It gets it right. And by that, I mean it is the first film in a long time to actually capture in an appreciable way the voice of the prolific and popular Stephen King, whose novels, short stories, and original screenplays have now served as the basis for more than 100 movies, short films, mini-series, and television shows. Interestingly, several of the earliest and best films adapted from King's work have emphasized the voice of the director, with King's material serving as a kind of foundation on which the filmmakers built their unique vision-think Brian De Palma's gloriously operatic and visually intense work on Carrie (1976) or Stanley Kubrick's obsession with the circularity of violence and meticulous structuring in The Shining (1980). Yes, they are King adaptations, but we think of them first and foremost in terms of De Palma and Kubrick. At the same time, King adaptations like Rob Reiner's Stand by Me (1986) and Misery (1990) and Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Mist (2007) work primarily because they capture the unique qualities of King's storytelling, which often melds abject horrors with a sense of real-life minutia, good humor, and a love of popular culture. It is very much one of those films.
The very fact that It has been adapted, much less become a massive box-office hit, is surprising enough given that it is one of King's longest and densest books (the original hardcover edition published in 1986 runs 1,138 pages). It has already been adapted once as a two-part television mini-series in 1990 directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III) that was understandably neutered by both early '90s televisual aesthetics and the need to adhere to network standards and practices. Director Andy Muschietti has no such limitations, and it is clear that It benefits from both the room to fully explore the gruesome nature of the film's horrors and the R-rated patter of American adolescents (in this regard it is quite similar to Stand by Me). Screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman have the good sense to keep much of King's plotting while also maintaining the cadence and rhythms of the young characters' dialogue, which reflects the adolescent propensity for cussing for its own sake, insulting friends' mothers as a sign of affection, and making swaggering boasts that are completely and ridiculously unearned. It gives the film a subtext of humor and pathos, which turns the seven preteen protagonists, who dub themselves "The Losers Club," into a poignant and remarkable cross-section of American youth.
It, which is set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, covers only half of King's book, which is split into two sections-one in which the main characters are kids and one in which they are adults 27 years later (a big-screen adaptation of the second half, which has yet to be produced, is all but assured by this film's runaway box-office success). The screenwriters have moved the time frame from 1958 to 1989, so that the second half will roughly equate with the present day as King's novel did in the mid-1980s. This means that all the Eisenhower-era references have been replaced with Reagan/Bush Sr.-era references-the local movie theater is showing Batman and Lethal Weapon 2, one of the characters has a Gremlins poster on his bedroom wall, and another character tries desperately to hide his admiration for the New Kids on the Block. As King did in the book, the strains of pop culture are woven seamlessly into the narrative, giving it a rich evocation of a particular time and place without drawing undue attention. The Argentinian-born director Andy Muschietti, whose only other feature is the 2013 horror film Mama (which I have not seen, but now want to), demonstrates a flare for both horrific imagery (of the slow-building-dread variety and the sudden shock variety) and the mundanity of normal life; he and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, a regular collaborator of Chan-wook Park's (Oldboy, Stoker) give the film a distinct visual sensibility that is both familiar and slightly uneasy.
The plot involves the aforementioned group of preteens (in the book they're 11, but here they look closer to 12 or 13) who gradually become aware that their small town is playing, and has played for a long time, host to a shape-shifting entity that emerges every 27 years to feed on the town's residents before disappearing to some underground lair. The first victim in the film is 8-year-old Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), who is killed by "it" from inside a storm drain, where he lurks as a lurid, menacing clown named Pennywise played by Bill Skarsgrd (only one of its physical incarnations, but definitely its favorite). Georgie's older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special), becomes obsessed with discovering what happened to him; he feels responsible because Georgie disappeared while playing with a paper boat in the rain that Bill made for him. Bill's best friends are the wise-cracking Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard, Strangers Things), the reserved Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), and the hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), all of whom warily follow Bill in his desperate searches in drainage ditches and sewer tunnels. The informal club is eventually joined by the recently transplanted Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor); Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the group's only girl who is burdened with unfair rumors about being promiscuous; and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), one of the town's few black kids.
All of them are targeted by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), a sneering, mulleted bully several years their senior who is clearly close to the edge of genuine psychosis; his bullying goes far beyond just the assertion of social superiority and falls frequently into outright sadism, a favorite narrative trope in King's novels. The members of the "Losers Club" are, of course, easy targets, as each of them bears some kind of social, ethnic, or physical handicap: Bill stutters, Ben is overweight, Beverly is abused by her father, and so on. They find solace in each other because they don't care that, for example, Mike is black and Stanley is Jewish; they recognize in each other a common decency that builds into camaraderie, which is precisely what gives them the power to fight Pennywise when it has otherwise terrorized the town and claimed hundreds of victims for hundreds of years. It is also what the gives the film a genuine sense of heart so that its horrific moments-whether it be Beverly being doused in an explosion of blood and viscera that only she and her friends can see, or Eddie being terrorized by it in the form of a decaying leper, or Bill being confronted by it in the form of his dead brother-carry a genuine sting. The scares matter because we care about who's being victimized, which is unfortunately often a rarity in horror films.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Warner Bros. / New Line Cinema
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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