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It (2017)

DIRECTOR: Andy Muschietti

CAST: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Bill Skarsgard, Nicholas Hamilton

REVIEW:

The big screen adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel was a long time coming.  A TV miniseries has existed since 1990, but the low budget, made-for-TV quality, and (apart from Tim Curry’s gleeful scenery-chewing) dubious acting level held it back and left plenty of room for a definitive rendition.  The movie which has finally ended up in theaters lingered in pre-production for six years (at one point set to be directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Will Poulter as “It” before they eventually departed the project).  Now that It has finally arrived, fans of King’s work can be pleased to know his novel—-or at least part one of two—has largely been done justice.

We open on a rainy day in October 1988 in Derry, Maine, where young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) is playing with the toy boat constructed for him by his doting older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), but when the boat washes down a storm drain, Georgie is soon after dragged in as well by a sewer-dwelling shapeshifting creature which calls itself Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), and has emerged every 27 years since the 1600s to feed on children before returning to hibernation.  Several months later, in June 1989, Bill is still scouring the sewer system for any sign of Georgie, accompanied somewhat reluctantly by his friends, a pack of awkward nerds who dub themselves The Losers, including Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), who with the school year beginning are planning to spend the summer exploring the town and hanging out at the rock quarry.  The gang is joined by newcomers and fellow outcasts, tomboyish Beverly (Sophia Lillis), obese history buff Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and the town’s lone African-American teenager Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the last two falling in with The Losers when they come to their rescue against town bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his vicious goons.  But something bigger is going on.  Kids are disappearing at an alarming rate, and all of The Losers start having nightmarish visions of things they fear.  And when one of their own is taken into the sewers, The Losers determine to fight back.

Apart from The Shining (which King himself disapproved of), and perhaps Misery, the general consensus is that the best film adaptations of Stephen King’s works have been the non-horror entries, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, with many of the others of dubious quality.  Probably the thing It does best to distinguish itself as one of the better entries is a strong sense of atmosphere, and relying more on building creeping tension and unease instead of solely jump scares and gore.  That’s not to say there’s no gore (the opening scene makes it clear the movie has no qualms about dealing out a grisly fate to a small child, and later there’s a Shining-esque moment where a fountain of blood erupts from a sink), but the movie isn’t just about a blood and guts quotient.  In fact, it’s not even just about horror; the emphasis on friendship, and the gang of plucky kids traipsing through the woods brings strong vibes of Stand By Me (one struggle in a cave also recalls a similar scene in The Lost Boys), accentuated by the 1980s setting.  As cheesy as this might sound on paper, ultimately it’s the power of friendship and The Losers presenting a united front that saves the day.  It is of course better-known for a nightmarish child-eating clown, but ultimately it could be argued that Pennywise is a plot device to drive the action, and the bond among The Losers is the true core of the story.   There are elements of humor, largely courtesy of several of the kids’ rapid-fire and often profane one-liners, and a touch of awkward budding romance.  There’s a little more to It than “just” a horror movie (one could make an argument it’s a coming-of-age tale wrapped up in a horror movie gloss).

While the movie isn’t a bloodbath (apart from literally being so in the bathroom scene), it serves up its share of disturbing imagery.  As in the novel, while “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” is It’s primary guise, it’s far from the only one, and It also appears in various other forms, including a leper, a headless walking corpse, and a painting come to life, and tormenting Bill by taking the form of his dead little brother Georgie.  And Pennywise himself is not the movie’s only disturbing aspect.  Most of the Losers have cold and distant relationships with their apathetic parents, while Beverly’s father (Steven Bogaert) goes to the opposite extreme of taking inappropriate levels of interest in his daughter (so too does a lecherous pharmacist).  The town is prowled by a gang of violent and sadistic bullies, led by the borderline psychopathic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who has his own abusive father.  Pennywise might be the obvious monster, but the movie takes the time to plant the idea that he’s not the only one, and that “monsters” exist in more banal everyday forms as well.  The general creepiness of the adults contributes to the sense of oppressive unease permeating the seemingly idllyic small town of Derry and adds to the vibe that there is something “off” with almost everyone except The Losers themselves (the novel made it more overt that the adults’ apathy is due to Pennywise’s supernatural influence, but there’s still time to clarify that in Part 2 if the filmmakers so wish).

The cast, both child and adult, is populated entirely by little-known actors.  Some might know Bill Skarsgard (brother of Alexander and son of Stellan) from the television series Hemlock Grove (although he’s virtually unrecognizable here anyway), Jaeden Lieberher was recently seen in the poorly-received The Book of Henry, Finn Wolfhard plays a not dissimilar role on the Netflix series Stranger Things (which like It stars an ensemble of 1980s kids battling supernatural monsters), and Wyatt Oleff played a child Peter Quill in the prologue of Guardians of the Galaxy, but to many audience members, everyone onscreen will be fresh faces.  The acting is mostly fine, with the most distinctive individuals among The Losers being Jaeden Lieberher’s awkward, stuttering Bill, who summons the courage to become the de facto leader leading the charge against Pennywise (he also gets the most plotline, including his search for Georgie and his attraction to Beverly), and Sophia Lillis, who does a good job showing both strong and vulnerable sides to Beverly, who’s appealingly tomboyish and scrappy in a fight.  And Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgard with vaguely Joker-esque nasally voice and maniacal giggle, is suitably freakish, although some of the credit also goes to the CGI (although his eyes eerily swiveling in two different directions was achieved by Skarsgard himself, with no effects trickery).  Skarsgard’s Pennywise is scarier than Tim Curry’s, although one could argue Curry got more to do acting-wise.

While better-made than most adaptations of King’s horror entries, It remains a good movie, not a great one, not ascending to anywhere near the level of the likes of The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile.  While the other Losers do adequate jobs of delineating their most basic character traits (bookworm Ben, motor-mouthed smart-aleck Eddie, etc.), only Bill and Beverly rise above the pack and feel more developed.  The meandering around the sewers gets a little repetitive, and the two hour plus runtime feels a little longer than it needed to be.  There are moments when the CGI is overdone (such as an unintentionally somewhat goofy moment where a giant Pennywise crawls through a projector and chases The Losers around a garage), and the climactic battle feels a little anti-climactic (after spewing CGI-fests of nightmarish imagery willy nilly, Pennywise ultimately goes down a little easy against a gang of kids).  But the movie boasts strong atmosphere and tension, is effectively uneasy and unsettling, the camaraderie among The Losers is believable, Pennywise is suitably freakish, and if the climax is slightly underwhelming, the journey there is a strong and creepy ride.  The movie is mostly faithful to part one of King’s novel, taking some liberties and excising some controversial elements, and while it leaves things open-ended enough for Part Two, it also ends with enough closure that it can still stand on its own if the second chapter is never filmed (though the film’s strong showing at the box office makes this unlikely).  Most Stephen King fans should be able to feel like one of his horror books has been done justice onscreen.

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