A film review by Craig J. Koban September 22, 2017

IT jjj

2017, R, 133 mins.


Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise  /  Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denbrough  /  Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben Hanscom  /  Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh  /  Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier  /  Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak  /  Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon  /  Wyatt Oleff as Stan Uris  /  Nicholas Hamilton as Henry Bowers  /  Owen Teague as Patrick Hockstetter  /  Logan Thompson as Victor Criss  /  Jake Sim as Belch Huggins  /  Jackson Robert Scott as Georgie  /  Steven Williams as Leroy Hanlon  /  Javier Botet as The Leper

Directed by Andy Muschietti  /  Written by Gary Dauberman, Chase Palmer, and Cary Fukunaga, based on the novel by Stephen King

The new supernatural horror film IT - which, unless you've been living under a proverbial rock - is based on the cherished and iconic 1986 Stephen King novel of the name, which in turn was previously adapted into a mostly misguided made-for-TV miniseries in the early 1990's.  

Now, this is actually the second silver screen appropriation of King's literary work that has been released in the last two months, the previous being the disastrously wrongheaded THE DARK TOWER.  Those fearing that IT would be another entry in the dubious category of artistically bankrupt King movie adaptations can most assuredly rest a bit easier, seeing as IT has substantially more heart than I was frankly expecting, which helped override some of my objections about its over-reliance on stale horror film genre troupes. 

Directed with a consummate eye for fetching 1980's period detail and a tricky affinity for balancing scares with humor, Argentine filmmaker Andy Muschietti (MAMA) doesn't make the same mistakes that THE DARK TOWER did recently, that is in pathetically trying to cram in thousands of pages of literary mythology into one egregiously short 90 minute film.  To its credit, IT pays a fair amount of respect to King's lengthy prose while making some strategic, but not obtrusively frustrating changes to the source material.  



Muschietti also lovingly crafts two movies, so to speak, for the price of one here: An unexpectedly involving and frequently moving child-bonding coming of age tale with more than a fleeting resemblance to STAND BY ME and a viscerally potent - albeit sometimes repetitively too showy and aesthetically obvious - horror film that hopes to unnerve us to the core.  The former works substantially better that the latter, seeing as IT assembles a crackjerack cast of young adolescent actors that infuse in their respective characters an atypical warmth and quirky humanity that's often not felt in these types of films.  Yes, IT may be marketed as a film about a monstrous clown that wreaks mental and physical havoc on his wounded prey, but Muschietti's efforts here work best when he hones in on the deeply insecure and vulnerable child protagonists; these kids look, feel, and talk like real kids of their era, which helps dramatically ground the film amidst the craziness that ensues around them for 133 minutes. 

The film's shifted setting of the 1980's shouldn't upset diehard King aficionados (the book ostensibly took place in the 1950's), but it will have many in the audience drawing unavoidable comparisons between IT and the recent Netflix series STRANGER THINGS (which, to be fair, was stylistically and spiritually influenced by King's body of work).  Set in the summer of 1989 in the seemingly innocent and carefree, but somewhat unsettling town of Derry, Maine, we meet a local group of youthful misfits that dub themselves "The Losers" - Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Richie (Finn Woldhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and the lone girl Beverly (Sophia Lillis).  After a tragic prologue - during which time Bill's baby brother is murdered by a sewer residing clown known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard)- all of the "Losers" begin to have their own unique and strange visions of this murderous entity as well as the things they are most afraid of in life manifesting themselves in the living world.  Pennywise feeds on the fears of these children, and once he's had his way with his victims he goes dormant for 27 years until he comes out of hibernation to strike again.  The Losers, however petrified they are of this creature, decide to band together and plot an offensive plan to end Pennywise's terror on the world...or die trying. 

As a child of the 1980's, I really appreciated the manner that IT transported me to the neon colored decade without resorting to garish stylistic flourishes.  This gives the film a bit more of a contemporary feel than the 1950's setting of the novel would have allowed, and Chung-hoon Chung's sumptuous cinematography makes the small town of Derry one of sprawling surprises at every turn that peaks the kids' enthusiasm for adventure.  Derry may have the facade of a quaint and unassuming Middle America town in the middle of nowhere, but it's also home to some truly evil people that are arguably just as vile as Pennywise himself.  Beverly's home life, for example, is one of rampant sexual abuse from her sinister father and Eddie's mother instills in him such a chronic state of paranoia about his health that it becomes more positively suffocating by the day.  That, and some of the children are maliciously bullied by a small gang of teenage roughnecks that engage in some horrifyingly anti-social behavior.  In many respects, The Losers find themselves fighting more than just the ghostly and menacing Pennywise throughout the film; the very town their reside in seems to torment them all on a regular daily basis. 

The child actors are the emotional glue that makes this whole film hold together so well and cohesively, and for as much shock and awe jump scares (more on that soon) that IT bombards viewers with, the film is ultimately winning because of the inseparable bond between its youthful personas.  Some of the juvenile actors here display some jittery performance quirks that can be attributed to their novice status in the industry, they nevertheless make up for it in the manner they all create such an easy going camaraderie that's hard to overlook.  Even when facing their worst subconscious fears being conjured up before their eyes, the kids' plight carries a poignant weight and sense of urgency.  Jaeden Lieberher (already poised and assured in last year's terribly underrated MIDNIGHT SPECIAL) shows a gritty determination as well as a soulful melancholy that allows for his character to have a tangible and relatable purpose in the story.  The real performance standout comes from Sophia Lillis as the only female member of The Losers, who has to display a childlike innocence despite the darker underbelly of her character's hellish relationship with her father.   

Then, of course, there's Skarsgard as Pennywise himself, and the actor is most definitely up to the challenge of making this diabolical spirit a constantly unsettling figure of pure menace throughout the film.  Skarsgard gives IT a perpetual level of unpredictably spookiness that it requires, and the film rarely, if ever, soft pedals any nightmarish scenes between him and the children (the manner with which Bill's brother is attacked in the opening sections is more than violent enough to earn this film a very well deserved R rating).  Unfortunately, many of the my issues with IT revolve around its chief antagonist himself, who occupies scene after scene where Muschietti seems to slavishly rely on one of the more annoying horror film conventions as of late to sell the film's terror - the immediate jump scare cut accompanied by the loud and shrieking shrills coming from the bombastic music track.  The more jump scares employed here and the less horrifying Pennywise becomes, mostly because you can see his "boo!" moments coming from a mile away.  This has the negative side effect of neutering the ominous edge that Pennywise should have maintained from beginning to end, but instead he's delegated to a mechanical engine that propels the narrative from one manufactured and predictably orchestrated moment of dread to the next.   

I also had problems with the film's climax, which also commits another horror movie formula sin by separating the young heroes while they all try to battle the monster, which then culminates in a scene that gets fast and loose with the story's very own mythology as to what can and can't hurt Pennywise.  Maybe that's why I admired the more nostalgic half of IT more so than its action and visual effects that were crammed into latter sections, mostly because the film developed likeable characters that I began to empathize with and foster a rooting interest in.  IT simply works better as an affecting tale of young Reagan era characters banding together to form unlikely friendships than it does as a freakishly scary horror film that gets under our skin.  But unlike THE DARK TOWER, this Stephen King big screen adaptation seems to know, for the most part, what it's doing, which should appease those who covet the author's work so passionately.   

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