Get ready to hear those nerves snapping! Expertly capturing that special Stephen King sense of dread when threatened by everything you have ever feared, director Andy Muschietti’s crafty adaptation of the horror novelist’s 1986 bestseller is a resounding success on practically every level.
Delivering the same brand of less-is-more chills of his last film Mama (only more so) while expanding the shock value into a far more adult realm, Muschietti pulls off one striking visual coup after another, creating a sustained nervy mood and pacing his startling jolts with confident assurance. If the memorable 1990 TV mini-series scarred a generation by making the killer clown a genre staple, this big-screen It is more the stuff of current zeitgeist nightmares.
Cleverly placed in the exact time period that King’s book was written – posters of Gremlins, Lethal Weapon and Beetle Juice are used as frames of reference as much as set dressing – the plot focusses firmly on the first encounter that seven outcast tweens have with a shape-shifting entity in their Maine home town of Derry, a place with six times the national average for child deaths.
Dubbing themselves the Loser’s Club, the ostracised youngsters hesitantly investigate the ancient evil that returns every 27 years to satisfy its bloodlust by feeding on the fears and darkness lurking within their souls, manipulating them to bring about death and destruction, and then luring the septet to its lair in the heart of Derry’s dank sewer system for the spectacularly heart-stopping finale.
Unlike the book and mini-series, this skilfully streamlined version has the uniformly great teen actors – especially Sophia Lillis (playing Beverly) and Jeremy Ray Taylor (as Ben) whose fledgling romantic connection is sweet and engagingly real – face less tangible personal demons than the original and more obvious 50s movie-monster ciphers.
The result is better-sustained suspense, where the threats feel palpable, fully developed and the nasty punches aren’t pulled. Running the gore gamut from a headless body, live abstract painting and slideshow clown-out, the scream-de-la-crème is the bloody bathroom nerve-jangler, the stand-out shocker moment on a memorable par with The Shining’s lift sequence.
Such affectionate cinematic references to King give It a fun nostalgic texture; the aura and patina of the fondly re-imagined perfect childhood summer, shot through with a stark darkness, often feels like a Norman Rockwell painting brought to foreboding life. But it’s the epic nod to the 80s movies of Steven Spielberg that delivers real scope and clout – think The Goonies meets Stand by Me with a smidgen of hip Netflix show Stranger Things.
King’s uncanny gift for writing about kids and re-creating what childhood adolescence is really like, has been wonderfully transposed here while hewing to the author’s basic tenets: of innocence being most vulnerable to corruption, of abuse of the weak, and of ultimate good making a courageous stand in the face of overwhelming terror.
That powerful amalgamation of angst and anguish is given a potent realism by Muschietti, something even the bravest of horror masters have often been reluctant to handle.
Unforgettable Tim Curry’s lip-smacking portrayal of sinister Pennywise the clown – the primeval entity’s more acceptable camouflage to humans – was the mini-series’s trump card. But that luridly cheap Coco the Circus Clown disguise has been eschewed here for a more classic 19th-century Grimaldi aesthetic, one that classy Bill Skarsgård mines for every ounce of chilling menace.
His mimed taunting is both amusing and scary at the same time, nowhere better employed than in the opening prologue where one victim gets his first glimpse of Pennywise in a sidewalk drain. Muschietti sets up the entire story in deceptively simple brush strokes, so you anxiously but fearfully want to see him again, a conflicting emotion the director brilliantly teases out with quick Pennywise peeks when least expected.
While the ending and good word-of-mouth posits the notion of a Chapter 2 (the second part of the mini-series dealt with the grown-up Loser’s Club returning to the scene of their first evil eviction), it’s the openness and initial vulnerability of the young cast that makes this work like a charm.
Then Muschietti, who totally gets the perverse beauty of horror, slowly and skilfully brings It to a crescendo of screeching calamity that vindicates the adaptation’s tortured, long-in-development history. Proving just what can be done with a now familiar concept if lavished with care, attention and craft, It really is one of the most gripping and glowing Stephen King movie adaptations.
Review by Alan Jones
Released in cinemas on Friday 8 September.