MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Horror/ Stars: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott, Owen Teague, Logan Thompson, Jake Sim, Steven Williams, Stephen Bogaert/ Runtime: 135 minutes
I have always held on to the belief fellow movie goers that one of the main reasons that horror films have always done as well as they have is because they have the very singular ability to affect us all differently on an individual person to person level. Yet while personally I have always been one of horror’s most challenging customers to shock let alone send a singular chill down my spine I still can say that I possess a unique gift. This gift is what can best be described as a huge and seemingly infinite, if my friends are to be believed, respect for any horror film that, when one watches the finished product, you can see that rather than feeling cheaply made and done in every way possible is instead something that is clearly frightening as well as lovingly well made. The reason I bring this point up to you is because we have a new horror movie on the block in the form of a new adaption of Stephen King’s story IT (the first attempt coming to us close to 30 years prior in 1990 with a truly iconic turn by Tim Curry).
Yet, much to my surprise I must confess that this new version of the movie IT has done something truly remarkable. That is the fact that while watching this film and this new itineration of one of the most iconic villains Stephen King has ever created in his entire career simultaneously terrorize not only the cast on that celluloid screen, but also the audience around me in the screening room I felt a truly giddy, and quite positively wonderful joy I had not felt while watching a horror film in a long time. This dear readers is because it really truly is exciting for me not only as a journalist of film, but also as an avid movie lover period to see a horror movie that not only can elicit such an impressive visceral reaction, but also in the process manage to create for audiences such a rich, cinematic world that somehow proves to be at equal turns terrifying yet inviting to the point that this film successfully and surprisingly also functions as a warm, nostalgic throwback to several horror films of yesteryear such as Carpenter’s Halloween or the very first Nightmare on Elm Street back in ‘84 which also elicited an ever-escalating sense of tension and fear as the dangerous situation the main character or characters found themselves continued to escalate all the way to a truly terrifying conclusion.
The plot is as follows: Opening in the fall of 1988 (a change from the 1950s-set source material that works to the film’s benefit), the film’s story begins with a young boy named Georgie who finds his playtime with a paper boat during a rainstorm ending quite mysteriously following a meeting with a sinister, balloon-offering clown he encounters in a storm drain named Pennywise. Curiously this also proves to be an event that occurs around the time of multiple other mysterious events around the town of Derry, Maine (honestly please don’t act too surprised that the movie is set here because practically EVERYTHING Stephen King-related is set in some town or another in Maine). So a few months later around the time of the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation, Georgie’s unpopular and stutter-equipped older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) remains obsessed with finding out exactly what happened, and so he continues his investigation with his equally unpopular pals — loud-mouth spectacles-wearing smart-alecky Richie (Finn Wolfhard), small, sickly Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and obsessive-compulsive Stan (Wyatt Oleff). It isn’t long however before their search for answers ultimately unites them with three new friends: the home-schooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the chubby, studious Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and the poor, abused Beverly (Sophia Lillis) and as the summer continues, all seven of these kids find themselves terrorized by Pennywise both collectively and individually as he puts them all face-to-face with their greatest fears. Yet as their individual wills are all tested to the max, these kids will soon discover that if they use their strength and bond as a group they might just be able to fight back….
Now to be fair the narrative flow of the film really isn’t as perfectly balanced as I would like, with some characters and their individual arcs getting way more significant screen time than others. Yet all the same it still is an impressive feat on the film’s part of how the story that we are seeing unfold really truly builds around its leads. Indeed while part of the structure is certainly built around having each member of The Losers Club have their own personal experiences as victims of IT’s unique brand of terror, with some taken straight from the novel while others are fresh and original, the film never actually feels structured. Instead the film actually possess a fantastic sense of flow that keeps you constantly fearful for the heroes’ lives as the layers to the mystery begin to unravel and you, along with our ragtag group, learn more and more about what’s really happening. Also contributing to this wonderful accomplishment is simply how the protagonists of this tale not only are introduced, but also in how they interact with one another, as through that not only are you as a member of the audience immediately engaged with these characters and their relationships to one another individually, but also to the larger plot as well. Plus I feel that another aiding factor is that every scene on display for the entirety of the 2 hr. and 15 minute runtime also possesses such a contribution to the film as a whole that you find yourself connecting to the film on a truly special level.
Now in case I didn’t make it obvious, this film’s casting department really does deserve important recognition for what they have achieved in this film. This is because although film history is full to the brim of titles that while still great, good, or decent found themselves severely undercut by absolutely poor performances by the young talent in them, this film truly is a rarity in that this film’s young cast truly does not possess a single weak link. Indeed, as we see that as the relative “veterans” of the ensemble, Jaeden Lieberher manages to bring a relatability and a vulnerability to Ben and Finn Wolfhard as Richie proves to be exactly the foul-mouthed little turd that fans of the novel are counting on him being, and proving to be a true stand-out. Yet when you factor in the quiet strength that Sophia Lillis brings to Beverly, the sweetness and loneliness of Jeremy Ray Taylor’s Ben, the nervous yet still electric energy of Jack Dylan Grazer’s Eddie, or even the inner strength of Chosen Jacobs’ Mike I truly feel that the “scene-stealer” trope we see far too often just isn’t applicable with this cast. Even Nicholas Hamilton, as sadistic bully and secondary villain Henry Bowers, deserves recognition for turning in an effectively chilling and threatening turn that honestly in the wrong hands could’ve become a truly cliché and, even worse, one-note character.
Of course to be fair one of the great curiosities that people will have in regards towards this adaptation of IT is whether or not the character of Pennywise the Clown is “properly portrayed”. This is of course not an unreasonable demand fellow movie goers for you see despite all the lacking that the 1990 miniseries possesses Tim Curry’s original performance as Pennywise still managed to make up for it for the most part and in the process set a bar so high that it seemed unfair to expect another actor to measure up let alone even try to knock it out of the park. Yet upon seeing Bill Skarsgård’s take on this iconic villain, I can honestly see his interpretation of the character becoming just as iconic as Curry’s. To be fair this is a take that benefits from a higher budget, more artistic direction, and much better effects than the 90’s miniseries had. Yet honestly none of those factors should lessen the credibility and impressiveness of what this 27-year old actor has managed to achieve because if the makeup and Victorian-era costume aren’t frightening enough, Skarsgard manages to sell and hook us as an audience on a Pennywise that truly is a creature who not only takes a childlike delight in all the horror and terror that he causes, but who also possess a cold smile as well as unnatural eye movement which are just downright disturbing. Indeed, while there are moments where CGI plays too unnecessary of a role, what we truly get by film’s end is a movie monster that will undoubtedly be featured in nightmares worldwide for decades to come.
Indeed it’s a beneficial irony that the beauty and horror that can be found in the aesthetic of Pennywise and his design are also the perfect representation of this film as a whole. This is because the movie magnificently finds ways to hit on both in the narrative as the contrast definitely delivers in highlighting the wonderful extremes (the innocence of childhood vs. a very real monster and the evil that permeates from his presence) that this film has with the most powerful example being that during the film we see that as the kids are riding their bikes through the neighborhood or cliff-jumping into a nearby lake, the film truly makes Derry look like a serene, inviting place. At the same time however, it is either before or after these moments that the film then decides to pull back the curtain and show the ugliness within during such scenes as the ones with the town’s creepy pharmacist, or Beverly’s awful, and abusive father. Thus when you combine this film’s truly astounding direction with unsettling production design as well as some truly sly and sneaky framing to help keep you guessing where the next scare could be coming from, you will ultimately find yourself leaving the theater with chills yet, in the deepest recesses of your heart, mind, and spirit, also wishing you could just escape for a few days and go back to the truly magical time and place that is childhood.
All in all I feel that given this film’s record breaking opening weekend box office results that it was no surprise that we managed to get IT: Chapter 2 this year which for those of you who don’t know, features the events that occur in the 2nd half of the book, and thus brings the story to a close. Yet while I feel that the sequel was unequivocally one of the industry’s most exciting, I feel it is to this film’s immense credit that this never once feels exclusively like a Chapter 1. Indeed as the finished product stands, IT truly is one of the best, most thrilling, and yet also most heart-filled horror titles that I have had the pleasure of seeing in recent years, and so for this critic, the fact that audiences managed to get a follow-up was simply a cherry on top of an already satisfying horror sundae. On a scale of 1-5 I give IT “2017” a solid 4 out of 5.