Between our triple-bill of Stephen King classics, our review of The Dark Tower and our discussion of that review, our in-depth exploration of the made-for-TV version of Stephen King’s It, my email conversation about that movie, our forthcoming (out Wednesday!) discussion about the 2017 theatrical remake, and now this very review of the same, we’ve churned out enough Stephen King-related content at this point to qualify as his unofficial fan-club. And really, for all that talk, the greatest takeaway we’ve managed to come up with in regards to King’s work is that he’s a little bit rapey.
Here we are again. It has always been considered one of Stephen King’s most seminal novels, and also one almost impossible to film; a thousand-plus-page tome that marries realistic, supernatural and cosmic horror with childhood melodrama, adult nostalgia, deconstructionist Americana and pre-teen ********* in a story that spans 30 years in two alternating non-linear time periods. The ******* thing’s a nightmare. And like all good King novels, when you boil away all the extraneous worldbuilding details that make for such great books, what you’re left with is mostly an extraordinarily tropey B-movie idea – in this case a dancing clown called Pennywise that stalks, terrorises and eats children by manifesting itself as their most crippling fears and phobias.
In the 1990 miniseries Pennywise was portrayed by Tim Curry, in a performance that has since come to be regarded as the definitive scary clown in popular media; incredible, really, when you consider that the feature-film stapled together from that series was never any good to begin with, and has aged in the intervening years like full-fat milk. Watching it today is faintly embarrassing, and Curry, despite never putting a giant shoe wrong in his performance, still comes across like little more than a man in big trousers. You’ll be pleased to learn that Bill Skarsgård, who plays the character in this version, has really sunk his Bugs Bunny teeth into the role. It’s an instantly-iconic, possibly star-making turn, and from the moment his chalky giant-baby head first looms from a sewer grate, you realise that Argentinean director Andy Muschietti (late of 2013’s Mama) has brought a contemporary gloss to King’s enduring horror-adventure.
And thank **** for that, really. King has a tendency to revisit genre conventions more frequently than his characters do haunted New England towns, and It is littered with them. You could never retell this story in a way that felt fresh; it wasn’t to begin with, and since then its constituent parts have been emulated in countless movies, books and TV shows. What Muschietti has elected to do instead is jettison half of the story (all of the adult, 30-years-later stuff is gone, as is all of Pennywise’s cosmic mythology) and focus instead on delivering an extremely well-made, well-cast and well-acted coming-of-age drama in which a group of misfits fight a movie-monster. And it totally works.
Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are.
This version of It relocates the preadolescent trials and tribulations of the so-called Losers Club from the 50s to the late-80s, much more in-keeping with the on-trend nostalgic weirdness of Netflix’s Stranger Things – It shares an actor with that show, and Derry, Maine, where the story is set, has something of its appreciation for the era’s entertainment. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 can be seen playing in the local cinema; posters of Gremlins and Beetlejuice hang on the children’s walls. Muschietti’s obvious fondness for the schoolkids at the centre of the story extends beyond an understanding of their fears to an appreciation of the culture they’re growing up in; what unites and excites them, and what we, as an audience, found so captivating about screen favourites of the time such as The Goonies and Poltergeist – both of which It draws from heavily.
Because Muschietti’s love for these characters is so tangible, there’s real emotional weight to their exploits through the woods and sewers of Derry in pursuit of the shapeshifting entity that keeps nabbing the town’s children. So much so, in fact, that you scarcely recognise that their surrogate family is assembled almost entirely from all Stephen King’s favourite tropes. The groups’ nominal leader, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), is riddled with guilt and grief after the death of his younger brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott); Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is overweight; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) is a foulmouthed attention-seeker; Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff) is a Jewish germaphobe; Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) is… black, I guess, and also suppressing memories of childhood trauma; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a hypochondriac with an overprotective mother; and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis – tremendous) is a beautiful but damaged girl who was abused by her father and finds companionship with awkward, geeky boys because they “get” her. All of the children are variously bullied by the school’s unnecessarily awful local bruiser, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who, all together now, doesn’t have the best home life. His anger has been passed down through generations, which is another of King’s recurring themes.
Needless to say, this isn’t the most original narrative of all time, but it’s a really well-conceived and well-told one, with terrific characters and really strong emotional and dramatic payoffs; both the cathartic moments of escape or triumph over Pennywise, and the quieter scenes of bonding and development as the kids wriggle out from beneath the weight of their personal anxieties. The actors are also uniformly excellent, which is by no means a guarantee when you’re asking children to act out distinctly adult drama. Their coming together is much more the point than even the scary clown business, and that they do that so convincingly (and, thankfully, not in the way they do it in the book) is It’s single greatest strength.
That being said, there’s still some dynamite filmmaking on display here. King’s archetypal terrors have been slickly transferred to the screen by cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, who elegantly captures the children’s rock fights and bicycle chases with the same widescreen elegance as their otherworldly torment. The story’s blend of scares and sentimentality might occasionally seem a little lopsided one way or the other, but the fusion of nightmare-fuelling imagery and themes with a Stand by Me-style youngster’s quest is what gives It such broad appeal, and composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s emotionally-resonant score accentuates the significance of both the heroes holding hands and the villains baring teeth.
So, there you have it. It is a crowd-pleasing, contagiously enthusiastic success; a ghoulish reminder that some of our most popular, most lingering stories are compelling precisely because they’re so simple. Pennywise might exploit his victims’ basest fears, but It taps into our purest instincts to see evil vanquished, good triumph, and the underdogs succeed.
And for you and all your friends to have sex with the same girl at the same time, I guess. If we’ve established one thing about Stephen King over the last few weeks, it’s that he’s really ******* weird.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.