If Stranger Things is an original story that taps into every sci-fi/horror touchstone from the youth of people my age (mid-to-late 30s), then It is one of those touchstones remade with the same sensibility. This is the hard R version of Stranger Things; the one you don’t take the kids to see to get them into what you loved when you were a kid. Maybe you do, though, if you’re the kind of awesome parents mine were, parents who let your kids watch pretty much whatever they want. Thanks, mom and dad.
It is based on Stephen King’s popular – and gargantuan – 1986 novel. The book, and the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation, both play on baby boomer nostalgia. The story is split between two different time frames, following seven people as kids in the late 1950s, and 30 years later as adults. This new version has been updated for the Gen X/Millennial set. The part of the story that follows the characters as kids, which the movie focuses on exclusively, is set in 1989. Thus, we see a Gremlins poster featured prominently on one character’s bedroom wall.
Accompanying the 1980s pop culture references (a movie theater marquee advertises Batman and Lethal Weapon 2), the style of It harkens back to horror movies of that time period. The scares are akin to what you get in movies like Poltergeist or The Thing. They consist of the boogeyman – here, a clown named Pennywise – jumping out at you as a perfectly timed musical stinger screeches on the soundtrack.
All of that is a way to say that It isn’t an exercise in subtlety. The shocks are big, loud, and frequent. They’re also just what you want if this kind of movie is your thing. The only element that never quite works is the score. There are a few moments when the music is understated and downright creepy, but for the most part it’s just overbearing and annoyingly omnipresent. Maybe it was just my screening, but the sound mix in general seemed earsplitting, as if the filmmakers felt the best way to ensure we jumped in our seats at every scare was to crank the whole thing up to eleven.
The film isn’t subtle, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. The best Stephen King books, and the best screen adaptations of his work, succeed by pulling you into a world and sending you on a journey with characters you grow to love. It’s screenplay succeeds in doing that, despite four different writers tinkering with it over the course of a seven year development period. David Kajganich worked on an initial version, then Cary Fukunaga – of True Detective fame, who was also set to direct It – and Chase Palmer wrote revisions. Finally, Gary Dauberman was brought on board to make changes that would reflect the vision of director Andy Muschietti, who took over when Fukunaga dropped out of the project.
That long gestation is about as complicated as juggling the seven main protagonists, two main antagonists, and countless side characters present in It. The screenplay, Muschietti’s direction, and the performances of the actors come together to make each character defined and memorable.
It is the story of The Losers’ Club, seven misfit kids who find strength in each other when they bond together to fight an unspeakable evil that surfaces in their home town of Derry, Maine.
The kids all give strong performances, but a few stand out among the rest. First is Jaeden Lieberher as Bill, the de facto leader of the club. Bill is determined to confront Pennywise the Dancing Clown when he discovers the creature murdered his little brother, Georgie, the previous year. Finn Wolfhard is Richie Tozier, the foul-mouthed jokester who always has a one-liner at the ready. Wolfhard injects comic relief into the picture with his smart-ass depiction of Richie.
Sophia Lillis portrays the only girl of the club, Beverly Marsh. Lillis projects a toughness that is critical to Beverly’s character. Of the seven, she has the hardest home life. Her over-protective father, Alvin, leers at her in a way that suggests he’s got more on his mind than her safety. Other kids at school spread vicious rumors that Beverly is a slut, and Alvin is constantly worried about what she’s doing when she’s hanging out with all those boys. It’s an ironic commentary on all the dads who are obsessed with their daughter’s sexual purity. Again, not in the least subtle, but effective.
The members of The Losers’ Club are bullied and harassed at school or home, but the real terror of It comes from Pennywise. In the 1990 miniseries, the legendary Tim Curry portrayed the murderous creature. Those are pretty big clown shoes to fill. Stepping into the role this time is Swedish actor Bill Skarsgård, who is absolutely mesmerizing in every frame in which he appears. Skarsgård’s performance is unsettling. It’s quiet yet menacing, with an undertone of barely restrained insanity lurking just below the surface. There are little touches, too, like a long string of thick saliva pouring from Pennywise’s bottom lip, that are more chilling than any CGI creature could be.
The film does employ a fair share of computer enhancement to bring Pennywise to life. After all, this mysterious creature only appears to be a clown. The CGI is used to supplement the horror, and the artists behind it use great skill to scare the bejesus out of us.
It is the first part of a planned duology. The second part will focus on the members of The Losers’ Club in the present, as adults, and how the events of their childhood shaped who they became. The filmmakers, especially the cast, brought the characters and world of Derry to life. So much of storytelling is about the journey, not the destination. The overall success of It makes me anticipate the next trip.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
It is solid, old-fashioned horror filmmaking. The scares are plenty, but you also become invested in the characters and their journey.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- My main beef with the movie: Pennywise is scary as hell. We see him kill plenty of people over the course of the movie. When it comes to our heroes, though, he's very, very bad at finishing them off. It's a convention of the genre, for sure, but that means you have to work extra hard to make each escape plausible.
- I love the diversity of this cast. The Losers' Club includes a girl, a Jewish kid, an African American kid, a kid with a stutter, and a fat kid (who I can definitely relate to, having grown up overweight). They're all picked on because of their defining features, and they struggle to overcome the pettiness and ignorance of others.
- This political reading of It is brilliant. It's a quick read, so take a minute and enjoy.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Darren Aronofsky is back with Mother!, his new film starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and Michelle Pfeiffer. I've tried to stay as in the dark on this movie as I can, but I have heard that it is absolutely insane. Here's hoping I can take it!
Encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- One member of the audience who was (I assume) incredibly drunk, actually shouted at the movie screen multiple times over the course of the movie. He was in my row, but I was right in the middle, and he was at the far right end. I only actually heard him 3 or 4 times, because, as I mentioned, either the sound mix of It, or my screening, was cranked to earsplitting levels. I distinctly heard him yell, "BULLSHIT!" several times on one occasion. As I was leaving, I saw a person who looked to be his father apologizing to the theater employees. It was distracting, but my meticulously honed skill of blocking that kind of behavior out made it not unbearable.