Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenplay: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs
Runtime: 135 Minutes
Of Stephen King’s novels, IT is a literary monolith ingrained on the popular consciousness thanks to a highly successful (but terribly dated) television miniseries starring Tim Curry as the titular monster; Pennywise the Dancing Clown. It’s a languorous, highly detailed work of supernatural and real-world horror that darts between genres in a multifaceted depiction of a small fictional town’s dark and unspoken history of disappearing children.
The genius stroke of this version is twofold; first by cutting out the entire second part of the near 1000 page novel to focus on the group of children who are stalked by the terrifying creature. It cuts down some of the content of the novel beyond the core components, but never filters the effect or detail of the storytelling as it slowly fleshes out the individual backstories of the members of the ‘Loser Club’. The second is by pulling the setting approximately 30 years forward to the late 1980s as to accommodate the contemporary setting of the follow-up, but also infuses the world with the tinge of Amblin nostalgia that suits its story of kids on a monster hunting adventure rather brilliantly, as does Benjamin Wallfisch's wonderful score.
Besides these notable alterations, the approach that the filmmakers have taken has really paid off. This is director Andrés Muschietti’s second feature following his rousing spook story Mama back in 2013. But where that production at moments felt cheap as chips, his vision for scares and unsettling images has been let loose on a massive canvas here. His direction is nearly faultless, and the cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung is woozy with creepy elegance. His timing for the scares is on point, but the suspense he holds in dragging out nightmarish sequences – often in broad daylight – with some genuinely gruesome practical and digital effects is commendable and lends itself to the films practical environments.
He chooses to hold back Pennywise in a visual sense, knowing that he will work better relegated to certain scenes and frames, and the moments we do spend with him on screen deliver an immense and darkly witty performance from Bill Skarsgård. This is a star-making turn for him and every aspect of his performance has been worked through for maximum effect, from his twitchy movements to his crawling animalism, he feels less like he’s playing the role of a clown and more like some unfathomable cosmic monstrosity wearing human skin – scratch the surface just a little and the monster underneath is revealed.
But the film belongs to the kids, and while balancing the large cast of youngsters doesn’t come without its occasional missteps or lost opportunities, every member of the ‘Loser Club’ gets a moment of reflection on the darkness and loneliness in their own lives that are positioned in just as frightening a manner as the supernatural elements. From illness and sexual abuse to family losses, each of their fears is slowly preyed upon by “It” in ways that will frighten them the most – including a blood-soaked bathroom that could never be mistaken for representing anything else for a young girl who is coming-of-age.
To combat the darkness is the authentic friendship that is shared among the members of the club. These are lovable, likable, foul-mouthed kids that the audience will genuinely care for, and you want to see them defeat the evil that seeks to tear them apart through fear and vulnerability. The chemistry that the young actors share can be felt in every exchange and joke, without a single bad performance from any of them. Leading the pack though is leader Midnight Special's Jaeden Lieberher, Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard and newcomer Sophia Lillis as the token girl of the group, who is asked to carry an awful lot of weight for her character and sells every beat of it without flinching.
Mainstream studio horror movies are big business nowadays, but the artistry and care that has been put behind IT is shockingly clear from its first traumatising scene. It’s as thrilling and fun as it is legitimately frightening at points, and its vision of youth and the fear of the unknown is exploited in a hugely satisfying way. Even standing as one of the best King adaptations ever, its status as a major studio release and the promise of continuation into the books second half leaves a sense of hope and anticipation that isn’t often felt anymore.