Twenty-seven years after the TV miniseries, Stephen King’s monster epic has hit the big screen at last. Both savvy marketing and advanced critical praise have generated tremendous buzz, and the film does nothing to pop the lofty balloon of viewer expectations.
Admittedly, one of my biggest concerns going into It involved the cinematic shifting of the era of the characters’ coming of age, from the novel’s 1950s here to the 1980s: would the film just come off as a retread of the obviously King-influenced Stranger Things? The update, though, is made seamlessly, with no felt loss of the earlier decade’s particular cultural context (and famous movie monsters). An overwhelming sense of nostalgia never undermines the naturalness of the 1980s setting; invocations are made in a light-hearted rather than heavy-handed manner, such as a running joke involving New Kids on the Block and one hilarious mention of a certain red-headed femme of Brat-Pack fame.
The film’s settings are impressively dreadful: the shadow-soaked basement of the Denbrough home, the eerily-unquiet public library, the sewer system serving as Derry’s It-lodged bowels. But it’s the decrepit house on Neibolt Street that looms largest, featuring enough frightful rooms to shame every haunted attraction nationwide. Overall, Derry is brought to remarkable life. Perhaps the single regret is that the town’s ugly history tends to be glossed over, referenced mostly by newspaper clipping. I would have loved to see incidents like the razing of the Black Spot and the Kitchener Ironworks explosion visualized via flashback.
One of the most admirable aspects of the film is its willingness to devote the time to develop each of the members of the Losers Club, to allow us to care about these young characters (imagine that in a horror movie!). Finn Wolfhard’s Richie nearly steals the show with his string of raucous one-liners, and along with Beverly tends to eclipse (the somewhat-underused) Ben and Bill (looking here like a latter-day Gordie Lachance), but the actors are excellent across the board. Populated with endearing characters, It proves adept at eliciting “awws” as well as “ahhhs!” from its audience.
Make no mistake, though: this movie is genuinely terrifying. There are jump scares galore, all skillfully orchestrated. Expected set-pieces from the book make arresting appearance, including scenes involving the predatorial leper and Beverly’s blood-geysering bathroom sink. Director Andy Muschietti also concocts some fresh horrors, such as a painting-escaping grotesque that bedevils Stan–and forms the creepiest contorted female since Pet Sematary‘s Zelda. The film grows relentless in its onslaught, placing viewers in the same exhausting position as the continually evil-done protagonists. For me, an added theater-going pleasure was getting to observe tweens in the audience shrieking and practically bouncing out of their seats in sheer terror–a perfect reminder of just how effective King’s original novel was when I first experienced it as an adolescent.
No film review of It can conclude without discussion of Pennywise, who is subject to a stunningly unsettling makeover (vs. the more garish figure cut by Tim Curry’s miniseries incarnation). Pennywise here is so undeniably frightful-looking, It almost defies belief: rather than being lured in, any kid with a lick of sense would turn and haul juvenile hiney at the first distant glimpse of such sinisterness. Nonetheless, Bill Skarsgard gives an amazing performance, whether posing as a static menace or launching into acrobatic act; this Dancing Clown has some jaw-dropping–and heart-stopping–moves. Pennywise’s signature line about floating is also given some wickedly inventive turns (I won’t spoil with specifics). It’s no hyperbole to claim that Skarsgard’s character is destined to be ranked among the greatest horror villains of all time. Nor would it be terribly bold to predict that a whole new generation is about to be afflicted with coulrophobia.
Much like the titular It, the film itself is richly-detailed, multifaceted, and given to frenetic action, and accordingly is sure to reward the repeating viewer. While the end title promises a second filmic chapter, I am already counting the days (which hopefully won’t feel like an agonizing twenty-seven years) until It resurfaces on DVD.