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Movie Review: It

Don't be a bozo and miss It.

Review by Brandon Wolfe

Cinematic history is littered with the corpses of bad Stephen King adaptations. For every stone classic like Carrie or The Shining, you need to hold your nose and step over scores of Dreamcatchers or Manglers. Though possibly the most prolific horror author in history, his work often seems resistant to filmic translation. Perhaps that says something how inimitable King’s prose is, with so much of it taking place within his characters’ minds, or maybe it’s simply that his material doesn’t often enough find its way into the hands of filmmakers capable of doing it justice (even Kubrick famously chucked most of King’s novel out the window for his Shining adaptation; the 1997 TV-movie starring Steven Weber is far more faithful, and yet another moldering failure). When one assesses Stephen King’s body of work, it’s clear that the portions that exist solely on the page are largely what count.

Now one of King’s most revered books is finding its way onto the silver screen with It, the 1986 novel about a group of children in the fictional town of Derry, Maine contending with a demonic clown. This, of course, isn’t It’s first rodeo in front of the cameras, having been previously adapted in 1990 as a two-part TV-movie. Though that miniseries probably technically falls under the jurisdiction of King misfires, it does so with an asterisk next to it due to Tim Curry’s iconic performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. While the TV-level production values and cast (though the Night Court fan in me does enjoy Harry Anderson’s contributions) keep that version of It earthbound, Curry is so indelible that his portrayal of Pennywise has endured nearly three decades later. Needless to say, if you remember the 1990 It at all, he’s what stuck.

But there was much room for improvement, and the 2017 It improves mightily. Deftly bifurcating the novel to tell only the children’s portion of the story (saving the adult half for the inevitable sequel), the film introduces us to the Losers’ Club, an expanded group of young outcasts whose lives are horror-shows even before Pennywise comes calling. Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) is a habitual stutterer whose home life has been shattered by the brutal death of his kid brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) at Pennywise’s hands in the film’s ghastly opening scene. Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the new kid in town and is overweight, which doesn’t help his situation. Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) has a creep for a father and an unearned reputation as the school tramp. Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) has an absurdly overbearing mother whose smothering has rendered her son a hypochondriac. Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) is a black kid in a small town that doesn’t get much whiter. And though we don’t learn of the trials unique to loudmouth Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard, who steals the movie) and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Olef), what they do share with their friends is constant torment at the hands of Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), the town’s uncommonly sadistic bully.

Where King’s book placed the Losers’ era as the 1950s, the film tosses them into the summer of 1989 (a neat touch is that the marquee of the Derry movie theater updates throughout the summer with era-appropriate film releases, even if they fudge Lethal Weapon 2’s release date by a month). But what survives the transition intact from the book is the bond shared by the group. The film has what should be too many protagonists for a single film, yet it juggles them all fairly adroitly. The friendship and concern that each member of the group extends to the others is unusually touching. The film even makes a few improvements. In the book, Richie’s constant need to be “on” is consistently irksome and rarely funny, where in the film, everything he does and says lands wonderfully. The film also nails the profane manner in which friends at that age like to rip on each other, and especially each other’s moms.

It is chasing the exact same moonbeam as Netflix’s Stranger Things, last year’s phenomenon that also concerned a group of small-town outcasts battling supernatural horror in the Reagan/Bush years, but I’d posit that It does a much better job at it. While the Stranger Things group was appealing, there’s more authenticity with the It crowd in capturing that age, that era and specifically being that age in that era (both also share Wolfhard, incidentally). Stranger Things, to my eyes, was so caught up in replicating pieces of pop-culture from the 1980s (E.T., The Goonies, and also It itself) that it never felt genuine in execution. It, on the other hand, feels lived-in. Its 1989 passes the smell test.

But, of course, the star attraction here is the clown, and Pennywise is another aspect at which the film excels. Bill Skarsgård has a tough act to follow from Curry, and it’s to his credit that what he does never feels like a regurgitation, despite the fact that any interpretation of the character is bound to have recurring traits. This Pennywise feels more like a demonic other and Skarsgård gives him a lilting speech and a pervert’s leer. When he’s enticing Georgie into the storm drain, you can see, from a child’s perspective, how one might be drawn in by the clown’s faux-playfulness. And the sequences of Pennywise haunting the Losers are uniformly terrifying. Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) has made an often jarringly frightening movie that doesn’t pull any punches because the victims are children.

After last month’s wet noodle of an adaptation of King’s The Dark Tower vanished into the ether, It feels like a revelation. It instantly takes its place among the upper echelon of King adaptations, and the level of care that it exemplifies creates a rare beacon of hope for King fans. Maybe a multi-film adaptation of The Stand has a shot at greatness now. Perhaps a more polished version of Pet Sematary will have its day. It gives the indication that maybe Hollywood is, at least where Stephen King is concerned, ready to stop clowning around.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.


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