It is known (yes, I see what I did there) that most early film adaptations of Stephen King novels leave much to be desired or often fail to capture the essential elements that make the book iconic and addictive. Many eventually acquire a cult following but most failed “to hit” in theaters. Choosing to revitalize a King property is a tricky proposition with no guarantee of success. Fans have expectations that can – and will – stop an effort in its tracks at the box office and IT fans aren’t likely to forgive too many missteps…
Quick Take: Armed with an eclectic and extremely talented ensemble cast, Director Andy Muschietti introduces a suspenseful adaptation of Stephen King’s novel that’s not perfect but is worth the price of admission.
Muschietti’s film marries iconic visual moments, key source material easter eggs, and a cohesive script and gripping story arc to create a film that both honors what make the original mini-series a cult classic while establishing it own storytelling space. His take has something to it that will capture mainstream moviegoers and interest fans alike.
In Detail: The film’s opening events – you’ll never think of puddle jumping the same again – are made even more sinister through the brilliantly moody atmosphere created by Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. IT reels you into the world of Pennywise even as he’s unsettling the ever-loving crap out of you. The film’s steady pacing, coupled with the well-selected score and sound effects set an increasingly ominous tone Muschietti maintains throughout the film.
If you’ve seen the original miniseries (or read the book), then you’ve traveled the streets of Old Derry and climbed through its woods and sewers before. And like its predecessor, Muschietti’s take is a dark tale of toxic evil preying on people set against an idyllic small town background; a hallmark of King’s work.
For viewers old enough to remember high school in 80s, the wardrobe and set design may prompt a smile (or flinch) at how very recognizable and spot on the styling – and attitudes – are.
IT makes excellent use of cut-scenes and scenic flashes: a distraught parent waiting for a child – who’s never coming – to exit the school house, police standing sentry as children head home, a billboard reminding everyone of the mandatory curfew. They do a far better job than any dialogue in establishing the grim feeling that something is very amiss in Old Derry.
This, however, is where the world-building gets shallow. Due to some inexplicable script decisions, – I got issues with these writers – there’s very little substantive history of the town of Old Derry or Pennywise. The societal dynamics that underscore and aid in building tension and conflict as children go missing and unspeakable evil plague this town are missing – the film never even mentions why a cyclical trend of violent death and disappearances don’t seem to be a huge deal to the adults in Old Derry.
The film never really explains who (or what) Pennywise is in a way that truly displays his demonic nature, why he favors the guise of a clown when he can shape-shift into anything, or really demonstrates the hellishness of this supernatural being.
Without some contextual build out, moviegoers unfamiliar with the source material (or the miniseries) may miss important story elements and end up confused as to what exactly is going on and why people behave they way they habitually do.
It feels like the effort to make the story feel grounded, happened at the expense of bringing a truly terrifying Pennywise – because Bill Skarsgård does creepy disturbingly well – to a new generation. The resultant film is more suspenseful than flat-out scary. Die-hard horror fans will be a little disappointed.
But, the heart and soul of Muschietti’s IT revolves around a band of friends known as “The Losers Club:”
Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stan (Wyatt Oleff), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly(Sophia Lillis) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs) come together over the course of summer break for fun and stick together for survival.
Bill, intent on searching for the brother he refuses to believe is dead, derails the quickly details thoughts of summer fun by taking his best friends Ritchie, Stan and Eddie to sketchy parts of town to hunt for clues. Ben, Beverly, and Mike join them due to encounters that painfully highlight the dangers of being an “outsider” in a small town.
Their relationship ultimately grows into bonds of friendship forged through lust, loss, loneliness, and laughter. As the movie, and storyline, progresses each child has an encounter with “It” that eventually results in making the connection between these odd happenings and the multiple missing children and violent deaths occurring around town. Their summer adventure turn trial-by-fire carries the story forward cohesively but does very little to build out this world sustainably.
Each member of the club has a ill-concealed torment in their life lurking in the wings but this script barely skims the edges of the more harrowing details of the trauma and circumstances making up each member’s home life choosing instead to employ inference about things “best not talked about” to fill in the gaps. This lean treatment, doesn’t undermine the relationship development of the characters but it does skew the emotional connection to them and does very little to aid in building the strain they’re all living under in this town as well as dealing with being targeted by evil.
That said, someone should give Casting Director Rich Delia an award because the kids are all remarkable and perfectly cast in their respective parts. Each in turn demonstrates their charisma and character forging a connection to each other and the audience. The group dynamics and individual character development are an impressive balance of the amusing and the alarming.
Stephen King has a propensity for telling aggressively horrific stories with children at the center. These aspects aren’t always translated well on screen given the damage he’s willing to do to his characters for the sake of the story but getting this chemistry right is what makes or breaks this type of film.
With well timed, low-brow humor (if at least one exchange between Richie and Eddie doesn’t make you laugh you have issues), angst-filled encounters with bullies, childish drama, moments of idyllic summer joy, and personal strife and life-threatening conflict this ensemble demonstrates they are more than capable of carrying this film through to the end.
I was impressed and pleased with the story craft that kept each kid impactful, distinctive and three dimensional. It sold this story and adequately set the stage for a the film’s climactic skirmish with IT.
I do, however, have a major bone to pick with the screenwriters’ choice to needlessly diminish Beverly and gut both the Stan and Mike roles in the group.
- Bev was more than prepubescent “spank” material. She was savvy and had excellent aim, which comes in handy more than once for this group. Her skill was essential to the group’s survival and is BARELY mentioned in the film. She was far more than the damsel in distress/fair maiden but you wouldn’t really know it by this script.
- Stanley wasn’t just the timid doubting Thomas of the group. He was logical, rational, and more than a little psychic. The script’s decision to remove core parts of his personality are needlessly reductive, and directly impact the lessened fright-factor of the overall film.
- Ben was mechanically inclined. His talents greatly contributed to the initial victory over IT and are nowhere to be seen in the film. He was sweet and did hang out in the library but his importance has been vastly overplayed.
And then there’s Mike….
- Mike is a pivotal character kept paper-thin due to Hollywood’s inability to not center everything around whiteness. Yes, I said it. More than half of Mike’s personality has been grafted on to Ben in this film and there’s not one rational, logical, objective story-essential reason for the change. Not only is there not one non-bullocks reason for the decision to shift his contributions to a white character, it sets up needless obstacles for the continuation of the story in future films. Mike contributes the history of Pennywise to the group knowledge gained due to his family’s long-standing presence in the town, Mike makes decisions that enable him to retain his memories of IT – this which will becomes mission essential down the line – and ultimately anchors the group in its mission to destroy IT.
If you’ve read any Stephen King novels (and if not, seriously fix that) then you know that Mike lives on in the King multiverse beyond IT. The lack in this character is just some bull.
Part of what makes IT so frightening is the inexplicably horrifying juxtaposition of the more than a little unhinged Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) – and the Bower’s Gang – his violent antics and the sinister undertones of something even more foul than he stalking the children of Old Derry. The relationship between Bowers and Mike is underdeveloped and barely established the connective threads necessary for audience investment.
Muschietti’s Bowers does have all the hallmarks of a disturbed individual who’d be highly susceptible to murderous manipulation by Pennywise, but the movie only hints at his true psychopathic nature. The choice to dial down the depravity of Bowers and his band of cutthroats changes aspects of the film in ways that cater to societal comfort levels with certain norms but I foresee it raising issues in the next film. Bowers just doesn’t have enough substance for what expected of him. He reads as a small time, petty bully more than an budding psychopath on a path of escalating violence. As presented, his break to extreme violence is just too abrupt.
I’ll be upfront, if you’re a horror fan IT isn’t going to check all the expected boxes. Despite not being visually gory – although there is a scene that does Wes Craven proud – IT is grimey, gritty and gruesomely grounded…possibly too grounded.
There’s more than one unique jump scare and Bill Skarsgård does a magnificent job of picking up Tim Curry’s torch as a diabolically demented Pennywise; but the removal of the more supernaturally demonic elements and accompanying explanations, in lieu of CGI gamesmanship cuts the scare – and key story elements – by more than half.
This Pennywise isn’t one that any kid is blithely following anywhere; and without that aspect of his villainy, everything just seems somehow less frightening.
Muschietti’s IT is an insidiously disturbing sojourn through Stephen King’s Old Derry that’s an interesting start to bringing King’s novel to cinematic life.
27 years later, and IT is here.
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5
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