(2017—Director: Andy Muschietti)
(out of 5 stars)
“I know what I’m doing for my ‘summer experience’ essay.” — Richard “Richie” Tozier (Finn Wolfhard)
Potential spoilers below
(Also, to avoid confusion with the normal use of the word “it”, the film’s title and titular character will consist of all capital letters, i.e., IT.)
2017 has seen two translations of Stephen King’s novels to the silver screen. First came July’s The Dark Tower, a forgettable and middling (at best) amalgamation of King’s eight-book series written between 1998 and 2012. The second is IT, adapting King’s bestselling horror novel from 1986. Directed by Argentinian director Andy Muschietti (Mama), IT’s confident blend of hard-R scares and authentic early adolescence easily makes it the best horror film since February’s Get Out.
IT is set in Derry, Maine, towards the end of the 1980s. An ancient, shape-shifting monster that preys on the town’s children every twenty-seven years has reemerged from its hibernation in the local sewer system. The monster haunts most often in the form of a dancing circus clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, Atomic Blonde). Breaking away from the community’s blind eye, seven young kids (led by Jaeden Lieberher, The Book of Henry) overcome their inner fears and band together as “The Losers Club” to face the monster.
2017’s IT is the second adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel. The first adaptation was a four-hour television miniseries that premiered on ABC in 1990. While the overall critical consensus remains mixed-to-positive due to mature content restrictions and unimpressive special effects, the miniseries has become a modest pop culture mainstay. This is especially due to the iconic and scene-chewing portrayal of Pennywise the Clown by seasoned actor Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Clue).
It is inevitable, then, that many hold 2017’s IT to the quality standard set by the 1990 miniseries. The silver screen, unlike television, frees the 2017 adaptation to offer harder scares and more explicit gore. For example, while the 1990 miniseries captured Pennywise’s attack on the young Georgie early in the story with a menacing closeup of the clown and his bared teeth, the 2017 film goes several steps further: It outright has Pennywise ripping off the child’s arm and the child is left to bleed for a few seconds in the rainy street before the monster’s arm drags him into the sewer for good. Special effects do not shy away from skin-slitting, blood-letting knives, poles used for impalement, and the many traumatic jump scares (some predictable, others unexpected and horrific) found throughout the film’s runtime. Bill Skarsgård’s take on Pennywise eschews most of Tim Curry’s comical scene-chewing and delivers a genuine and terrifying monster that will only cement the widespread coulrophobia (fear of clowns) originating from serial killer John Wayne Gacy and DC Comics’ Joker. One can even argue that the contrast between Skarsgård and Tim Curry’s respective Pennywise turns is akin to the contrast between Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s respective Jokers.
While the frights of 2017’s IT just surpass those of the 1990 miniseries, the film’s portrayal of the Losers Club surpasses that of the miniseries with little doubt. The young actors of the miniseries (including a young Seth Green of Robot Chicken and Family Guy fame) were eighties kids pretending to live as fifties kids in 1960. Comparatively, the young actors of the film are millennials pretending to live as eighties kids, made explicit by Ben Hanscom (played by Jeremy Ray Taylor) and his secret admiration for the vocal group New Kids on the Block. Today’s cultural and technological excesses are not as removed from the excesses of the eighties, whereas the cultural gap is more pronounced between the eighties and the transition period between fifties rock and The Beatles. This context assists the young actors of the 2017 film in their performances and though the strong language and often vulgar innuendos from The 2017 Losers Club can seem excessive in a few instances, they still feel characteristic of young high schoolers. Of the gang, Jack Dylan Grazer as the fast-talking hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak drew many laughs. At the opposite end, Nicholas Hamilton as town bully Henry Bowers came off early as a young sadist whose every line sounded as though he was trying to pop a blood vessel. His arc later in the film somewhat justifies Hamilton’s heightened portrayal.
The one advantage the 1990 miniseries has on the 2017 film is that it tackles the entire Stephen King novel in one sweep. That explains why the 2017 film is subtitled Chapter One, since the novel also has The Losers Club reuniting twenty-seven years later to prepare for Pennywise’s likely return in Chapter Two, to be released a few years from now. Until then, IT (Chapter One) not only serves as an assured prologue for a later final battle, but it also provides a terrifying horror experience that easily floats on the sea of today’s general horror mediocrity.
(Parental Note: IT has been rated R by the MPAA “for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language.” IT has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong horror, violence, and language” and L (Limited adult audience) by the Catholic News Service for containing “mature themes, including implied incestuous child sexual abuse, occasional bloody violence and disturbing images, intermittent sexual humor, a few uses of profanity, pervasive rough and frequent crude language and obscene gestures.”