Last month we kicked the crap out of The Dark Tower, the long waited adaptation of Stephen King’s mythic fantasy series, but this month the true King blockbuster is unleashed. It is said in King’s epic tome (bigger than even The Stand) that the demonic creature known only as It or Pennywise comes out of slumber every twenty seven years to feast on the flesh of scared children. Tommy Lee Wallace’s original TV take on the King story came out in 1990 which was… how many years ago? Fate, you sly bastard.
Of course, this film is subtitled “Chapter One”, indicating that unlike the time frame hopping of the 1990 original, this follows the original Losers Club through their pre-teen, puberty laced vanguard against Pennywise and his nefarious plight for little children.
For those not versed in their King tales, It: Chapter One as it will undoubtedly become known follows the exploits of a group of kids known collectively as the Losers Club who realise that behind the trauma of their adolescent years there lurks a deeper evil in their Maine town of Derry.
To kick things off, this will no doubt get comparisons with the original, and it’s a better made tale. That’s not to say the original was bad, it’s very of it’s time and camp, but there are no doubt charms in it’s take on the material. Here we have a much sterner, much more sober take on the text. Having changed the timeframe so instead of the 1950s and the adult section being the 80s, this takes place in late 1989, leaving the next one to be set in 2016 – clever. In doing so, the film has allowed itself the very timely luxury of being almost offensively nostalgic.
Mama director Andy Muschietti may have taken over the project from Cary Fukunaga, but this has a lot of the directors hallmarks from his first movie. Despite the difference in time and setting, It and Mama both have at it’s heart this idea that the traumas of the real world are much worse than the traumas of the supernatural, something King has returned to time and time again.
In the 80s setting the film is able to ape the King references since the 80s was when King exploded into the rockstar of the book world, and films of his began clogging up the multiplex like no ones business. It helps, also, that Muschietti is able to throw in references to 80s kids-centric films like E.T., The Goonies and of course, Stand by Me (another fine King adaptation). And while this does feel very Stranger Things-esque, this is down to the fact that the show also happens to be marinated in 80s nostalgia.
What works best is the time taken not only to mount the story but to build the characters; at well over two hours it’s a long haul through two months, but the time taken feels like a journey into the epic, and allows us as an audience to begin to root for these Losers instead of just pitying them. We are taken into the lives of Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), suffering from guilt at the disappearance of young brother, Ben Hascom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the chubby new kid on the block and New Kids on the Block fan, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) whose homelife is a house of horrors worse than the sick rumours that follow her around, Richie Tozier (Stranger Thing’s Finn Wolfhard), the loudmouthed dick of the group who nabs the best laughs, Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) the local black boy who suffers racial hatred, Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) the small, fearful kid who is under the impression that everything will kill him and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) the young Jewish member of the group who feels like an outcast.
Together, these young actors anchor a film that is as interested in their internal lives and struggles as it is the horrors that can come from a shapeshifting monster. There isn’t a poor performance in the lot, though stand outs are Lillis who has something of a young Jodie Foster, Wolfhard who gets all the good laughs, and Lieberher who does a good job of anchoring the film. Around them are a smattering of good support, though nearly too psychotic Nicholas Hamilton as school bully Henry Bowers brings peril in a world before happy slapping became the must-do thing, and Jackson Robert Scott as Bill’s little brother Georgie is so cute and adorable that the opening sequence is agonising.
But, It revolves around a killer clown and Bill Skarsgard nails the role. He’s not the same as middle aged rumble voice Tim Curry, but he has a childlike sinister element that in an age where most violent crimes are done by unhinged young white males, it’s not hard to understand the choice. He also plays much like the shark in Jaws, hiding in the shadows barely appearing until he makes his bids to destroy the Losers Club. His scene, followed by a long absence builds the suspense and makes every red balloon on screen clench your nether-parts like an iron vice.
It also helps that director Andy Muschietti has a knack for fears, shooting his film where you know things aren’t going to end well, right from the rain soaked opening prologue that goes on for a painful amount of time, and of course he knows how to make you jump out of your seat like a pro. The famous sequences are in tact, including the sink blood sequence, which might be a little too on the nose for some as an allegory for puberty, but the tension builds to a bloody payoff.
The change in forms that Pennywise takes is also good, playing on different fears, from the deceased Georgie to a sinister painting, a leper and so on. The tension and horror from normal teen life is so relatable – bullies, overbearing parents, religious tradition, not fitting in, puberty makes the moments that are truly human and relatable all the better: the bonding by swimming, trading jabs about dick size, each other’s mothers, and of course, body odour. It’s impossible not to grin as the kids ride around on their bikes like a two hour Amblin logo, and to get the blood pumping when the kids fight bullies with a battery of rocks.
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Even before the kids triumph over evil, their comic bouncing is so enjoyable that you wish Pennywise would piss off so they can all complain about the summer, or drool over Beverly some more, or wish their small, boring town was bigger. But when it comes to facing down with the big bad, Muscietti wants you to cheer and to scream at the same time; it’s impossible not to start shaking as Pennywise attempts to fight friendship with terror, and unleashes attacks on our group all at once, becoming abusive fathers, or weird crabs, screaming in a variety of voices.
It might prove a little long for some people, with not enough gore and too much friendship building, but as a throwback film to the 80s, when pictures mixed thrills with characters in equal measure, you’ll find yourself on it’s side. It ranks as one of the finest King adaptations to date, bodes well for a sequel but stands on it’s own as a brilliant piece of storytelling. It doesn’t just stand up, it floats… And as the clown himself promises: you’ll float too.