At this point, Stephen King has transcended genre, becoming his own genre in the process, with his own codified conventions and archetypes and stylistic choices. Once you’ve got a taste for King, you can recognize him even without a title page. That’s why the Richard Bachman books couldn’t stay a secret forever. In novel form, IT was a summary of everything King had done up to that point, a big fat pulpy meditation on what that thing under the bed was really up to. There was a TV miniseries version of the book back in 1990, and for many young audiences who saw it, Tim Curry’s Pennywise the Clown became a potent and lingering vision of dread. Now, Warner Bros. and New Line are betting big that a big-screen version not only has some commercial gas left in the tank, but that they can make the defining version of the work that largely defines this monolithic author.
The remarkable thing is how close they get to that home run.
King’s book was built around a split structure, with half of the story told in the 1950s and half told in the 1980s. For the film, they’ve updated it so that the stuff set in the past is now set in the ‘80s, and it’s a fairly canny move. Anyone who read the book when it was originally published is old enough for the ‘80s to now be the era that defines nostalgia for them. King wrote about growing up in the ‘50s so vividly that those of us who grew up reading his work can be excused for sometimes feeling like we were really there. While the film is set in the late ‘80s, it manages to capture the balance between innocence and horror that the book’s setting created, essentially folding the setting of the book and the moment of its release into one co-mingled memory.
For those unfamiliar with the book or the earlier film, the most important choice the filmmakers made was to strip out that split structure completely. Now there’s no present-day side to the story. Instead, what we see is simply the story of the Losers and the long, terrifying summer in which they learn the truth about Derry, the town where they all live. While there are definitely choices that have been made in the adaptation that condense or streamline or simply modify King’s book, what’s clear is that this film understands the beating heart of what King wrote, and they’ve made an extraordinary effort to treat this as something special, not just knock-off horror schlock.
The thing that is the film’s greatest commercial strength is also the one thing that gives me pause when recommending the film, though. In trying to condense King’s massive novel into one film, they helped themselves by cutting it in half, but that didn’t solve the problem. They still had to boil things down even further, and the result is a film that feels like one set piece after another with almost no connective tissue. It works, and the cumulative impact of that many big fat scare sequences in a row may well play havoc with the audience. There’s a breathless quality to the film that makes it feel incredibly confident, even if there’s a bit of a bulldozer effect to it overall.
The film opens with little Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) getting ready to go outside and play in the rain. His older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is sick, stuck in bed, and annoyed, but he still helps George build a paper boat, sealing it with wax so it will float. It’s a sweet scene between the brothers, and then Georgie heads out into the rain, where he has an encounter with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), the face that the monster under Derry wears the most often. In those opening moments, the film makes it clear just how far it’s willing to go, fundamentally ignoring the unspoken rule that you won’t do anything too terrible to kids in a horror film. In this town, the children are fair game, and the adults are all too dulled by whatever weird spell Pennywise has cast over the town to do anything about it.
That’s bad news if you’re a loner or an outcast or a weirdo or hobbled in any way. That’s what Pennywise counts on. He loves it when someone’s alone and feeling weak, and that’s a pretty good description for each of the Losers at one point or another. In a film that moves as fast as this one does, casting serves as shorthand. You end up either finding the exact right kid, or you don’t, and they put together a pretty strong ensemble here. Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things is probably the most recognizable of the kids, playing the motormouth of the group, Richie Tozier, but no one kid is pushed front and center. They all have to carry the film.
Sophia Lillis plays Beverly Marsh, the sole girl in the group, and it’s a character that was profoundly problematic in the book. Much of the most uncomfortable and upsetting material in the film focuses on the sexualization of Beverly, whether involving her father (Stephen Bogaert) or the local pharmacist (Joe Bostick), and she ends up becoming something of a damsel-in-distress instead of a full equal with the boys. Lillis is a vibrant young performer, apparently cast because she’s talented and could easily be the younger version of Jessica Chastain, who is already the favorite to step into the adult role in the inevitable sequel. Lillis does a nice job navigating some of the script’s most difficult moments, handling the material with an adult’s sense of poise. She’s also quite good in the moments involving her relationship to Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new kid in town. Ben’s a fat kid, and they cast Taylor because he’s got an innate sweetness that shines through every time he smiles.
Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) is the outsider even in this group of outsiders, and if any storyline got short shrift here, it’s his. They’ve refigured him from the book somewhat, and I wish it felt like everything connected because the sight of Mike armed with the bolt gun from the slaughterhouse where he works heading into battle with It is one of those great perfect “oh, hell, yeah” character beats in recent horror. Jack Dylan Grazer does good work as poor Eddie Kaspbrak, the sickly kid who is just starting to figure out that his smothering mother may not have his best interests at heart, and Wyatt Oleff plays some notes in his performance that hint at the ultimate fate of Stanley Uris.
The bullies… and this is a Stephen King piece about childhood, so of course there are bullies… are played by Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, and Jake Sim, with Nicholas Hamilton riding herd over them as Henry Bowers, the craziest of the crazy tough kids. It feels like his part got cut back to the bare minimum here, and a few more scenes might have landed the idea of Henry as the physical arm of Pennywise. As it stands here, Henry takes a sharp right turn at a certain point, and it feels motivated by story needs, not by character, which is always a problem.
Ultimately, though, Andy Muschietti is the star of the film. He’s the one making the call about how to approach bringing the horror of Derry to life, and the film is filled with striking imagery pulled right from the nightmare life of the kids. Oddly, though, Pennywise is more threat than actual hazard in this film. The final showdown with him is interesting, and it feels like one of the moments where Muschietti finally cuts loose, allowing his imagination to really run wild, with Pennywise finally letting his human face start to slip. Skarsgard is not borrowing anything from Tim Curry’s work as Pennywise, instead playing him like a deranged Bugs Bunny with way too many razor teeth. It’s a strong performance that anchors the film, and Muschietti gets a lot of mileage out of dropping Pennywise into the wrong place at the right moment. Each of the individual set pieces has to slow down enough to try to build some dread, but as soon as they end, he slams right into the next one, so there’s a strange tension between the slow burn required for dread and the breathlessness required to fit all of this story into one film. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a film that’s built quite the way this one is.
It’s clear that they’ve thrown some real talent at bringing it to life. Chung-hoon Chung’s photography is rich and vivid, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score ably evokes the dark Amblin atmosphere that Muschietti’s chasing. Jason Ballentine’s editing is a key part of making the various jumps and jolts work without feeling cheap, and Claude Paré and Peter Grundy have created spaces that feel right for all of these bizarre, unsettling things, including Niebold Street, a multi-level haunted house that feels like a classic summation of haunted houses in general. In fact, seeing this brought to life, it’s more obvious than ever that It represents a sort of master’s thesis on King’s work, and in a very different way than the more-ambitious but also more-personal Dark Tower series. It feels like he set out to create a character that is essentially the manifestation of Danse Macabre, a nonfiction book that is one of the most revealing things King ever published. Danse Macabre is a book-length piece of criticism in which he talks about the books and the films that inspired him, and he digs deep, writing about specifics scares and ideas and images and why they stuck to him. When you look at It, you can see the small towns of his earlier books, the bullies, the ‘50s nostalgia, the new spins on classic monsters, and you can see him taking one last big swing at all of it together. His monster feeds on fear, even more than blood, and King has spent his life feeding on that fear as well. He knows how to fine-tune that fear when he’s close-up and has you right there, frantically turning pages, and he knows how to milk it. Like Pennywise, King has convinced us to provide him with that slow drip of fear, and even when he’s announced his retirement, he hasn’t gone anywhere. He, more than almost any author I’ve ever read, writes like a man who has to write, who can’t turn it off. In bringing It to life, Muschietti and his collaborators have paid tribute to that long lingering dread, and you can feel their profound respect for him in every choice they made.
The highest compliment I can pay It is that I can’t wait to see how they cast the adult versions of these characters. Rumor is, there was a scene actually shot with Chastain that was meant to show up at the end of this, and that would make sense. She worked with Muschietti in Mama, and she’d be terrific as Beverly. By the end of the film, I was invested in the characters, even with the film painting in broad strokes, and I want to see what happens when the Losers finally face down Pennywise again. For the first time in a long time, the promise of a sequel feels like a promise, not a corporate threat.
The next film is the harder story to tell, though, and King’s always had a problem with endings. He’s always been a wickedly talented storyteller whose voice was the main appeal. His prose is just so damn clean. They got that right here. Even if you don’t love where the story goes, the time spent telling it is enormously pleasurable, and IT: Chapter One will more than satisfy audiences looking for an aggressive, stylish scare machine.
Running time: 135 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic