When Stranger Things debuted in July last summer it was instantly a phenomenon. Not only was it an impeccably made series but it also paid homage to our intense nostalgia-pangs for the 1980’s. All 10-episodes were peppered with references to John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, Goonies and most obviously Stephen King. King’s 1986-opus IT was a clear inspiration for the brigade of tweens as they hunted for their friend in the upside-down. Now, in 2017, IT is back with a new feature length adaption that paradoxically leans on last summer’s phenomenon that so graciously borrowed its aesthetic.
That in no way plays as a bad thing in new IT. In fact, it’s why so many have connected with the story for the last 30-years. King has written masterfully (in his own twisted, demented way) about small town upbringings and the effect they have on youth. His perspective has shaped youth film culture so greatly that it was inevitable that it would circle back around to feel as though he was ripping off himself.
But what to make of IT after all these years? King’s story has not been adapted since it was made into a Tim Curry-led miniseries in 1990. Still, there is a timeless quality to this genre-spanning wackadoo of a story.
The film kicks off just as you remember. Billy (Jaeden Lieberher) is sick in his room helping his brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) build a paper boat to float down their street during a pounding Nor’easter. After completing it, Georgie in his yellow rain slicker chases the boat down the street before it careens into the storm drain. As he reaches he’s startled to two beady yellow eyes and a wry smile…Pennywise is there to greet him with a soliloquy, some monstrous teeth and a trip into the sewer.
Fast forward to late June and the loser club is intact. Instead of the mid-1950’s though, Director Andy Muschietti has chosen to set his telling in the late 1980’s in Derry, Maine. Billy, Richie (Finn Wolfhard,) and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) are an inseparable trio who just want to get out of their school on the last day before summer before they’re harassed by a group of sadistic bully’s hell bent on their misery.
Before long the boys are joined by “new kid” Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) who has just relocated to Derry and spends most of his lonely days in the library studying the townships rather sordid history. He meets Beverly (Sophia Lillis) – an outsider being mercilessly picked on by her peers – and swoons, bonding in secret over his blushing love for New Kids on the Block.
The sixth in the loser club is a young African-American boy named Mike (Chosen Jacobs.) He lives on his Uncle’s farm and does not particularly care for the animal slaughters and butcher runs he’s asked to do. It’s also clear that Derry is an overtly racist place but not explored as much as it could’ve been beyond the bully’s beating Mike at every turn.
One by one the kids are terrorized by Pennywise as we’re introduced to each of their deepest fears that the vicious clown exploits to his benefit. He prays on fear only to appear at the last moment to finish them off. We’re introduced to lepers, burn victims, headless children and a demonic Georgie encouraging Billy in a flooded basement that, “you’ll float too…”
But Pennywise isn’t the only threat these kids must face. Derry, Maine is littered with shots at the tweens well-being from the aforementioned bullies to aloof and abusive parents to objectively dangerous condemned homes – some are very demon ridden.
But what actually makes 2017 IT a success was not what I anticipated. Sure, there are many pure horror elements and jump scares to be had (some more successful than others) but this is a movie about adolescent friendship and it’s here where the movie is elevated beyond the shlock it could’ve become. Muschietti casting is impeccable, I didn’t count a single misstep. The losers are perfect, giving nuanced portrayals of very different archetypes that felt refreshing at every turn. Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things as Richie deserves special recognition as the foul, motormouth scene-stealer.
None of this would work without Pennywise and again Muschietti found his man. Bill Skarsgard has some massive clown shoes to fill following an iconic Tim Curry performance and takes the famous dancing clown in a much different direction. His menace is never too far from the surface here, almost never appearing jovial or inviting. His voice vacillates between high pitched squeals and overtly slow enunciation to guttural growls and moans. I doubt it will be remembered like Curry’s but I thought he delivered many nightmare moments I won’t soon forget.
These performances combined with the impeccable camerawork of Chung-hoon Chung (a beautiful scene in a quarry nearly brought me to tears) took IT to heights lesser efforts wouldn’t have earned. This is a tall task to adapt a 1000+ page novel into a 2-hour film and while the scripts clunky dialogue sometimes misses the mark I truly admire their intentions. This is not the horror film some will expect but in the end it’s all the more affecting.