By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis and Bill Skarsgard
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman
New Line/Warner Bros.
The titular maleficence in IT emerges every 27 years to prey on the people of Derry, Maine, so it’s appropriate that the feature-film version of Stephen King’s novel has arrived the same amount of time after TV gave it a shot. This IT is an altogether more successful translation, partially but not entirely because it can go to the dark and grisly places network television couldn’t back in 1990.
That’s abundantly clear in the opening, indelible scene that introduces little Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to the tale’s signature villain, Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard). As Pennywise lures Georgie to his death amidst gloomy, rain-drenched atmosphere, director Andy Muschietti, who previously combined children and chills in MAMA, builds a deep sense of unease and terror that pays off in an uncompromisingly grisly punchline. Skarsgard oozes insinuating menace as Pennywise, and if he might not erase memories of Tim Curry for those kindertraumatized by his evil-clowning in the televersion, Skarsgard makes the role his own, and his Pennywise seems sprung directly from King’s pages.
That goes for his stalking grounds and potential victims as well. Muschietti and his team have found locations (in the Toronto area) that perfectly replicate the Derry of the novel; the opening establishing shots of the town and surrounding woods feel exactly right. More crucially, the filmmakers landed an ensemble of largely unknown young performers who look and sound just as one imagines them while reading the book. The most familiar face for genre fans will be Finn Wolfhard from STRANGER THINGS (cementing the debt that show owes to King’s tale) as motormouth Richie, part of a “Losers Club” of young teens who become aware of the supernatural threat to their home and their lives, and resolve to stop it.
Most keenly aware of the danger is Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Georgie’s older brother, who clings to the possibility of his vanished sibling being alive when all evidence (or lack thereof) suggests otherwise. Months after the disappearance, as school is letting out for the summer of 1989, Bill corrals Richie, Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) into helping him search for Georgie. At the same time, overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) has been feeding a fascination with Derry’s awful history at the local library, and he soon falls in with the “Losers Club,” as do fellow outcasts Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who’s got a bad rep at school and an abusive dad at home, and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), an African-American boy who already has a horrific tragedy in his past.
The young ensemble is terrific across the board, and have an easy, squabbly camaraderie that recalls one of the great past King films, STAND BY ME. This movie is unsentimental in its presentation of the kids as troubled and foul-mouthed, and also in subjecting them to peril. As if that first setpiece doesn’t make it clear enough, there’s a strong sense throughout of their vulnerability to real danger and harm, and also of these youths being adrift in an environment full of adults who are oblivious and unfeeling at best, and manipulative and threatening at worst. Yet at the same time, Muschietti stops just short of making their terrorization gratuitously cruel. He plays fair with the scares, which is not to say he holds back in delivering some truly powerful frights, most notably when the kids set up a slideshow that is disrupted by Pennywise. Makeup effects creators Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. really deliver with the wicked clown and other grotesque sights, though they’re occasionally accompanied by too-loud bursts of Benjamin Wallfisch’s otherwise elegantly eerie score.
This IT, of course, is only half of King’s story, leaving the portions involving the protagonists as adults for a follow-up film (which is teased in a final title card). The approach works, making the kids’ adventures a self-contained drama that maintains the basics and spirit of King’s writing while altering some of the details. Screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga—the project’s original director—and the ANNABELLE movies’ Gary Dauberman retain the book’s big moments like the Apocalyptic Rockfight while ditching the metaphysics of the later chapters in favor of a more grounded final act. Their additions and changes largely stay true to the author’s spirit, and they’ve not at all surprisingly left out the book’s gratuitous gangbang scene; it’s just a shame that the resilient Beverly is reduced to being a Girl to Be Rescued to motivate her friends in the final act. Still, that’s a forgivable lapse in what is otherwise the best and creepiest King film in a good long time.