Film adaptions of acclaimed Stephen King novels range wildly in quality, but Stephen King’s opinions on them may be more varied. Even critically acclaimed adaptions of his work have drawn ire from the prolific writer. Perhaps critics, audiences, and King himself can all agree on “It”.
“It” captures Stephen King’s spirit impeccably, managing excellence and faithfulness in equal measure. This ITeration of the killer clown story is intensely dedicated to the book — enough so to brutally mutilate children on-screen. Gore alone would betray King’s famous tonal balance though, and the film’s understanding of that raises it amongst the classics: “It” is a wholly satisfying synthesis of horror, humor, and heart.
Concerning the first of those, let’s get this out of the way: “It” has been marketed unfairly. The trailers are cut to be scarier than the movie. I’d be hesitant to label it a horror film in the first place: it’s along the lines of an R-rated “Goonies”, or “Stand By Me” with a lot more disturbing images than one dead body.
That’s not to say “It” doesn’t boast a decent share of scary moments. The film is less a horror than a jaunt through a house of horrors: there’s a frightening vignette, and then copious room to breathe and laugh and develop theme before the next episode. Those looking for the sustained tension of traditional horror will be better off with David F. Sandberg’s relentless “Annabelle: Creation”.
But they’d be missing the complete package that “It” has to offer. At its core, “It” is a story about friendship overcoming the fear and uncertainty of growing up. Evil monsters that feast on children are metaphorical tools (I hope) for this story, and indeed the horrors of puberty are expressed smartly though symbol. The film is focused on the bigger picture: ‘The Losers’ (the central group of friends) keep the narrative’s heart beating healthily.
The nostalgia that The Losers cultivate is a sweet sort of overpowering. The movie is already evocative of childhood due to its throwback score and cinematography, but it’s the kids that flip the time machine switch. The vulgar verbal sparring, wide-eyed mischievousness, and familiar social struggles — they coalesce past believability and into reality. They’re an endearing bunch that will have you laughing out loud and surprised by sincerity.
The child actors are a gamble. Jaeden Lieberher and Sophia Lillis display maturity beyond their years as the group’s leader and its only female member, respectively. Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things” and Jack Grazer talk at speeds only known to nervous actors. All of their characters arcs have been done to death at this point, but I can’t fault the film for that: it’s an adaption of the novel that helped originate these arcs. They may be tropes now, but they’re tried and true.
Now Pennywise the Dancing Clown — there’s something entirely new. Bill Skarsgård must have crawled straight out of hell to portray Pennywise. His take on the demonic clown is darker and more deranged than Tim Curry’s; one of the most inhuman performances I’ve seen from a human. Thanks to stunning visual effects work, the shape-shifting monster contorts itself into the vilest of nightmares. Skarsgård’s movements and speech are somehow just as otherworldly.
The set and art design contribute to this uncanny feeling as well. Director Andy Muschietti pulls all the art department strings to nail the novel’s creepy atmosphere. From neighborhood streets to haunted sewers, the world of “It” is one you won’t soon forget.
“It” is really something special. It never feels its length (over two hours) because it’s so full — every aspect of Stephen King’s singular style gets represented here, from childlike wonder to formative terror. There’s no way he’ll disown this adaption.
★★★★½ (4.5 out of 5)