Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Olef, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Bill Skarsgård
Director: Andy Muschietti
Writers: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman
Of the dozens of adaptations that Stephen King’s bibliography has seen over the years, the 1990 It miniseries might be the most characteristically ‘King’ of them all. Some, like Stand by Me, only show a single side of King while others, like The Shining, are more characteristic of the filmmakers than they are of the original author. The Tim Curry It however was a series that fully embraced the crazy world of King and showcased all of his best and worst qualities. It had strongly defined characters and told its story with a lot of personality, but it was also filled to the brim with King’s most typical tropes and had a ton of weird ideas that didn’t all work. Although the series is so identifiably King and has pretty much set the benchmark for subsequent adaptations, it isn’t a series that has aged very well and I came along too late to find it at all scary. It was my hope that this modern retelling might allow me to rediscover this bizarre tale as the horror that it’s supposed to be.
It starts in 1988 in Derry, Maine, with stuttering teenager Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) giving his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) a paper boat. Georgie takes his boat outside to play with and ends up running into Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), who entices little Georgie before dragging him into the sewer to his bloody demise. The following summer Bill remains convinced that his little brother is missing, not dead, and enlists his friends Stan (Wyatt Olef), the Jewish germaphobe, Richie (Finn Wolfhard), the foul-mouthed dirty-minded troublemaker, and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the sickly momma’s boy, to help him get to the bottom of what happened. Each has an encounter with a mysterious being who takes the form of each of their greatest fears, as do Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new kid in town, Bev (Sophia Lillis), a troubled young girl, and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the African American outsider. Together they form The Loser’s Club as they team up to decipher the mysteries of Derry and its pattern of vanishing children.
The movie’s first horror scene is also the miniseries and novel’s most famous moment, the fatal meeting between Georgie and Pennywise. Here the movie makes a much stronger attempt than its TV counterpart to be scary, shrouding Pennywise in shadow, playing ominous music, and having the two characters almost whispering to each other. This plays to both the film’s advantage and its disadvantage. Although this Pennywise is a hundred times creepier than Curry’s version ever was, that creepiness can surprisingly work against the character. Curry’s murderous clown was silly and playful and thus approachable, which makes it easier for us to believe that Georgie would be enticed by this strange man in the sewer. This clown is silly in the wrong way, behaving so creepily that there is no way a real child would ever give him the time of day. When the scene reaches its gory conclusion, it’s an outcome that we can see coming from a mile away. It’s scary enough on the surface but it doesn’t have that deeper level of horror that would’ve paid off on rewatch because it just isn’t believable enough (which I know is an odd criticism for a movie with a supernatural killer clown, but still). This, I think, is indicative of a problem the movie has with finding the right tone, a problem that lessens many of the scares that follow.
With that said, there are nevertheless a lot of scary moments that do work very well. When Ben sees a headless boy skulking around the library, it is revealed in the most jarringly unsettling way. In some moments when Pennywise decides to embrace his inherently silly side and roll with it, as in one scene when he visits Bill and plays around with Georgie’s corpse like a talking dummy, he becomes all the more disturbing. There are some moments that don’t work particularly well because they are so obviously computer-generated (such as when Pennywise appears out of a projected image), but when the CGI is used well, as in the moment when Stan sees the distorted figure of an unnerving painting come to life, the movie can be very scary indeed. The film also uses its recurring image of balloons to sinister effect while the earlier version… really didn’t. The balloons here are all red and are often seen completely motionless, making them all the more eerie, and they are often used to foreshadow a scary event, thus inspiring a feeling of dread whenever they appear.
The movie also works well when it focuses on the kids and the coming-of-age aspect of the story, but even that can suffer from tonal inconsistencies. Each kid is perfectly cast and is given a clear personality and a story arc, albeit some do inevitably get more focus while others, namely Mike and Stan, are marginalised. Each has their own struggle, whether it’s a devastating family loss, abusive parents, or being an outcast, and the movie does a good job of relating each of their individual scares to their anxieties. Together they make a great ensemble with some marvellous chemistry and are all allowed their own moments to shine. The standouts for me were Bev, the only girl in the group whose troubles stem from living with her incestuous father, and Richie, the erratic trash-talker with a one-liner for every occasion. Again some moments don’t quite work due to the movie’s sudden shifts in tone such as the rock fight where the over-the-top music and slow-motion undercut the seriousness of the moment leading up to it or when Bev is inexplicably seen by Bill walking down the street in bright lights and slo-mo when he literally saw her just two minutes earlier.
Still, when the movie works, it works. Sometimes it takes things too far, and sometimes not far enough, and sometimes it just can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be. It clearly wants to join the ranks of The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and be taken seriously as a terrifying horror film, but the very nature of its story and antagonist means that some parts are going to be inherently silly, and that’s something it’s not always ready to accept. Sometimes the movie will be silly and fun and other times it will be dark and serious. At moments it’s quiet and subtle and at others it’s loud and over-the-top. These varying tones clash with one another so often that it’s difficult to get a clear grip on this film. The movie wanted to be so many different things that it didn’t always know what was the right tone to go for or how to balance them against one another. While I did enjoy watching this movie, do think it has a lot of strong qualities, and found it to be so much scarier than the 1990 version that it hardly merits comparison; I don’t think this movie has a strong enough sense of identity to go down as a classic. Maybe my mind will change when Chapter 2 comes out.