Presumably the first of two cinematic chapters, the 2017 update of IT proves to be one of the smartest and most capable remakes of a beloved classic to come out of Hollywood in a long, long time. Andy Muschietti’s film delivers not just the scares, but a surprising amount of heart and laughs, making it one of the year’s most all-around satisfying films.
In October 1988, little Georgie Pemberton went missing after he encounters a mysterious clown named Pennywise in a gutter near his house. The following June, his older brother Billy and his group of friends — a ragtag group of social outsiders who call themselves “The Losers Club” — begin to see Pennywise for themselves. As the clown starts to manifest itself in increasingly hostile ways, the children realize that the only way to make “it” go away is to destroy it themselves.
The road to bringing IT to the big screen has been a long and arduous one, with the project stuck in development hell for decades before finally picking up steam after writer/director Cary Fukunaga (season one of HBO’s “True Detective”) joined the project in 2014. When Fukunaga eventually left the project, Muschietti was brought in to helm the movie and do a rewrite of Fukunaga’s script to incorporate more elements of Stephen King’s seminal novel and hew closer to the source material.
Muschietti turns out to have been worth the wait, building on the promise he showed in his debut feature: 2013’s Mama. Muschietti builds tension very precisely and is smart enough to relieve the tension with some big laughs only to build it back up again. Tonally, the movie juggles a lot as it pinballs between being a gory horror movie and a sweet coming-of-age story. But Muschetti handles those tonal shifts adeptly for the most part, even though a couple of moments feel tacked on in service to 80s nostalgia — particularly, a bit involving a New Kids on the Block poster and the infamous rock fight.
The young cast is sensational, with every actor fitting right into their roles and turning in strong performances. Special mention must go to Jaeden Lieberher (Bill), Jeremy Ray (Ben), and Sophia Lills (Bev), whose love triangle forms the foundation of The Losers Club, and gets some of the sweetest — and most heartbreaking — moments of the film. Best of all, there’s excellent chemistry among all the child actors, making it easy for us as an audience to believe in their friendships and, consequently, heighten the stakes when any of them are in danger.
Tim Curry’s interpretation of Pennywise in the 1990 mini-series has risen to legendary status over the years, arguably joining only the likes of Nicholson and Ledger in the pantheon of scary killer clowns. Bill Skarsgård may seem like an unusual choice to fill in those big shoes, but he’s perfectly cast. This version of It goes more for horror than laughs, which is understandable due to the televised nature of the old mini-series.
But since this is an R-rated theatrical film, it gives Muschietti and Skarsgård license to show us the full extent of Pennywise’s terror. Skarsgård’s full-bodied performance distinguishes itself from Curry’s within the first few seconds, and it’s a testament to the actor that I never once thought about Curry during the new film.
Production design is great at evoking the look and feel of the late 1980s. The score, apparently inspired by Amblin productions of the time, does an excellent job of augmenting the visuals without ever really standing out on its own. Key to any good horror film is the sound design, and the sound mix on IT uses every trick in the book to heighten the movie’s atmosphere of tension and dread. I wouldn’t be surprised to see IT in the mix for Oscar nominations for Best Hair/Makeup and Best Sound.
IT isn’t perfect. The movie is too long and could’ve stood to lose 10-20 minutes (although I have a hard time pinpointing what could’ve been excised). As mentioned earlier, some attempts to envelop the viewers in the late 80s era come off as inorganic. Visual effects are iffy, too, with the limitations of the budget coming through during the climax.
On top of all that, there are fundamental questions I continue to have about exactly how “It” works, regarding why he’s able to kill individual children right away while he toys forever with others, and what the ultimate end game is with the children he feeds on. But these are minor caveats, and ones that will hopefully pan out in the inevitable Chapter Two.
Stephen King adaptations on the big screen are the definition of “hit or miss.” For every genuine masterpiece like The Shawshank Redemption, we get a complete misfire like Dreamcatcher. Thankfully, the first big-screen attempt at IT is a resounding success, never floating to the heights of Shawshank— but it’s damn close, and it’s worth your time. This year has been a strong one for horror, and IT keeps the streak going.