Following the 1990 miniseries, It reimagines Stephen King’s classic novel as a frightening romp through the 1980s.
30-second review: A key change was made from Stephen King’s classic novel It for its 2017 film adaptation directed by Andy Muschietti. The film’s timeline was moved from the 50s to 1988. That change brought some refreshing updates — raunchy humor and fun pop-culture callbacks — but also some issues.
However, Muschietti focuses the movie on these set pieces pulled straight from the novel that makes you question the treatment of the child actors in the best way possible. The twisting creatures of the film, including a decomposing leper and a burned decapitated corpse, are fancifully realized and used to great effect. But it makes you think one thing: how messed up is Stephen King?
It follows seven friends who make up the self-named Losers Club. Billy (Jaeden Lieberher), recently lost his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to the eponymous monster, though he relentlessly searches for him with help of his friends. However, when the same monster comes after the group, they must get over their fears and band together to defeat him.
The set pieces at the center of the film are visually splendid and offer genuine thrills that will keep word of mouth churning for the film. However, after each of those scenes, the tension is drained usually after an awkward tonal shift. The film, which was adapted by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, and Cary Fukunaga — who was attached to direct originally, feels a lot like Stranger Things.
Whether it’s the 80s setting or Finn Wolfhard — he stars in Stranger Things — the humor, style, and even the scares feel more like the sci-fi drama than a real horror movie. Still, what stays with you are the set pieces. Each character has their fear realized when they are alone, and that’s where the film excels. One scene in particular, which takes place in a bathroom, was the closest the film got to terrifying. It was measured, tense, and paid off in a great way. Plus, the absolute drenching of blood gave of Carrie vibes that felt like a subtle nod, unlike a lot of the movie’s references.
The character pieces in between, though, fall flat. Though the movie really feels from the point of view from adolescents, the story elements feel jammed in. A sexual abuse storyline is overtly alluded to, even though it seems like the movie thinks it’s being subtle. The history of the town and the potential source of It is crammed down our throats in clunky exposition scenes. Much of Billy’s storyline concerns his search for Georgie and his constant denial of his death, however even this is done in an unsubtle way.
However, three key performances save those sections from detracting too much from the film as a whole. First off, Sophia Lillis, who plays the only female member of the Losers Club, Bev, carries a lot of the emotional weight of the movie on her shoulders and does so naturally. But what stands out for me is her watershed moment in a bathroom with gallons of blood drenching her and her surroundings.
For a movie about fear, she certainly knows how to portray it convincingly. Wolfhard, who plays Richie closely to his Stranger Things character, gets a lot of the one-liners and lands them every single time. He often walks away with every scene he’s in and, at points, he got the entire theater clapping. But the arguable lead of the film, Lieberher, gives the best performance of the Losers Club by fleshing out a character that isn’t given that much of a personality. He has a stutter, which he doesn’t let define the performance, and instead uses an intense love of Billy’s brother to drive the character’s motivations. It’s a sublime performance. Between this and Midnight Special, Lieberher may be the rising star among young actors.
But still, the scares, all belong to Pennywise the Dancing Clown played masterfully by Bill Skarsgard. Skarsgard, who stunned in Atomic Blonde this year, builds on Curry’s classic 1990 performance as the character and infuses a physicality that Curry’s performance didn’t quite have. No scene displays the virtues of his performance more than the famous sewer scene that opens the movie.
He uses a similar throaty cartoon voice to Curry’s but adds menace with his delivery. More importantly, the amount of movement that he uses in his mouth area is a small but effective way to up the creep factor. Even when he’s not speaking he pinches and moves his lower jaw in a manner that I can only describe as deliciously creepy. All the nightmarish imagery aside, Skarsgard delivers the chills in the movie like no other monster can.
It is frustratingly close to being a great movie. The 80s references — from Molly Ringwald to New Kids on The Block — are fun, but ultimately bog down the themes that make the novel a classic. The set pieces are scary but short-lived and the movie lacks the tension it needed to be an effective horror movie. You can count the number of changes that would make the movie a near-masterpiece on one hand, but it gets a lot right.
It’s shot and designed beautifully — the creature design is phenomenal — and is cast superbly. Look at the movie as more of a sci-fi drama than an outright horror movie and you’ll definitely be more enthralled — this was one of the most fun times I had at the theater this year. Either way, when Pennywise tells you you can float too, you’ll feel a chill down your spine. Just like King intended.