Genre: Horror, Drama
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs
Of all the sadistically disturbing creations Stephen King has conjured over the course of his prolific career, none have plagued the nightmares of readers more than that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The eponymous ‘It’ of his whopping doorstopper of a novel – first published in 1986, and then adapted into a 1990 television miniseries starring the wonderfully creepy Tim Curry – has become one of horror’s most enduring icons.
It was only a matter of time before Pennywise was given his due on the big screen. Now, with a whole ton of hype behind it, comes Chapter One (as its end title suggests), the first in a two-part, big budget, flashy cinematic adaptation.
Updating the novel’s period setting from the late 1950s, the first film takes place mostly in the summer of 1989 with our characters as misfit middle schoolers. A grisly prologue, set several months before, shows young Georgie Denbrough losing his paper boat down a storm drain one rainy day. It’s here that we first encounter Pennywise the Clown, hiding down in the sewers, luring poor Georgie to a terrifying demise.
We’re then introduced to the various members of “The Losers Club”. There’s trash mouth Richie, hypochondriac Eddie, the pragmatic Stan, chubby and sweet natured new kid Ben, quiet outsider Mike, lovely and pure hearted Beverly, and Georgie’s older brother and de facto leader of the group, Bill. As well as avoiding the local, sadistic bullies, each member is haunted by nightmarish visions of their deepest fears, all of them accompanied by the same creepy clown figure seemingly stalking them wherever they go. Is it possible that this mysterious clown figure may have something to do with the recent spate of child abductions plaguing the quiet town of Derry? Could it be that this has happened before? And what the hell is with that creepy ass abandoned house over on Neibolt Street?Adapting Stephen King’s source material into a workable film was never going to be an easy task. The miniseries gave it a valiant effort, but asides from Tim Curry’s notable performance, it wasn’t very memorable. With this new film, director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and the trio of credited writers have wisely scaled back on – or outright eliminated – some of the more problematic material in King’s original source. Gone are the trippier elements, as well as the dark, disturbing sexual undertones, including one truly infamous scene involving our young group of heroes.
As a result, Muschietti has fashioned a quite gruesome and thoroughly entertaining horror adventure / coming-of-age tale, that sweeps along with the joy and verve of something like The Goonies – if The Goonies was a dark and twisted R-rated horror movie. The film uses every tool at its disposal to bring Pennywise’s many apparitions to hideous life, as he conjures various beasties to terrorise our young group. A standout sequence with Beverly in her bathroom and whole lot of blood is superbly executed, whilst a scene involving The Losers in a garage – in which Pennywise literally leaps off and out of the screen – is a masterclass in nerve-wracking tension.
All of this is aided by Bill Skarsgard’s brilliant performance as Pennywise. Rather than replicating what Tim Curry did, Skarsgard makes the character his own. With his buck teeth, chillingly creepy voice and scarily playful personality, Skarsgard shines as the demonic clown, which is no doubt destined to plague many a nightmare to come.
Where the film really shines though, is in its depiction of The Losers themselves. It’s clear that the filmmakers have real reverence for these characters. The group has great chemistry, with Jaeden Lieberher heading up the group with a winning performance as Bill. Finn Wolfhard (of Stranger Things fame, another Stephen King influenced show) brings a much-needed levity as trash-mouthed Richie Tozier, whilst Jeremy Ray Taylor shines as the sweet natured Ben.But it’s Sophia Lillis as Beverly who is the group’s MVP. Bringing a warmth and grace to her character, Lillis is already a star in the making. Without a doubt, she has some of the toughest scenes out of all the Losers and she sells them like a seasoned pro.
It’s these smaller character moments, mainly involving the group as a whole, when the film truly shines. It’s when we see the kids bonding, jumping into a lake, laughing and smiling; it’s Beverly teasing young, bashful Ben about his love of New Kids on the Block; it’s Ben looking on longingly as Beverly and Bill grow closer; it’s the group engaging in an “apocalyptic rock fight” with the local bullies to defend one of their own; it’s when bully and sociopath Henry Bowers is confronted and tormented by his own father. It is these moments that really standout in the film, even more so than the more terrifying moments involving Pennywise.
It isn’t a perfect horror movie. It’s not as scary as one would think, with no real stand out skin-crawling moments. Some of the creature designs (particularly that of the Leper) seem hokey, and Pennywise himself is shown far too often, far too early, rendering some of his inherent creepiness almost mute. If perhaps he was hidden from view just a while longer, like the shark from Jaws, then perhaps the scare factor would’ve been raised a few more notches. And, of course, with seven members in The Losers Club, not all the kids get as much focus as some of the others, with certain characters relegated to the sidelines as the film progresses.
In the end though, It is a rip-roaring success – thoroughly entertaining with great performances from its cast, and plenty of creeps and jolts courtesy of Skarsgard’s Pennywise. Overall, a bloody good time at the movies.