Whether one has read Stephen King’s terrifying novel, seen the 1990 TV mini-series or walked past Tim Curry’s makeup-caked face plastered on a VHS cover at Blockbuster, most people today are familiar with “It.” Pennywise “the dancing clown” is a character seared into pop-culture subconsciousness as the embodiment of so many children’s — and adults’ — fear.
King tapped into something powerful with his gleefully psychotic killer — the idea of evil lurking behind the façade of a wide, harmless grin. With “It,” King explores this theme, which effectively translates to the screen in director Andy Muschietti’s (“Mama”) 2017 adaptation.
When viewers first enter Derry, Maine — the story’s fictional setting — it seems like an idyllic American town. Two young brothers, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), sit in their house during a storm and make a paper boat for Georgie to float in the rushing water along the curbs of the road. It’s not until a sewer drain swallows the boat that the true state of Derry becomes clear. From the comfort of her porch, a neighbor — an older, gray-haired woman — watches Georgie struggle for his boat and does nothing. She simply walks inside without concern.
In the most famous scene from the book and mini-series, Georgie sees a clown in the sewer holding his paper boat. Here, viewers get their first taste of Bill Skarsgård (“Allegiant,” “Hemlock Grove”) as the infamous Pennywise, and he does not disappoint. Skarsgård steps out from the looming shadow Tim Curry left as the character in the 1990 mini-series and makes Pennywise his own, giving the clown’s voice a deep, raspy, coughing quality that is sure to leave audiences feeling unsettled.
After a masterfully executed scene of terror, shock and violence, the neighbor returns to her porch to find Georgie has mysteriously vanished. Again, she does nothing. This opening sequence beautifully lays the tracks for the rest of the film to follow — it will not diverge from the path, but rather flesh out the ideas introduced.
As illustrated in the opening sequence, the adults in the film are largely unhelpful. They’re barely alive, showing little expression and no concern for their children or the evil that lies beneath the streets of Derry. Rather, they’re part of the problem with the seedy, off-kilter town.
The film focuses solely on the kids, a group of outcasts who affectionately call themselves “The Loser’s Club.” Unlike the novel and 1990 mini-series, the film doesn’t jump between the “losers” as kids and as adults. Rather, the filmmakers decided to break the more than 1,000 page book into two separate films — one focusing on the gang as kids and the other as adults.
As kids, the “losers” are often being hunted down by a pack of bullies, who at times are disturbingly over-the-top with their cruelty and undying pursuit of the outcasts. While this could be a clever move by Muschietti to portray the bullies from the point of view of the “losers,” it isn’t clear enough to feel seamless.
Luckily, “It” gets the more important part of this dynamic right — the “losers” are loveable, relatable and the heart and soul behind the scares. The acting is excellent, with performances from Jaeden Lieberher (“Midnight Special,” “St. Vincent’s”), Finn Wolfhard (“Stranger Things”), Sophia Lillis (“37”) and Jack Grazer (“Tales of Halloween”), particularly standing out.
This coming-of-age aspect of “It” may be more compelling at times than its horror counterpart. Muschietti shows a skilled hand in conducting numerous scares, many of which take place in broad daylight. Without using nighttime to add to the horror, Muschietti has even less tools in his filmmaking tool belt. Despite this, he’s impressively able to craft tense, disturbing sequences. Sunlight doesn’t mean safety for the characters in “It” as it does for so many other horror movies. This added directorial challenge makes Muschietti’s best scares even more commendable.
One of his more creative chills takes place in a library, where Ben Hanscom, played by Jeremy Ray Taylor (“Ant-Man,” “42”), is flipping through a book about the history of Derry. Something, or someone, is acting strange in the background, however, Muschietti draws no attention to it. He restrains himself from making the odd behavior into a punchline with a quick close-up and screech of violins. Rather, his composition and blocking of the characters quietly does the work for him, and he trusts his audience to notice, or at least feel, the unplaced tension.
Other scares in “It” are more conventional and repetitive, including a few jump-scares and long camera push-ins down creepy hallways. Some, however, are completely conjured up by Skarsgård’s chilling, scene-stealing performance as Pennywise. His dialogue-heavy scenes are among the best in the film, leaving viewers with a desire for more interactions between Pennywise and the “losers” that weren’t just visual scares.
“It” is by no means a perfect film, but it’s certainly not bad. Throughout the movie’s 130-minute runtime, the pacing suffers at times due to some repetitive scares, but is well-worth enduring for the excellent moments that lie in-between. Audiences will fall in love with the “losers.” Their acting is stellar across the board and the book’s themes effectively come through on the big screen. Head out to the movies this week and welcome the fall season with this Stephen King classic.
“It” is currently in theaters nationwide.