It is a horror movie revelation. What director Andy Muschietti has done with Stephen King’s 1986 classic literary terror titan is something that few helmers over the years have done with his terrifying tales. The Argentinean director gets It. He gets all of It.
There is a connection to the source material that is uncanny. That is always the highest of challenges with a King book, but probably more so with the story of the clown Pennywise and his haunting of young children in a small Maine town. Yes, the novel is long, but that’s not the only hill to climb. The story is rich, layered, emotionally haunting and lays out a yarn over hundreds upon hundreds of draw-you-in pages that never lets you go. That’s hard to accomplish in a two-hour film.
Yet, Muschietti has put his focus, with laser precision, on one aspect of the book to drive his film and It is awesome. Screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman and the helmer had the spotlight shine on the kids, aka the Losers Club. What else they do with It, and so many King adaptations miss this mark, is show how these kids in peril are truly on their own. The adults in this town are not only no help, but may also be uniquely nefarious in their own ways.
The action is set in Derry, Maine, where it seems — like cicadas — Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard) arises from nowhere every 27 years to terrify the youngest members of the community. What this horror incarnate feeds off of most is fear. He gets a whole lot of juju from these seven friends, the Losers, that is until they decide to fight back.
Our seven leads (six impeccably cast boys and one spot-on girl) are at the beginning of the years-long curveball that life throws at children called adolescence. They find each other, at first, through companionship when no one else in the school seems to give them the time of day. They bond through a common thread that is each experiencing visions of this clown in a manner that for them, and the audience, is utterly bone-shakingly petrifying.
They are led by Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), whose brother has gone missing… likely a casualty of Pennywise. This group of seven is one of many spokes of brilliance in the It wheel of wizardry. The camaraderie and chemistry elicited gives off the feeling that these kids are BFFs in real life and that is a priceless gift to filmmakers trying to get an emotional connection between the audience and our protagonists. When the antagonist starts to gnaw at them, we are vested. Boy, oh boy are we vested. Each is a firmly established character, with a backstory and personality that is unique in every way… something not easily achieved in films that focuses on the younger set.
They are our eyes and ears and it is in that childlike realm that fear can live and breathe the strongest. That is one element that makes It so darn frightening, visceral and intensely real. As a child, the unknown can be ten times more horrifying than having to eat broccoli every night. What’s under the bed may be the beginning of fearful inquiries of a child. But, what happens when that fear factor escalates to a question of: Who lives in that dark, abandoned house with that hellfire-looking clown standing in front of it holding a series of red balloons? That takes it all to a whole new level of fear and with children as our conduit, viewers be warned: Pure, emotionally driven horror ensues.
That innocence checked by reality is a universal theme in many of the author’s stories. By tapping into that aspect of King’s It, Muschietti and his team have hit It out the park. They have zeroed in on our own deepest collective fears to bring a terror-ific time to the cinemas for all who head into the dark for some prime time Pennywise pomp and circumstance.
A large amount of that praise has to also be levied on the man behind the makeup, Skarsgard. With the television miniseries of the 90s so permeated into pop culture’s conscious, it had to be difficult to make this incarnation stand out from the characterization triumphantly achieved by Tim Curry. Yet, the moment Pennywise appears in that gutter and is talking to his latest victim, we as a group gasp. It is supremely terrifying and his turn as the embodiment of all that scares us should have the actor’s performance placing Pennywise on the same elevated cinematic stature as Darth Vader, Norman Bates and other iconic evil doers. It. Is. That. Good. Skarsgard plays him as both playful and vicious, all the while symbolizing a centuries-old New England demonic presence with equal parts fear and flair that transcends the screen.
This version of Pennywise also does something that is quite remarkable. The makeup, hairstyling and the performance by Skarsgard combine to remind those who hate clowns why they feel that way, all while bringing others who do not mind the makeup-laden characters into their cult of loathing.
It will go down as one of the most entertaining, enthralling and utterly terrifying leaps to the screen a King book has ever achieved. It has humor. It has heart. It has heaps of horror. But most of all, It has everything you would want in a cinema experience. Do not be surprised if It requires repeated viewings.