By Andrew Haas
Stephen King has had an interesting history of having his books adapted to other media. We’ve had hits like The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Shining (1980), but we’ve also had misses like Maximum Overdrive (1986) and Dreamcatcher (2003). It seems some stories tend to have better translations than others. Even this year, we witnessed The Dark Tower panned by critics and now we find ourselves facing our fears with It. Of course many people remember the 1990 miniseries that doesn’t exactly hold up, outside of Tim Curry’s fun performance as the killer clown. So with the idea of a new cinematic adaptation, it was hard to tell how well this would turn out. Keep in mind, this is one of King’s longest stories. Luckily, not only does this improve upon the miniseries, but this is one of the best King horror adaptations in years.
The story takes place in the small town of Derry, Maine, where a group of kids deal with being repeatedly ridiculed by the people around them. Soon they all have frightening encounters with a strange shape-shifting being that often takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, played by Bill Skarsgård. Knowing that it kills kids while feeding off their worst fears, the young losers must band together in order to stop this evil entity.
From what I can tell, this only covers the childhood portion of the book, updated to take place in the late 1980s instead of the late 1950s. This makes sense, as it allows the possible sequel to cover the rest of the book in modern times. The best part of the film for me is the camaraderie with the kids. The child actors are fantastic and they work off each other very well. Each one manages to stand out, even if some of them don’t get as much development as others. I’m glad this film has an R-rating, because it allows the kids to act like real life dirty-minded kids. At first I was afraid the 80s setting would make it too similar to Stranger Things, especially with one of kids being played by Finn Wolfhard, who also starred in that Netflix series. Thankfully, both he and the film manage to be their own thing. When they end up facing the evil stuff, I was rooting for them the whole way through.
Speaking of which, Bill Skarsgård definitely makes for a fun and creepy Pennywise the clown. He puts a lot of emphasis on the unnatural aspect of the character, from the way he talks to how he moves his body. I give major props to the people at Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. for the execution of the makeup. It truly captures all the uncanniness that is often associated with coulrophobia while also hinting at something much worse underneath. Some of his creepiest scenes are when he’s on screen the most and shows there’s more to fear about this thing than its spooky clown look. The film gives a lot of attention to its shapeshifting powers of making people experience their worst fears, though it isn’t really clear what the extent of its powers is.
Funnily enough, most of the film has more of a Goonies vibe than supernatural horror. There’s a sense of a hidden terror, buy there are a lot more scenes of the kids dealing with their lives than there are with Pennywise. I was surprised by the amount of humor in this film, again going back to the kids acting immaturely. But when it does get scary, it often works. The theme of dealing with your fears is pretty strong, especially in scenes involving Beverly’s home life, which I honestly found more unsettling than the clown. Director Andrés Muschietti does a fantastic job bringing out the feel of a small town that’s hiding something with eerie cinematography and a haunting score by Benjamin Wallfisch. There are jump scares, but they’re better executed than most horror films in terms of timing, music, and framing. While part of me is curious as to what originally-slated director Cary Fukunaga’s vision for the film would’ve looked like, I’m still satisfied with what Muschietti has done.
In terms of flaws, the tones don’t always mesh well and there isn’t much cohesion to the narrative. As good as some of the scares get, there are also instances where they come off as kind of cheesy and I’m not sure if they were intentional or just badly executed. There were also quite a few times where I felt the kids should’ve been smart enough not to fall for these tricks. This story also contains many of Stephen King’s most overused tropes, and one’s enjoyment of the film may depend on how you feel about them. For example, the Loser’s Club seems to be comprised of the only likable characters in a town full of jerks, especially the teen bullies who border on being serial killers. However, this is not to say that they’re badly done, as the actors play them well and there are hints that only the main bully is truly dangerous and a product of a bad environment. But there’s no denying they’re all products of an extreme King cliche.
Aside from those problems, It is still one of the best adaptations of a King horror story. The film knows when to be fun and frightening while also having a lot of heart behind it. Sure, there are tonal issues and cliches, but they aren’t enough to take away from the film’s overall enjoyment factor. Even if you don’t find the movie scary, the kids are strong enough to make it work. No matter your fear, this is a well crafted flick that I highly recommend checking out.