“I never felt like a loser when I was with you.”
There are many film adaptations of the works of Stephen King, and very few of them are worth a damn. This is usually because in adapting King’s work, filmmakers often miss what makes his fiction so compelling: it’s not the scares, it’s the characters. Yes, King can craft a tale of terror that gives readers the creeps, but those scary elements wouldn’t be effective if it weren’t for the characters he’s created. He makes us relate to those characters; to care for them; to hope that they’ll survive.
Andy Muschietti’s film adaptation of King’s 1989 horror opus It gets it. Yes, Muschietti has crafted a scary experience — a film brimming with funhouse scares and terror. But best of all, he’s made a movie that has a heart. A movie that cares about its characters, and takes the time to make the audience care too.
It’s the summer of 1989, and all is not well in the town of Derry, Maine. Children are disappearing at an alarming rate, among them young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott). Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) holds onto some dim hope that Georgie is still alive. But we know better. Because we saw what happened to Georgie: he was brutally murdered by Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård), a grease-painted ghoul who lurks in the sewers beneath Derry and feeds on children. This is no man in a clown costume, but rather a shape-shifting monster capable of bringing out the deepest, darkest fears of its victims.
Bill and his friends are the only ones who seem truly tuned into what’s going on in their town. There’s Richie (Finn Wolfhard), who just can’t shut up; Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a nervous hypochondriac; and Stan (Wyatt Oleff), struggling to fit summer fun in with his dull bar mitzvah studying. The four friends soon add new members to their group: overweight new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and home schooled loner Mike (Chosen Jacobs). And then there’s Bev (Sophia Lillis), the lone girl in the group, whom all the boys stare at with puppy dog eyes. She’s the toughest of them all, averse to bullshit and struggling to live under the same roof with her abusive, lecherous father.
These seven kids are losers, through and through. They exist on the outskirts of all it, hiding from cruel bullies like Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and finding solace in each other. Perhaps that’s the bond that makes them the only ones who can battle Pennywise. Or at least die trying.
A lesser studio horror film would cut to the chase; it would quickly introduce us to the seven members of the Losers Club and then quickly make with the jump-scares. Muschietti, working with a script by Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, does the opposite. He lets It take its time, giving us glimpses into the lives of the losers. Indeed, some of the best moments of It aren’t the scary scenes, but rather the moments when the film lets the kids be kids. They hang out, they talk shit, they let the lazy summer afternoons take them. They may have dirty mouths and occasionally be up to no good, but they’re good kids. Innocent. Vulnerable.
Lurking at the corners of the frame is Pennywise, that nightmare creature guaranteed to give coulrophobes the shivers. Skarsgård’s performance is disarming, and perhaps a little too pronounced. The actor adopts an utterly bizarre speech pattern, his voice never quite settling on one pitch, always wavering. Pennywise is, after all, inhuman, and Skarsgård opts to play him in a truly inhuman fashion — there’s nothing normal about Pennywise. He (or rather, It), is a creature of giddy menace and raw hatred, his appetite for children insatiable. It’s no doubt a memorable performance, but one can’t help but wish Skarsgård dialed it down just a smidge.
As for the Losers Club, they are perfectly cast. Each member of the group brings something valuable, and each actor fully embodies their character. Best of all, they never once seem like actors playing parts — they seem like real kids, real friends. They seem genuine. Of the bunch, Grazer, as the nervous but hilarious Eddie, and Lillis, as the fiery Bev, stand out the most. Lillis is confident and commanding as Bev, and Grazer’s delivery on several lines is laugh-out-funny.
Humor in general plays a surprisingly big part in It. This may be one of the most intentionally funny full-blown horror movies in recent memory. There are one liners galore, and there’s a running New Kids On the Block joke that gets funnier and funnier the longer it goes on. The comedy goes a long way to making It all the more endearing — here is a film that knows exactly how to make its audience laugh before it makes them scream.
The only thing that bogs It down is the musical score. To be clear, Benjamin Wallfisch’s music is appropriately creepy, and the composer gives Pennywise his own jarring theme overlaid with chanting children that will give you a chill. The problem is there’s too much score. Too often, It relies on loud, booming musical stings to punctuate its scary scenes, to the point that it becomes overkill. An approach like that hints at a film unconfident in its ability to scare without extra help. There’s also a script choice near the end of the film that completely betrays one of the characters in a way that’s insulting. To say more would spoil it, but you’ll know it when you see it. It’s the type of decision that easily should’ve been nixed in a rewrite.
Muschietti’s direction is stellar — the filmmaker knows just when to pull back and when to go in for the kill. He’s aided by gorgeous cinematography courtesy of Chung-hoon Chung. The combination results in a slick modern horror movie. It’s exciting to see a big studio horror movie made with care. Most great modern horror comes to us courtesy of independent studios and smaller budgets. Whenever we do get a big studio produced horror film, it turns out to be forgettable junk aimed at tweens. It is the opposite. This is a nasty, brutal film; a film that doesn’t pull its punches. But it’s also clearly a big Hollywood production, and there’s something refreshing about that; about knowing that Hollywood was confident enough to invest the budget and care into this story.
It is like a trip to the best carnival haunted house you’ve ever been in — you’ll laugh, you’ll scream, you’ll walk out grinning. But best of all is that beating heart at the center of the film. The heart that beats strongest in the quiet moments, when the Losers stand together at sunset, safe in the knowledge that while it may only be for a brief time, at least they have each other.