Stephen King is having quite the year. With five films being released across multiple formats, three separate TV series and two books, the money is guaranteed to be rolling in. One of them, It, has the distinction of being based on the best-selling book of 1987, and having to contend with a 1990 TV miniseries clad in the indestructible fabric of nostalgia. 2017’s It, paradoxically shifted forward from the fifties to the eighties, brings its own peculiar brand of nostalgia… and lots of children terrorised in increasingly outlandish fashions.
In the summer of 1989, seven kids — The Loser’s Club — realise that the town of Derry has an evil presence lurking beneath its surface. Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher, TV’s Masters of Sex), haunted by the loss of his brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), leads the gang in a guerrilla war against an entity that presents itself to them alternately as Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård, Atomic Blonde) and their greatest fears.
The original novel of It told parallel stories set in the fifties and the (then present day) eighties. The film, to save on both time and structural complexity, tells only the portion set in the past — here shifted forward to the eighties. This shift places It in a double zeitgeist: taking on the current cultural touchstone decade, ironically played up in the heavily King-influenced Stranger Things (which co-stars Finn Wolfhard, who here plays joker Richie); and also capturing the decade in which King was arguably at the height of his powers, even if he barely remembers the era himself. There’s period-appropriate set-dressing, but ultimately the era serves the film rather than simply acting to gratify the audience.
Written by Gary Dauberman (Annabelle: Creation), Chase Palmer and Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation), It cannibalises parts of the present-day portion of the story in such a way that it cannot comfortably recycle them for the sequel. This makes segments of the film flow very well indeed — and also corrects one of the biggest missteps of any writer’s career, not just King’s — but it also takes elements of one character’s future and incorporates into another’s past, thus rendering one of the Losers essentially ancillary. This is particularly unfortunate from an optical perspective because it’s Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the Club’s only person of colour, who becomes surplus to requirements. However, each member of the Club has their own charisma, and the rehearsal method of making them all become best friends in real life has paid off on screen. When they’re not being pursued by a homicidal polymorph, the Loser’s Club could fit into just about any eighties film about disenfranchised youth; it really is a movie about youth, because most of the cast are under twenty, and every adult is presented as ignorant at best and malignant at worst. This is the kids’ fight by default.
From a horror perspective, It does not rely on jump scares. Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) knows when to make a camera linger, or when to insert something into the background before the characters are aware of it. Much of the frightening imagery is fresh and unfamiliar, specifically designed for this screen incarnation, and all of it lingers long enough to sink into the audience’s psyche without overstaying its welcome.
Effective production design and camera work would not have been enough had Pennywise himself not been a credible threat. Skarsgård plays up the ridiculous aspects of the character — the part where we see why he’s called “the dancing clown” could almost sear itself into your brain, it’s on just that side of unhinged. Skarsgård’s physicality is eerie, and just when you think that Muschietti has relied overmuch on layers upon layers of teeth, there’s some uncannily realistic movement that you know isn’t entirely digitally assisted. This is creepy, and that’s precisely when It hits that sweet spot.
It: Chapter One, as it cheekily titles itself at its last moment, tells a complete-enough story in itself while leaving a clear path for its other half. It, by virtue of having no name actors in the cast, was a relatively low-budget project prospect. Practically guaranteed to turn a profit over its opening weekend, It will spawn its sequel, but it may be less familiar to fans of either of the original works: something new may come from the old, and that’s exciting; in the meantime It stands as a solid half-an-adaptation of a genre classic and a legitimate horror film.
It opened in Australian cinemas on September 7, 2017.
Directed by: Andy Muschietti.
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Jackson Robert Scott, Finn Wolfhard and Bill Skarsgård.