There’s no clowning around in It, the new big-screen adaptation of novelist Stephen King’s 1986 bestseller, which deftly breathes cinematic life into two of the horror master’s greatest strengths. The film creates a richly detailed and evocative portrait of the everyday horrors encountered by its youthful protagonists, and delivers amply on the chills and thrills that result as more supernatural terrors come into play.
The film, directed by Andy Muschietti (Mama) from a screenplay by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga (True Detective), is one of the most entertaining adaptations of King’s works, easily the best in recent years, managing to deliver one of the most King-iest of atmospheres ever experienced in film.
The gang of adolescent heroes known as the Losers’ Club who find their small Maine town suddenly a hotbed of mysterious child disappearances are as winning, believable and easily invested in as the kid heroes of the author’s classic novella The Body and its subsequent film adaptation Stand By Me (which in turn would inspire the central characters and creepy mood of the more recent Netflix drama Stranger Things). Their ultimate opponent – the eerie, sewer-dwelling, balloon-toting, razor-toothed clown Pennywise (Bill Skårsgard) – is a perfectly King-ian encapsulation of a seemingly innocuous everyday presence – like family pets, cars and prom queens – turned utterly malevolent.
It largely succeeds against some mighty tall odds. First and foremost, the novel’s epic narrative, which leaps across three decades, is slashed in half, zooming in on the experiences of the major characters during their childhood years. The tightening of the scope allows for much purer, more focused storytelling (King purists needn’t worry: The adult storyline is planned to be realized in an anticipated sequel).
The film also cleverly shifts the story’s timeline from the novel’s ‘50’s era to ‘80s – a more reasonably relatable period for today’s moviegoers, and terrifically potent nostalgia bait for King consumers who devoured that era’s explosion of King novels and films. The time-slide also allows Muschietti the ability to update the various nightmarish horror scenarios each member of the Losers’ Club experiences, trading King’s use of traditional pants-wetting fodder like Frankenstein for fresher-feeling scary set pieces.
Along with stepping out of the shadow of the novel, It also needed to escape the legacy of the 1990 ABC miniseries it inspired --in particular, its most memorable element: Tim Curry’s bravura portrayal of Pennywise. Over time, Curry's performance has cemented in the pop culture as – perhaps alongside the Joker – the Ultimate Scary Clown. Honestly, the film won’t make you forget Curry, but Skårsgard most definitely puts his own stamp on the part with a distinctive blend of playfulness and dread.
The film’s fright factor will largely depend on the type of horror that suits your taste. It is concerned with a classical style of scares, built largely on well-developed character psychologies and sold through a professionally crafted series of tension-building, atmosphere-amping and cinematic booga-booga moments. Perhaps the only weak element is the film's predictable and all too familiar use of music. The scare sequences are not as jaw-droppingly gory, gruesomely creative or sleep-deprivingly horrific as many other modern films, but they are, by and large, effective, and a few may actually have you turning your head away from the screen.
It’s strengths are certainly rooted in the strong foundation provided by King’s original story and the traditionalist eye of Muschetti, but the film’s true power lies in the sweet, funny, fearful and moving performances laid out by its astonishing cast of teen and pre-teen actors. Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special, St. Vincent) as Bill, wracked with guilt over the disappearance of his young brother; Sophia Lillis as Beverly, dreaming of an escape from her abusive home life; Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) as the always wisecracking Richie; Jeremy Ray Taylor as the chubby, bookish romantic Ben; Wyatt Oleff as Stanley, who fears abandonment by his friends; Chosen Jacobs as haunted but brave Mike; and Jack Dylan Grazer as the hypochondriac Eddie.
That the film found one or two young performers this good would be a stroke of luck. The fact that each of the actors delivers pitch-perfect, uniquely flavored takes on the assembly of kid archetypes is downright miraculous. Skårsgard’s Pennywise and his bone-chilling bag of tricks are as appropriately repellant as they need to be, but It works largely because its band of heroes are so uniquely compelling. Unlike a typical cast of horror movie cannon fodder, we find ourselves caring deeply about each of these kids. Not only do we care if they’re going to survive the next fearsome attack, but we wonder if they’re going to survive the unique perils of childhood and grow into the kind of adults they dream they’ll be.
Based on Stephen King’s classic novel of the same name, It stars Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise, Finn Wolfhard, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, Owen Teague and Logan Thompson. The film floats its way into theaters on Friday.