If you buy a ticket to see the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s classic horror novel, It, you should know what you’re getting into before the lights dim. This is a monster movie. It’s a story of fears, both real and imagined, and about growing up in a small town surrounded by nefarious forces. While on the surface, it’s about an evil clown that likes to eat children every three decades, at its heart, it’s more about standing up to power and control.
It’s about friendship, coming of age, a little bit of adolescent romance, terrible parents, bullies, and the soul of everything “bad” in society.
If you recall the unfortunate sequel to Ghostbusters (not the reboot, but Vigo the Carpathian), you’ll remember the river of slime that was a coagulation of all the bad feelings and vitriol that had taken over that version of New York City. The malevolent Pennywise the Dancing Clown, played both exquisitely and in bone-chilling madness by Bill Skarsgard, exists in a bit of a different form late in the movie than you might remember from the book. But, it still feeds on all of the negativity, and strengthens itself around the terror of others, specifically young boys and girls.
Sometimes it can be difficult to pull off a King story on the big screen. Dreamcatcher is one of the worst and most disgusting movies of all-time, and it’s by no means alone on the list of poor efforts in its genre. Earlier this year, The Dark Tower released, and was universally destroyed by critics, long-time fans of the book series, and movie patrons in general. This wasn’t the first try for It, which originally appeared in 1990 in a television miniseries. That product wasn’t bad, but it left plenty of room for improvement.
By no means was It a slam dunk, but prior to the screening, Stephen King himself appeared on screen to welcome us, and he said he was thrilled and overjoyed with the new imagining of one of his most personal works by a director that impressed with 2013’s surprise success, Mama, Andy Muschietti. He also praised writers Chase Palmer and True Detective veteran, Cary Fukunaga.
He could have been overselling what was to come, or he could have just been giving the rubber stamp to a movie that might benefit him, but despite what you think about King, in this case, he wasn’t lying.
It is a damn fine horror movie, with hints of humor along the way, and with solid performances from its young cast and a wonderfully creepy villain, it’s the purest, most entertaining scare-fest in quite some time. It’s also the best Stephen King adaptation on the big screen (or the small screen) since The Shawshank Redemption.
Every second of It is designed to scare the very wits out of the audience, except when it goes for humor or the slightest bit of love. We spend most of our time, almost all of it actually, with a group of seven kids. Of them, Finn Wolfhard will immediately be familiar to Stranger Things fans, where he played Eleven’s best friend, Mike Wheeler. Here, he’s a bit of a foul-mouthed, sex-crazed bespectacled smart ass named Richie Tozier. It’s a fantastic character, because you definitely need the laughs he provides.
Wolfhard knows how to play this role, and he really excels in shows with other kids that involve a decent share of bike riding. Just as with Stranger Things, each of the key youngsters of It has a defined personality trait that helps flesh them out. One child has asthma and an overprotective mother, another is afraid of everything in his world, a third is an “outsider,” a fourth is a germaphobe, and the leader, Bill Denbrough (Jaden Lieberher), deals with a speech impediment.
Finally, there’s Beverly Marsh, who’s father is a cretin and who lives with vicious, untrue rumors about her loose morals. She has history with Bill, and she befriends an obese newcomer to Derry, Maine named Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor). Sophia Lillis stands above everyone in this film as the real acting star, but that’s no slight on any of the others, particularly Chosen Jacobs, who is stellar in his role as Mike Hanlon.
She’s the lone female in the Losers Club, which is unofficially what the clan is called, though it’s only subtly tossed around during the course of the film. Bev creates a bit of conflict between various characters that take a liking to her, but for her part, she never actually invites it. She’s just a troubled girl whose father is almost as evil as the clown that devours her friends and classmates. Lillis is superb here, but in a movie like It, if the kids can’t pull off the work, the film can’t rise above a campy farce.
So many examples exist of movies ruined by their most innocent actors, or by overwrought, sometimes oversimplified storylines dealing with children. It, like Stranger Things, The Goonies, and Stand By Me, is MADE by the kids. Pieces of each of those three films, along with many others, sprinkle horror and suspense-infused goodness across Derry, Maine during the 135 minute run-time.
Although there are some great one-liners, some very funny stuff that will make you think a bit of the quick wit of American Pie (but with younger actors), this movie is there for its frights. Within the first five minutes of It, a child’s arm is bitten off. That’s before the title even plasters itself across the screen. With no hesitation, It sets its mood. This is one of the meanest films I’ve seen in many years. The bullies don’t pants their victims in Derry. These jerks, led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), slice stomachs with knives and plan to smash rocks on people’s heads.
Everyone, outside of the Losers Club, is an asshole or a criminal in this movie. They’re not nuanced pricks either. This is a town no one would want to visit, because apparently there are precisely seven half-decent people, and even they like to toss large rocks at their enemies. But, because of the film’s theme and because the Pennywise character is driven by evil, fear, and hatred, Derry being almost a hellmouth of just that type of behavior fits perfectly.
The acting is what it needs to be, from our balloon-toting psychopathic ancient evil to the pharmacist who seems to take an unacceptable interest in Beverly as she helps her friends steal medical supplies. The story is well-executed, and the ending of the movie actually works better than the ending of the book itself, due to a few decisions to omit a couple of things that wouldn’t have translated well to the film.
135 minutes feels long, but not when you actually sit down to watch It. This is an extremely long book, and you do enjoy the moments you spend with the Losers before advancing to the movie’s climax deep inside the ugliest well in recorded history. Sound is employed expertly as well, with loud door slams, creaks, distant screeches and screams, and of course there’s Skarsgard’s voice as Pennywise, which, along with his movements, will have you checking underneath your car from a safe distance before driving home from the theater.
As for the music itself, you’ll enjoy a strong score from Benjamin Wallfisch, who sets the mood for each scene and provides the requisite “Ooooooh, that doesn’t sound like it’s going to be good” foreshadowing arranagements.
Unlike The Strangers or The Conjuring, both of which are effective more because they’re semi-plausible and thus the scares are real, It is much more of a roller coaster amusement park ride. That’s actually a good thing if you just want a TEMPORARY fright that won’t keep you up all night long. Bathrooms soaked in crimson are gross and unsettling, but you’re not going to sleep with the lamp on because of It. Various sets of scaly hands emanating from a crack in a door isn’t the same kind of fear as three people knocking on someone’s door, taking them prisoner, and murdering them and their family.
Because of that fact, It manages to be a lot of fun, because it’s an attraction and an experience, but it’s one you can tolerate because there’s nothing of substance. It‘s a real horror movie, one you’d see on Fangoria. One description called it The Goonies if that classic had been directed and written by Wes Craven. That’s a great analogy, especially in the case of The Nightmare on Elm Street. Freddy was a bit of a pill, and the sweater was a fashion don’t, but I was never scared of that guy.
Pennywise is a different kind of monster, but in the end, he’s a monster. He’s also awesome as an honest to god MONSTER. There’s also a commentary for those willing to see it about the monstrous nature of humans and how we treat one another. However, unlike the innocent zombies of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, the Dancing Clown is very much culpable and complicit in the misery he causes.
It will scare you, It will make you laugh, and It will make you care. It will remind you of parts of your childhood, both good and bad, and about those with whom you shared that time. It will bring a truly terrific monster to life. And, when It comes to a close (or does it), you’ll leave alongside those you saw the story with smiling, talking, and laughing about the craziness you just witnessed.
For what everyone will want It to be, the movie is an unquestioned success. I’m not the world’s biggest horror connoisseur by any means, and it’s one of my least favorite genres of film, but I truly enjoyed this movie for the entertainment value and the level of quality presented. This is not the deepest of films, and the movie is willing to rely on the cheap scare at times, but to great effect.
Poised to become one of, if not the most lucrative September release ever, It is worth the price of admission. And, after a dismal several weeks at the box office, your local theater will be thanking their deity of choice that guaranteed sell outs still exist.
Go have some fun this weekend. Fun is good.
It is good.
I’m @JMartOutkick and reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org. And yes, I too…float.