I don't think I'm shattering anybody's worldview here when I say Stephen King has had a somewhat stilted experience where it pertains to bringing his prose to the screen. The Shining is an instant classic and a masterclass in depicting a descent into madness, even if King himself openly despised it; Kathy Bates' audacious shoulder-throws into Misery and Dolores Claiborne are the kinds of performances writers and directors covet; Christine is the best movie starring a car since Bullitt, and the Shawshank Redemption is in my personal Top 10. But it feels like for every Stand by Me, we had to endure three Lawnmower Mans... Men... Lawnmowers Man? Whatever. You're picking up what I'm putting down.
It's this reason I imagine Stephen King is most likely doing Arabian Double Fronts in his kitchen right now because I had the opportunity to catch an advance screening of the new It Wednesday night, and the movie is fantastic!
Directed by Andy Muschietti of Mama fame and written by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation), Chase Palmer, and Gary Dauberman (Annabelle: Creation), the horror thriller based on King's 1986 novel of the same name fires on all its spooky cylinders nearly from the first scene. If you skipped the book, missed the 1990 made-for television miniseries, avoided the trailer, and somehow managed to not have a conversation with anyone who knows what it's about for the last 30 years, It is the story of a group of misfit kids who run afoul of a demonic and/or alien (depending on who you ask) clown named Pennywise, who ruthlessly torments them over the course of what might as well be an eternity, but is actually just a summer between school years.
So, first things first. The novel spends half of its time focusing on the main characters as children and its other half following them as adults. The new edition, unimaginatively titled "Chapter One" wisely devotes its nearly 135-minute runtime entirely to the kids - a decision I was happily thanking them for by the time it dawned on me that they would be aiming for two fully-developed films as opposed to one overstuffed one.
The young actors are perfectly cast, and I do not envy the filmmakers burdened with the none-too-small challenge of casting their adult counterparts. Whoever they are, they have big shoes to fill. Or small ones, I guess. There's not a player among them who doesn't immediately remind you of someone you knew or possibly even were growing up, and that is to the film's benefit. There's the kid who's terrified of germs, the kid who turns everything into a sexual innuendo, the fat kid. It's not exactly the Iliad, but it doesn't have to be. All the archetypal roles are represented, and fans of similar, beloved child endangerment misadventures like the Goonies, The Monster Squad, and the delightfully retro Netflix homage Stranger Things will recognize and welcome them immediately.
One of the only real complaints I have is that there's only one female in the group. This is, of course, also true of the book, which is over 30 years old. It's not the kind of situation where I necessarily wanted them to add another girl or even make one of the boys a girl for the sake of inclusion, though. The narrative wastes little time in establishing Sophia Lillis' Beverly Marsh as the bravest of the gang, which is nice as well as appropriate. Her character is raised in horror, enduring real world terrors as far removed from supernatural circus clowns as, well, anything.
That said, I couldn't help but be put off by a scene where Beverly and the boys are chilling lakeside in their underwear. Marsh is sunbathing, at first oblivious, while the guys are leering, slack-jawed and paralytic. And while I know this is meant to be an innocent, boyish moment and a chance to illustrate how smitten they each are with her, it feels tawdry this time. It feels wrong. It bothers me that the moment (all of ten seconds long) fails to take her feelings into consideration. It begs the question of why there's never a female equivalent to this scene, which I promise you we've all witnessed a hundred times before. Ultimately, it felt unnecessary and in poor taste, which is saying something considering this is a movie where people get their arms and faces eaten off. I just feel like there was a way to do that moment where Beverly isn't reduced to an object, a piece of meat.
My other complaint, and this one is a far smaller concern, is in how the scares are presented. Now, make no mistake, the movie is hella scary. And violent too. Oftentimes, disturbingly so. The kids encounter as many frights and near-death experiences from the adults in their lives and the other students at their school as they ever do from Pennywise, almost to the point where you kinda find yourself relieved when it's him and not Beverly's father, or the sadistic bullies that always seem to lie in wait for our heroes. A demonic clown gets a pass because he's, well, a demonic clown. But when an actual human person threatens you, hurts you, reduces you to nothing, makes a victim of you physically and emotionally day after day, well, that is considerably worse.
When it comes to scares, however, nothing is more frightening than the unknown, and therein lies my problem. Muschietti is clearly from the new school of horror, which is not an insult at all. There are as many classic fear-inducing techniques on display here as there are jolts from the Conjuring and It Follows playbooks, but I found that the camera lingered too long on many of the creepiest elements, which allowed me as a viewer to fall out of the moment a little. When something scary is on the screen for too long, you're given time to really pay attention to things like how decent the CGI is or isn't, or how well a monster costume is put together or not, and once your mind begins to weigh those factors, a measure of suspension of disbelief is lost. And that's something that can be very hard to get back.
That said, I am eagerly anticipating Chapter Two. I surmise that in order to face these characters, now adults, for the second time, Pennywise will have to bring his "A" game, and dig deep scare-wise in a way we've not yet seen. In the next installment, I expect his terror tactics will be much more insidious, more visceral, and if even imaginable, more heartless.
Speaking of which, I have to say, Bill Skarsgard does a marvelous job as the malevolent Pennywise. First of all, he's like Predator tall. He exudes menace, a bizarre charm, and moves in a manner that is wholly unsettling. He carries himself like a thing playing at being human, which makes him all the more frightening and believable. He's also a real dick. Stepping into Tim Curry's clown shoes is like someone asking you to be the next Bond. It's an iconic role that is genuinely beloved, so I tip my hat to him for making the character his own instead of attempting an impression of Curry. It would have been nice if others had been so objective.
All told, I thought It was incredibly well done, more than we had any right to ask for, and easily one of King's finest adaptations to date. Its scares are matched only by its heart. The fear and isolation experienced by the cast as they attempt to navigate what has to be the most unsure years of their lives is felt in every character and in every performance. And that's made evident long before the clown shows up. This is effectively where the film excels most. Even without Pennywise, it is, at its core, a story about the challenges that come with being an outsider, a weirdo, a nerd, a loser, or just being voiceless in a world where your problems are so real to you but trivial to anyone capable of helping you. As always, it's a story about the power of friendship, and that we are each of us made stronger when we stand together as one.
See it as soon as possible, and ask them to turn the lights down extra low.
My Rating: 4 out of 5