Stephen King’s classic horror novel It is popularly known as “the book with the scary killer clown,” but that’s really only part of the story. The true star of King’s sprawling epic isn’t Pennywise the dancing clown or any one member of the Losers’ Club, but rather the fictional town of Derry, Maine, which you would think was a real place considering the way King brings it to life in meticulous detail. Director Andy Muschietti’s new feature film adaptation understands that the town of Derry is almost as disturbing and unsettling as the murderous clown who haunts it (if not more so) and as such, the film has a powerful sense of place and spends just as much time establishing the town’s geography as it does showing children being terrorized by the titular monster. Unfortunately, 2017 has already given us one lackluster Stephen King adaption, meaning that It has to play double duty in delivering a modernized take on a story many are intimately familiar with thanks to the popular, though flawed 1990 TV miniseries, while also trying to make us forget that The Dark Tower ever happened. Thankfully, the new It succeeds with flying colors, but not without a few minor missteps along the way.
As already mentioned, Muschieti’s film does an excellent job in bringing the town of Derry to life (fun fact: much of the film was shot in Port Hope, Ontario, a two hour drive from where I live!) but this Derry has one important difference from the one depicted in King’s original novel. The script, co-written by True Detective director Cary Fukanaga, switches the time period from the 1950s to the 1980s. Purists may decry this change, but it makes sense given that the ’80s are currently the nostalgic decade of choice. If the whole thing feels more than a little reminiscent of Stranger Things, that’s not accidental, as It was clearly a big influence on the popular Netflix series, so it’s only fitting that this new adaptation borrow a page, as it were.
The Stranger Things comparisons manifest themselves more literally too, as that show’s Finn Wolfhard shows up here as Richie “Trash Mouth” Tozier, who is an absolute riot and offers some of the film’s biggest laughs (yes, there is actually quite a bit of humor here to offset the moments of pure terror). Richie is a member of the Losers’ Club, the group of pre-teen protagonists who figure out that their town is home to a clown who eats children. The young cast is phenomenal across the board, though the film shares the same problem as the miniseries did, in that it downplays certain characters in favor of others. Chosen Jacobs and Wyatt Oleff are both convincing as Mike Hanlon and Stanley Uris, respectively, but they are definitely given short shrift in comparison to the other Losers. Jaeden Lieberher is the dynamic leader of the group, Bill Denbrough, who has more reason to fight Pennywise than most after the evil clown brutally kills his younger brother Georgie in the film’s opening scene. The love triangle between Bill, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis, who arguably steals the Losers show) isn’t really given enough time to truly develop, but still forms the sweet beating heart of this otherwise unnerving film, and even includes a delightful running gag involving New Kids on the Block, of all things.
Of course, the burning question on everyone’s mind is how young actor Bill Skarsgård fares as Pennywise. After all, even though the It miniseries is wildly uneven, one thing about it that has never been in dispute is the strength of Tim Curry’s performance as the titular clown. Even if it wasn’t a clown we were talking about, Curry leaves some big shoes to fill and while I think it’s unfair to both actors to declare one performance better than the other, the best thing about Skarsgård’s take is that he doesn’t try to copy Curry. Instead, Skarsgård plays Pennywise as a more youthful, fun-loving clown who can transition at the pop of a balloon into a feral monster (Skarsgård’s voice frequently switches between high-pitched sweetness and a gutteral roar mid-sentence, which might be the most unnerving part of his performance). Of course, It manifests itself as more than just a clown in King’s story and while we see the monster of Derry take many different forms throughout the film, not all of them are successful. For instance, the Neibolt house leper works like gangbusters, but the twisted woman form that It uses against Stan comes off more silly than horrifying. It is at its best when it just lets Pennywise be Pennywise but unfortunately, we end up seeing so much of him by the end of the movie that he just isn’t as scary as he is in the early scenes.
Speaking of scary scenes, It gets a lot of mileage out of its R rating and contains some seriously grotesque imagery. The film is loaded with jump scares, some of which are very effective, but the true horror of this film doesn’t lie with blood and gore, or even Pennywise himself (though of course he’s a big part of it all). It succeeds in being a great horror film because of the disturbing undercurrent that permeates the town of Derry and everyone in it. We see it in the way Henry Bowers (an underutilized Nicholas Hamilton) is abused by his father; we see it in the way Beverly’s father talks to and touches his daughter in inappropriate ways; we even see it in the way that every adult character in the film exists largely in the background, emphasizing how unsafe this world is for the children who inhabit it. Of course, it still feels a little strange to have a film about kids and growing up being aimed at a much older demographic, but the film’s coming-of-age story remains universal and besides, kids are going to find a way to watch this film anyway, R rating be damned.
Is It the best Stephen King adaptation ever? No, but it certainly ranks near the top behind bona fide classics like Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption. At the very least — preferences for Tim Curry’s Pennywise aside — Muschietti has succeeded in crafting an adaptation that puts the miniseries to shame, while also demonstrating that King’s story is just as haunting and engrossing as it was thirty years ago. Assuming the already green-lit It Part II can maintain the same level of unsettling horror and strong performances, we could very well have one of the best horror film experiences of the last decade on our hands. As for right now, this is a strong first half that will no doubt make a whole new generation afraid of clowns, while also reinforcing that there are much worse things in this world than being called a loser.