“Sometimes it comes a little sooner, sometimes it comes a little later…but it always comes.”
Puberty is scary enough, let alone if you have a malevolent entity shaped by your own personal set of fears terrorizing you. But welcome to the world of Stephen King’s IT! While the author’s twelve-hundred-page tome had previously been adapted as a menacing, albeit terribly truncated TV mini-series, the original source material – and it’s rabid fanbase – really begged for a proper big screen version. Considering how many integral ideas were left on the proverbial cutting room floor, it’s a surprise it took this long. Good things come to those who wait, though, and director Andy Muschietti’s IT made it worth the wait. Perfectly capturing the frights of the novel whilst adding new fears (and causing some tears), this bone-chilling masterwork is the horror book’s pages sprung to life. IT will make you scream! IT will make you sleep with the lights on! IT will frighten you to your core!
Every 27 years or so in the town of Derry, Maine, a monster awakes to feast on the flesh and fears of children. As a sort of apathy sweeps across the adult population (part of “It’s” spell), seven teen outcasts, nicknamed “The Losers’ Club,” are forced to deal with life’s harsh realities: Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) has been drowning in guilt and grief since the disappearance of his six-year-old brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). Bev (Sophia Lillis) struggles to fend off the mean girls at school and her sexually abusive father (Stephen Bogaert) at home. Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a germaphobe whose controlling mother has put the fear of God in him. Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is approaching his Bar Mitzvah but is paralyzed with fear over spooky art. Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is held prisoner by indecisiveness after watching his parents accidently burn to death. New kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) has severe loneliness that drives him to hallucinate about the town’s dark past. And (beep beep!) “Trashmouth” Richie (Finn Wolfhard) grapples with a deep-seated fear of clowns. Over the course of one summer, the gang bands together to take down the town bullies, their personal demons, and the monstrous shape-shifter known as “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” (Bill Skarsgård, whose iteration is pure unhinged madness).
Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman’s adaption does a tremendous job solidifying the losers’ bond like that in King’s other masterwork, STAND BY ME – only with the terror amped way up. They find a great balance between the gang’s horrific coming-of-age tribulations and the mounting torment of Pennywise. It’s unrelenting in that regard – and makes you question whether the kids would be better off surrendering to Pennywise’s demonic will or standing their ground. The grief aspect of Bill’s storyline is all-encompassing emotionally. You can feel his drive to get answers from his parents and from the clues left behind – so when it climaxes, the tears falling down your face feel completely earned.
Death, fear and grief are suffocating emotions. They can ensnare the victim in a vise grip, never letting go. They are also calls to action, revealing character. King understood this, and the filmmakers weave his themes into their cinematic tapestry. Wisely, there’s no breathing room between the big set pieces in the latter half of the film. Sure, Muschietti and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon (director Park Chan-wook’s frequent collaborator) leave space for a sweeping vista or two to speak subtly about the beauty juxtaposed with these themes (like that shot of Henry Bowers’ gang by the car). But when things gear up narratively, those quiet, restful spots become fewer and farther in between. The film doesn’t shy away from the abuse Bev takes from her father, and while I would have preferred that she not be any kind of “damsel in distress,” it feels true to how poorly the source material treats its female characters. It’s actually worse for Bev in the pages of King’s novel, so small blessings that they didn’t go that route.
The decaying house on Neibolt Street where Eddie, Bill and Ritchie are further haunted is the pièce de résistance. It doesn’t let up. The climax is also nail-bitingly intense – maybe even moreso as it’s about the action and the confluence of emotions swirling in that sewer. Though Muschietti’s use of CG signals an unspoken clue that “It” is from an otherworldly dimension, I wish the artificial-looking, kaleidoscopic morphing effect in the third act had been eschewed in favor of in-camera techniques and Skarsgård’s physicality.
Despite all the horrors and heavy subject matter, IT can be funny, too. Whether it’s gags about New Kids on The Block with a music stinger, or the kids’ hilariously filthy repartee, or the tension release humor following the clenching scares, many bits add needed buoyancy. After all, as Georgie says, “you’ll float too.”
IT opens on September 8.