By Vincent Abbatecola
Stephen King’s 1986 novel “It,” is probably one of his most popular works. A mammoth of a book with over 1,100 pages, this novel has become a classic in the horror genre for its rich characters and heart-hammering scenes of dread. As far as page-turning terror goes, it’s unforgettable.
In 1990, a two-part miniseries was aired, and other than Tim Curry’s entertaining performance as the titular character, the show itself didn’t do the source material any justice and couldn’t have been more watered-down if you through it into the ocean. Given how lengthy the novel is, you need much more than a three-hour miniseries to cover the most important aspects of the book. However, it looks like Hollywood has found a way to make it happen, and an obvious one at that.
Director Andy Muschietti was given the daunting task of bringing King’s horror epic to the big screen, and he now delivers part one of a duology that presents an adaptation that’s much more committed to staying true to the novel, and with a perfect cast and a story that’s equal parts emotional and scary, this is the adaptation for which fans have been waiting.
In Derry, Maine, a series of child murders is plaguing the town. When Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher)’s little brother, George (Jackson Robert Scott), is killed by a mysterious evil that takes the form of a clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), Bill soon realizes that he and his friends have all been tormented by this entity, who has the ability to morph into his victims’ biggest fears.As they formulate a plan to vanquish Pennywise, they will find out that his killing sprees in Derry date back for centuries.
While Tim Curry was entertaining as Pennywise in the miniseries, he was more humorous and campy than scary. Bill Skarsgård, however, delivers the creepiness I envisioned while reading the book. Although his screen time only adds up to about 10 minutes, Skarsgård makes a chilling impression whenever he’s on screen, sometimes bringing a devilishly playful persona to the part, a creative choice that makes his first scene in the movie an unsettling experience.
Jaeden Lieberher (“Midnight Special” and “St. Vincent”) and the rest of the young cast, which includes Finn Wolfhard (Netflix’s “Strangers Things) and newcomers Sophia Lillis, Jack Dylan Grazer, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wyatt Oleff, and Chosen Jacobs, capture the strong bond of friendship that King presents in his book. The chemistry they share on screen is reminiscent of what was shown by the quartet of adolescent actors in “Stand By Me,” another King adaptation, with all of their interactions creating the heart of the movie and helping the coming-of-age story grow from the horror narrative. They’re all naturals, and the strength of their talents helps the audience become invested in their arcs. The way in which they handle their characters’ hardships make this a rich and dramatic story, while their playful banter throughout the movie makes them a total blast to watch. Despite how menacing Skarsgård is, it’s really these scenes that carry the film.
As much as I enjoyed Skarsgård’s performance, the one drawback is how Muschietti uses CGI on several of his scenes. While some of the CGI effects are fine, such as Pennywise’s rows of sharp teeth, a few of the other effects sometimes take you out of the moment on certain scenes. Although I don’t mind CGI in most films, horror is the one genre in which I don’t care for it. Having watched many horror classics, I’ve seen the amazing practical effects that have been used, all of which helped add another level of terror to those movies, whereas CGI effects don’t hold that same movie-magic feel. I know CGI is a significant tool in filmmaking, especially these days, but when it comes to horror, those effects don’t always work for me.
The screenplay by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, and Cary Fukunaga (who was attached to direct before Muschietti was given the project), captures the spirit of the novel; and just like the book, it doesn’t feel like it has to show us too much of Pennywise to draw us in. Instead of giving Pennywise more screen time than necessary, the film spends a lot of its time developing the relationships between the adolescent characters and providing us with a detailed look into their lives. This offers a considerable amount of dramatic weight that’s sometimes difficult to find in a mainstream horror film.
Although the screenplay is more faithful to the novel than the miniseries, it still makes some significant changes. However, these omissions and updates work because of the shift in time, with this story-line taking place in 1989 for the film, as opposed to 1958, as is the case with the book. Although some of the novel’s more frightening scenes don’t make it into the movie, they’re sequences that probably would have looked silly in a visual medium, so these changes make sense.
While King’s novel goes between two story-lines (one with the main characters as children and another when their adults), the screenplay focuses on the one with the characters as children, while a second film is set for a tentative 2019 release, which will focus on the adult-centered part of the story. By doing so, the screenplay is able to take its time with developing the main characters enough so we get to learn and care about them to the degree where we’ll want to come for part two.
Muschietti brings considerable tension to the scariest scenes of the film, such as the gang’s venture into the abandoned house on Neibolt Street and when George meets Pennywise, but he also recognizes that beneath the frights, there’s a genuine portrait about growing up, and he uses a compassionate eye to construct the portions of the film that are dedicated to exploring the adolescence of the main characters. He knows that one of the things that makes King’s novel so special is how authentically written the younger characters are, which makes it easy for readers to connect with them, and Muschietti does a thorough job to achieve that connection for the movie. Because of this, the film proves itself to be more than just a scary carnival ride.
Final Grade: A-