, including Bill’s (Lieberher) younger brother. Determined to investigate he ropes in his close friends dubbing themselves The Losers Club. All dealing with troubling issues of their own they discover the one responsible is a monstrous creature manifesting itself as Pennywise the Clown! A beast that forces them to tackle their deepest fears head on.
It is quite apt that for a tale in which people must confront a monster that manifests itself as their deepest darkest fears, the film which bears its name had started to represent Hollywood executives own worst nightmare; development hell. Similar to this summers The Dark Tower, IT has bounced around from director to director, script to script with seemingly no end in sight. Troubles mainly arose from the sheer density of Stephen King’s magnum opus, a 2000 page epic told across two distinct timelines and with material that is disturbing to say the least. Fortunately director Andres Muschietti (Mama) and his team of screenwriters (including previous attached director Cary Fukunaga) have honed in on the key to making it work. Opting to split the novel into two filmic parts, the first focusing on the Summer of 1989 as a bunch of outcast kids in the town of Derry, Maine deal with a terrible evil.
A quaint little town, its encroaching woods, deep quarry and charming simplicity masking a dark secret at its core. You see kids have been mysteriously disappearing at an alarming rate. One of those said children happens to be Georgie, younger brother to the stuttering Bill (Lieberher). Taken in the films opening moments in a sequence of volatile tension, chilling intensity and a burst of violence that shocks, not to mention introducing the ghoulish Pennywise the Clown (more on him later). Driven to investigate, Bill ropes in his fellow classmates, a clutch of outcasts and nerds, whom dub themselves the Losers Club. These kids are Muschietti’s golden ticket. Sketched out with keen characterisation and a thoroughly believable interaction between them. They goad and tease each other, make subtle little in jokes that only close friends have, and have a strong affection for one another to keep their bond tight.
Ostensibly the leader, Bill is visibly shaken and riddled with grief at the brother he knows deep down is gone, Lieberher gracing him with an inner strength and a warm tenderness that belies his young years. The rest do hit somewhat stock character types but the skill of the performances overcomes the familiarity. We have the funny one, Finn Wolfhard (fresh off that other evocative 80s nostalgia trip Stranger Things) as the crass Richie, adept with some hilarious one liners. Jack Dylan Grazer as the germophobe Eddie, his strict avoidance of all things unclean played for laughs, scares and sadness. Wyatt Oleff is possibly the weakest of the bunch as the Jewish Stanley. A slightly whiny performance is not helped by the thinnest material and lack of thematic weight to his encounters with IT.
The foursome soon find themselves thrown in with other loners. Chosen Jacobs plays Mike, as one of the only black faces in the local community the bullying he endures has a pertinent racial undertow but his character suffers due to the film oddly abandoning him for almost half of the story. Better served and possibly the best out of the entire ensemble are new boy Ben and abused outsider Beverly. Jeremy Ray Taylor is phenomenal as Ben, shy, hesitant but fiercely intelligent. His infatuation with Beverly is utterly captivating. Their shared love for New Kids on the Block just one aspect of a connection that subtly and carefully reveals itself, especially when the affections of Bill for her come into view. Sophia Lillis is by far the standout though, her performance complex, her story troubling, her battles deeply felt. Each of them in turn have to face off against IT, a creature capable of forming itself into their darkest fears.
This is the key theme of King’s novel. There is a connection all the Losers Club share that they themselves seem unaware of. All are either abused, neglected or otherwise ignored by those meant to care for them. Whether that be Bill’s parents unable to cope with their own grief, in turn ignoring the pain he is having. Or the suffocating restrictions the germ fearing Eddie is placed under by his over cautious mother. Beverly struggles the most with a slimy, possibly sexually abusive father, not to mention a sickly suggestive encounter with a local pharmacist. IT tells us that adults are not going to save us, that we must find our own way to survive, that they are confusing unusual figures in the eyes of their children. These may not be new themes, after all we must remember the original novel was written in the mid-80s, but they are perceptive ones. The book and the film masterfully suggesting that the adults may themselves be either aware of IT’s presence, wilfully ignoring it or are under ITs influence.
The fact the film works so well outside of its horror aspect (a part we will get onto I promise) is testament to Muschietti and his cast. IT’s sense of place is wonderfully evocative, in a successful move the writers have shifted the kids tale from the novels 50s setting to the late 80s, subtly enriching its location in time with the Amblin-esque vibe and glimpses of specific cultural relics such as Nightmare on Elm Street 5 playing at the local theater. Muschietti conjures up some beautiful imagery, calmly letting his story unfold without the insatiable desire to leap to the next scare as so many contemporary horrors attempt. If he may perhaps let it go on a little too much, the film’s 135 min running time is tad too generous, it allows the characters to flesh themselves out delivering a real sense of fear for their lives when the scares do land.
Of course IT is above all else a horror story and in that respect the film delivers in spades. Whilst not delivering any one standout scare it maintains an acute build-up of tension and an inherent creepiness that is truly freaky. IT goes to places few R-rated mainstream horrors go to, particularly one involving kids. The fact that IT contorts into manifestations of their fears gives the scares an unpredictability that excuses the somewhat obviousness of their metaphoric nature. Not least in the rivers of blood that soak Beverly right as she battles with the changes happening in her own teenage body. It is broad but effective thanks to Lillis’s performance and the stark framing Muschietti adopts. There is also a slight structural repetitiveness to the use of scares, coming along in sets of three, then into a few scenes of the kids interacting then back into 3 sets of scares.
IT itself (sorry) is a frankly horrific creation. Bill Skarsgard a wicked delight, playing IT with an almost darkly hilarious detachment, veering from off kilter delivery to some shockingly unusual body contortions. It is an animalistic performance, impish, captivating and haunting. There is perhaps a little too much CGI augmentation in the more extreme bombastic moments, but when it is just Skarsgard in make-up and costume it is tangibly terrifying. The clown industry likely facing an even tougher image than Tim Curry’s previous iconic iteration of IT gave off.
As events reach maximum insanity, King’s clever skewering of horror tropes comes to the fore, notably in the haunted house IT calls home. But what becomes most affecting is how the Losers Club rise above themselves and become closer than ever before (although thankfully the uncomfortable pre-teen orgy in the book is left out) leaving the finale genuinely tear-inducing. Muschietti gently teases the next chapter but makes sure to wrap things up definitively, only a tantalising subtitle as the credits roll explicitly reveals that more is to come. Unlike most horror franchises which actively threaten audience affections by dragging out ceaseless sequels, the thought of more from this world is exciting. IT has defied those executives fears and morphed into one of the finest Stephen King adaptations.
Verdict: A few flaws aside IT is a beautifully shot dive into childhood anxieties and the corrosive power of fear, with warm captivating performances and a terrifying central monster.