IT, the 2017 opener of the two-part feature adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 horror tome, successfully updated the book, smartly split the telling into a doulogy, earned critical praise and became the highest-grossing horror film of all time (verdict to come on how well 2019’s It Chapter Two will stack up). To fully appreciate, ‘it’ helps to hate clowns: those who do not, need to be examined and possibly quarantined, along with the four or five truly unhinged people in the world who actually like mimes.
The unhappy Maine town of Derry is home to ‘The Loser’s Club’: seven preteens, bonded by their decency and their shared torment from local bullies. If continual malice isn’t enough (this includes the one girl member being sexually abused by her father), each of them are stalked by encounters with a demonic entity, a being they discover has plagued the town every 27 years for centuries, in the form of ‘Pennywise’, a grotesquely evil clown. Battle is joined, no mercy is shown.
Directed by Andy Muscietti, a new force on the block from Argentina, the handsomely crafted $35,000,000 production (a relatively sane budget for such a ticket) was, apart from a few shots in Bangor, filmed mainly in Canada, in the town of Port Hope, Ontario. King’s book, in hardback heavy enough to doorstop a drawbridge, ran a massive 1,138 pages and was set from the late 1950s to the mid 1980s. The adaptation, shared by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and Gary Dauberman, made the correct box-office (and production cost) move by updating the first part of the story to the late 80s (the sequel then takes place in 2016), better to seize a larger chunk of target audience, many of whom likely regarding the 1950s as something from Bible times.
The downside to that is subjecting the dialogue to the modern era’s lazy screenwriting crutch of f-bombing—the 12-year-old kids too often sound like guys in their 30s who ‘grew up’ watching Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction. It would help if their banter was clever enough to defeat the profanity quotient’; as it is, the villain (and what a villain!) not only gets the juiciest part, but the most entertaining verbal ammo as well. Three of the kids—thanks to the well-picked actors more than the script—draw sympathy, the other four are ciphers, and the ‘comically irritating’ one is really annoying.
Another downer (this is not a happy camper story by a Maine mile) is the amount and viciousness of the abuse doled out by the town thugs–well, by every other person in the town, adult or child, other than the seven heroes. It’s one thing to read about brutal harassment; something else again to have to watch it. Other King stories and their films—Carrie, Stand By Me, Christine—deal with bullies, but It piles on the mean like Boot Camp for MS-13. *
Balancing the tiresome blabber and ladle of cruelty and giving the film real blowback punch is the work from the cast of new faces. Everyone is good, with particularly likable jobs–from Jaeden Martell and Jeremy Ray Taylor, as the most interesting, thoughtful and kind of the six boys. Better yet—much better—are two outstanding pieces of work, from incandescent 14-year-old Sophia Lillis as ‘Beverly’, the sole female member of the Loser’s Club, and an electrifying Bill Skarsgård, 26, as Pennywise. Watching with friends (big fans of the movie), within a minute of seeing Miss Lillis appear, with her disarming smile, luminous eyes and clear intelligence in a pretty ‘Amy Adams Jr’ face, I exclaimed “This girl is going to be a Star!” A quick look at the praise she garnered (she has the toughest role of the kids) and her upcoming credits bears that out. A star is born. Likewise, while Skarsgård (son of the estimable Stellan) has been building a résumé since 2000, his brilliantly wacko realization of the creepiest clown ever, a volcano of giddy fiendishness (buoyed by marvelous makeup, effects and stunts) thrusts him into front-rank status with a bullet (or teeth). Somehow, the Oscars ignored them both.
Raking in the bucks, It ranked 7th in the U.S. for the year and the international gross soared to $700,449,318 (minus whatever was conjured by disc sales, at least $40m), beating the record held for 44 years by The Exorcist (cool your split pea barf, devil worshipers, adjust for inflation and Satan still commands).
With Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Nicholas Hamilton, Jack Dylan Grazer, Jackson Robert Scott, Wyatt Oleff, Owen Teague, Stephen Bogaert, Molly Jane Atkinson. 135 minutes.
* King liked what they did with his book. Your enjoyment may depend on what sort of things cooked from fantasy serve to spook you, or draw you back to whatever grabbed you as a child. Clearly, this story does the job for a lot of fans. Well & Good. As opposed to the idea of an actual creature (however unlikely), ghosts and apparitions never did it much for this kid, so the idea of It—aside from the bizarre medieval holdover of clowns—doesn’t much spur my personal fright-for-fun fancy (just to contradict myself, and pierce the cloud of hot air, the ‘it’ from It Follows worked for me). Much review space has been filled up with how the story deals with bullying, and the empowerment of the heroes, loss of innocence, yada, but it really comes down to trying to scare the waffles out of you with close-ups of Bozo from Hades. If that mission is accomplished for you, then Master King, director Muscietti and Pennywise have earned their devious grins. “What a nice boat. Do you want it back?”