Over the decades, adaptations of famed horror author Stephen King’s works have been hit or miss, ranging from clunkers like “Pet Sematary,” “The Mist,” and the recently ill-received “The Dark Tower” to upper-tier works like “Misery,” “The Green Mile,” and the masterful “The Shining” (which ironically diverts from the novel quite a bit). When it comes to one of King’s most acclaimed novels, the epically-lengthy “It,” all we have is the middling miniseries from 1990, praised for a fantastic performance from Tim Curry, but maligned for just about everything else. For years, many have seen potential for a big screen adaptation that could do the beloved novel the justice that the first adaptation wasn’t able to accomplish. 27 years later, after a long period of planning, a second attempt has finally been brought to light thanks to director Andy Muschietti and a cast of mostly unknowns, but will a new take succeed where the miniseries failed, or is “It” destined to disappoint fans again?
Starting off in 1988, we witness the bizarre murder of young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) at the hands of the mysterious Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), a creature in the form of a clown. His parents eventually give him up for dead, but as we jump to 1989, we discover that Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) hasn’t given up hope yet, searching with his friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff). Constantly the target of the local bullies, they are eventually joined by other outcasts Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), forming what’s known as “The Losers’ Club.”
Around this time, almost all of them have started to see some very disturbing things when they’re alone, centering on a clown and their deepest fears. As they put together the mysterious past of their little town of Derry, Maine, which involves multiple tragedies and child disappearances, they discover that the entity that’s been attacking them has been responsible for all of it (including Georgie’s murder), and that it’s up to them to finally put a stop to it once and for all.
It’s easy to look at “It” simply as a horror film, which it obviously is, but if one were to look at it just from that point of view, then it probably wouldn’t stand out that much or make a particularly big impact. However, looking at it from another angle, as a kind of “coming of age” film in which the young protagonists band together not only for survival, but also because of their normal, everyday troubles (bullies, being the “losers” at school, difficult relationships with their parents, etc.), we also get an effective drama that knows just how to put these characters front and center and make them into something more than your typical clichéd horror villain fodder.
Don’t get me wrong, the horror side of the film certainly has a lot going for it as well. There are plenty of captivating sequences in which the kids have to face their deepest fears (a leper, a strange figure in a painting, past tragedies, etc.) and, of course, the infamous and terrifying Pennywise the Clown. Most of the scares featured throughout the film are your typical jump scares, but it also uses an effective mix of actually showing you things head on that still manage to be freaky, even when the film doesn’t forewarn you with the old loud bang on the soundtrack. Indeed, as far as the horror front goes, the film will have plenty to offer someone looking for a chill or two.
But as far as what makes the film really work, the bulk of the credit has to go to the remarkable young cast, whose onscreen chemistry pulses with energy in every scene. Apparently the young actors became fast friends in real life prior to shooting the film, which is no doubt the main reason their scenes together appear so natural. Their jesting and random banter throughout feels as though it’s exactly what they would be doing if the cameras weren’t rolling, giving them a kind of infectious camaraderie that makes you want to spend more time around them.
Then there’s Bill Skarsgard, who’s no doubt going to be compared to Tim Curry ad nauseum, but quite frankly, he does his own thing, and he does it very well. He completely embodies Pennywise and makes him, creepy, terrifying, and yet fascinating to watch as he plays his games with these horrified kids. The makeup and costume are one thing, and they’re both certainly done very well, but it’s Skarsgard who brings this character to life for a new generation, doubtlessly finding his way into many viewers’ nightmares.
With all of this in its favor, it was quite a pleasure to see that the only minor mishap is that it’s a little too long at 135 minutes. This is particularly felt in the climax as the kids are wandering around the sewer for what feels like at least a good 20 minutes. It’s somewhat rare to see horror movies go on for this long, and it’s usually for a good reason, so another trip through the editing room probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea. Other than that, what we have here is a new rendition of a classic book (or rather half of it) that vastly improves upon the original adaptation by giving us something that has a little heart, a few good scares, and a great cast. I don’t think I’d go so far as to say it’s the next great horror movie, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction after so many major disappointments. Now we merely have to wait and see if the filmmakers are just as successful with the other half of the sprawling tome. 3/4 stars.