Director: Andy Muschietti Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Sophia Lillis, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff Running Time: 135 minutes
Somewhere in the recesses of my memory a spectre of Tim Curry lurks, a cackling lunatic in clown make up who probably contributed to some lost hours of sleep. 27 years on from Tommy Lee Wallace’s TV miniseries, Stephen King’s grizzly, shapeshifting child killer is back, this time played by Bill Skarsgård and ably assisted by special effects a world removed from the 1990 miniseries.
Working from one of King’s most formidable books (1400 pages depending on the edition) this modern update, from Mama director Andy Muschietti, covers the first half of the novel, where a band of American children face off against a shape-shifting demon, predominantly appearing as a gleefully murderous clown named Pennywise.
Updating the novel’s original setting from the late fifties to the late eighties, IT begins in earnest with Pennywise introduced in a brief, unsettling confrontation with Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) the younger brother of one of the central characters, involving a paper boat, a gutter and one of the film’s more understated and unsettling scares. From that eye opening start the movie plays as a coming of age tale trying to be reconciled with a series of elaborate jump scares. These feature the kids (a band of outsiders affectionately self-titled as ‘the Losers Club’) encountering Pennywise in various elaborate forms designed to vividly evoke their deepest fears and anxieties.
Such encounters inventively tap into their subjects’ terrors but also sit awkwardly alongside more garden variety jump scares where deranged clown faces spring up very suddenly out of the darkness. Some scares land more powerfully. A blood soaked bathroom set-piece hits its target and the effects of the creature’s garish mouth revealing an insect like row of razor sharp teeth are striking, while the encounter with Georgie is brutally simplistic. Added to this supernatural threat the Loser’s Club must also face down more recognisable terrors, be they a gang of vicious local bullies (the leader of whom looks like an older version River Phoneix’s character in Stand by Me), abusive parents or just the simple physical trials and social anxieties of adolescence.
In this vein there’s tender work delivered by Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the lone girl among the boys club. Like her companions she’s grimly bullied at school and her scenes with her father strongly allude to a deeply abusive relationship. She becomes a romantic figure for two of the boys in the group, Jaeden Lieberher’s de facto leader Bill (who has a personal connection to the eponymous creature through his missing younger brother) and Ben, a sweet bookworm well played by Jeremy Ray Taylor, who delicately captures the latter’s first brush with love in an involving storyline. It’s through Ben’s lonely but productive jaunts in the local library that the history of the town and a series of past tragedies linked to the missing children are fleshed out. Alongside Beverly, Bill and Ben we have Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) who is worried about his upcoming bar mitzvah, a crude motormouth named Richie (Finn Wolfhard) for whom clowns are a sore spot and Mike (Chosen Jacobs) who is ill at ease in his grandfather’s meat packing business and harbours fears of fire.
From here the filmmakers have fun manipulating a very digitally pliable monster to target each youngsters fear and at least initially this pays some dramatic dividends. As the title character Skarsgård- via makeup and digital effects- creates a suitably bizarre screen presence, otherworldly and malevolent. There isn’t much left over of the gleeful comic cruelty Curry imbued the part with but nonetheless Skarsgård’s work stands on its own.
There’s more overtly human work achieved among the young cast, who create a believable sense of rapport within their winning band of misfits. Not all of them feel fully developed, Mike and Stanley especially remain a few good scenes short of full characters and I’d have happily traded some clown scenes for the lovestruck Ben discussing his favourite music with Beverly or more time getting to know some of the other ‘losers’.
That sense of incompleteness is an odd issue given the 135 minute run time. By the end IT feels its length in a production trying to negotiate between big horror movie scares and a bunch of kids trying to enjoy their summer holidays, albeit with a murderous clown never far behind. One wonders would that balance have been achieved more successfully under original director and co-writer Cary Fukunaga. The True Detective helmer had been involved in the production (and retains a screenplay credit) before leaving amid creative differences. He spoke of wanting to create actual characters and while it would be a disservice to describe the work rendered here by a strong cast (especially Lillis who reminded me of a younger Amy Adams) and creative team as stock I did come away feeling matters would have benefitted from more time with its groups’ personal drama than some of the well polished jump scares. I haven’t read King’s mammoth original text but given its sheer volume perhaps the ensemble’s respective plights would have been better fleshed out in an extended series, as has been the case with recent King adaptations Under the Dome and 11.22.63.
Still, IT is effective enough in its creative conjuring of childhood demons and carries enough emotional heft to level the King cinematic scorecard for the year after the disastrous reviews which greeted The Dark Tower. As the closing credits remind us this is only part one and to its credit there’s enough that works here to warrant that second chapter.(3 / 5)