Review: Muschietti's 'It' Effortlessly Blends Horror, Humor, and Heart
by Adam Frazier
September 7, 2017
Inspired by Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, and EC Comics' Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, Stephen King carved a path for himself as the world's foremost writer of horror fiction throughout the '70s and '80s. By the time his novel It was published in 1986, many of King's best-selling books had already been adapted into successful films, including Carrie, The Shining, Cujo, The Dead Zone, and Christine. With the ambitious It, however, King's work shifted shape, much like the novel's titular evil entity haunting a small town in Maine. Instead of writing about the one thing that scared you, like a rabid dog or a demonic car, this time he was writing about everything that did - the very nature of fear itself.
Upon its release, King called the novel, "the summation of everything I have learned and done in my whole life to this point." The book became an instant classic and the top-selling book of that year (1986). Three decades later, the coming-of-age story continues to be one of the most influential works of King's bibliography. In 1990, the 1138-page novel was initially adapted into a two-part, four-hour TV miniseries directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch) and written by Lawrence D. Cohen (Carrie). Like so many King adaptations, the miniseries fails to live up to the source material, despite Tim Curry's iconic turn as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Now, director Andrés Muschietti (Mama) looks to create the definitive adaptation with It, the first installment in a planned duology.
If you're unfamiliar with the novel or the '90s miniseries, the story follows seven young outcasts growing up in the small town of Derry, Maine, who call themselves "the Losers' Club." This team of youngsters includes Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), the stuttering leader of the group; overweight new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor); the bespectacled Richie "Trashmouth" Tozier (Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things); hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer); Jewish germaphobe Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff); the home-schooled black kid, Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), a young girl on the verge of womanhood, struggling with her abusive father.
Each member of the Losers' Club is grappling with something at home. For Bill, it's coming to terms with the disappearance, and probable death, of his seven-year-old brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), who was last seen playing near a storm drain at the corner of Jackson and Witcham. One thing the Losers all share in common, however, is that they're bullied by the teenage sociopath Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang of pubescent thugs. Bowers isn't the only threat to this lovable band of Losers though. Something ancient stirs in the sewers under Derry – a shape-shifting predator that emerges every 27 years to feed on the fear of its chosen prey: children. Frightened flesh tastes best, after all. It (Bill Skarsgård) takes many forms throughout the film, but his favorite guise is that of Pennywise, a baby-faced clown with wild tufts of orange hair sprouting up from an enlarged, melon-like cranium, anchored by a Cheshire smile concealing razor-sharp teeth. Together, the Losers must overcome their fears and enter the dilapidated house at 29 Neibolt Street – where It lives, supposedly – to find the chthonian creature's lair and stop a cycle of death that began with Georgie.
The main difference between this movie and King's book is the time in which the story is set. The novel is told through narratives alternating between two time periods, 1957–1958 and 1984–1985, when the Losers' Club are kids and then 27 years later when they're adults. Muschietti's film, being the first chapter in a planned duology, updates the story by placing the kids' part in 1989. As such, the cultural references include theater marquees featuring releases such Batman and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and a soundtrack with songs by New Kids on the Block, The Cure, and Young MC. While the trappings are different, Muschietti nails the tone of King's work, delivering heart, humor, and horror in equal measure. The script, written by Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga (HBO's True Detective) and Gary Dauberman (Annabelle: Creation), stays true to the core of King's story and its characters, exploring themes of childhood trauma and the ugliness lurking behind small-town quaintness. As King puts it in the novel, "adults are the real monsters."
Casting director Rich Delia deserves praise for assembling the perfect group of kids for the Losers' Club. This energetic ensemble has fantastic chemistry together, and you completely invest in their interpersonal friendships. It's a classic kid ensemble on the level of Stand By Me (based on King's novella, The Body), The Sandlot, and The Goonies. The Losers find strength in being together, and it's fun to watch how the dynamic of the group changes throughout the film. Each kid has their moment to shine, and each young actor shines in their role, with Wolfhard, Taylor, Grazer, and Lillis emerging as standouts. These characters are the heart and soul of the movie, and without these pitch-perfect performances, Muschietti's film wouldn't float – it would sink under the crushing weight of a narrative you couldn't care less about, with characters you don't connect with.
On the subject of performances, Skarsgård's Pennywise is the perfect evil for this Losers' Club to conquer. For many, Tim Curry's original turn as the dancing clown is untouchable, so instead of imitating the legendary actor's performance, Skarsgård takes the role in a different direction – a mix of Robert Englund's Freddy Krueger and Heath Ledger's Joker – exploring the character's psychotic theatricality while making him a dead-serious threat. His crackling, high-pitched voice is both adorable and menacing, and the physicality Skarsgård brings to the role extends beyond the Pennywise persona and truly makes It feel like an inter-dimensional cosmic being.
I loved this movie! It's Stand By Me meets A Nightmare on Elm Street with a dash of Super 8. My only complaint, if you could even call it that, is that I wanted more. As a fan of King's work, I wish there was a deeper dive into the source material and Derry's dark and tragic past. The township of Derry is just as much a character in King's novel as the kids and Pennywise are, so it would have been nice to see more of the history surrounding the town and the curse placed upon it. Of course, the movie is already long at 135 minutes, but the pacing was such that I could have easily watched another half-hour. I can't wait to see what Muschietti does with the second chapter, and how these characters change and develop as adults.
It is one of the best Stephen King adaptations to date and the year's second-best horror film, behind Jordan Peele's Get Out. With great characters, excellent performances, and stunning cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung (The Handmaiden, Oldboy), It is big, epic horror mythmaking at its best. See this film in theaters with an audience so you can savor every scream and laugh together.
Adam's Rating: 4.5 out of 5
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