Director: Andy Muschietti.
Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, Owen Teague, Stuart Hughes, Jake Sim, Stephen Bogaert, and Molly Atkinson.
Andy Muschietti’s It lets us know right from the opening scene that it means business. Anyone familiar with the story knows exactly what scene I’m talking about. It involves a small child in a yellow rain slicker named Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) chasing a paper boat as it’s being washed down a storm drain during a heavy rain storm. He gets on all fours to get a better look inside the sewer, and there he meets Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), who claims to have been blown into the sewer by the storm.
While Pennywise holds up the boat and offers it back to Georgie, we know something isn’t right with the clown, and not just because his eyes seem to glow in the dark and change from orange to blue. Pennywise charms the child into reaching for the boat, and what happens next is best left unsaid here, although for those who have read the best-selling 1986 Stephen King book, you know it isn’t going to be pretty (yes, the movie does go that far). For those of you who haven’t read it, be prepared: It isn’t pretty at all.
Muschietti shows here that he’s not going to sugar-coat the extent of Pennywise’s evil, and while the gore is certainly unsettling, Muschietti never takes it too far and allows it to become exploitative. This is, at times, an incredibly gruesome film (the bloody bathroom scene disturbed the hell out of me), although the scare scenes are not dependent on the blood and gore. Muschietti knows how to ratchet up tension by using shadows, carefully composed shots, and whispering voices, especially during a scene where a creepy painting of a disturbing looking, flute-playing woman comes to life and attacks someone.
He’s aided considerably by an incredibly talented behind the scenes crew, with production designer Claude Paré, set decorator Rosalie Board, and art director Peter Grundy’s work on the dilapidated Well House serving as a master class in visual horror. Occasionally, the movie relies heavily on CGI effects, and it’s in those moments that the movie takes on the feel of a carnival fun house. That is to say that the movie is not quite as bone-chillingly terrifying as the trailers made it seem, yet even with that said, the movie is still pretty darn creepy.
A large part of the movie’s success is due to the stellar performances turned in by the seven kids who form The Losers gang. You know kids like The Losers. You went to school with them, and may have even been friends with them. Muschietti and screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman do an excellent job of not only establishing and developing the personalities of the kids, but also investing you in the their personal struggles, some of which is just as scary the evil clown that’s trying to kill them. For example, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the lone girl in the group, lives with a father who is sexually abusive, while the stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) has grown distant from his family since the death of his kid brother Georgie (there’s a sad shot of him sitting by himself at the dinner table at night).
There’s also a surprising amount of heart in the film, which is saying something, given that the horror scenes hardly ever stop coming. There’s a real sweetness when the chubby new kid in town Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) develops a crush on Beverly and writes her a poem on a postcard. There’s a stand-up-and-cheer moment when The Losers come to the aid of the black home-schooled kid Mike (Chosen Jacobs) by throwing rocks at the racist bullies tormenting him. Those scenes, plus the one where Beverly shops solo for tampons and the boys gawk at her while she sunbathes at the quarry, add up to a funny, insightful, and compelling coming-of-age drama.
It helps that the kids are as good as they are. Lieberher is terrific as a kid who was forced to grow up too fast following the death of his brother, and Lillis is absolutely revelatory as the tomboy Beverly, with a standout scene where she cuts her hair as an act of defiance against her father. Finn Wolfhard, from Stranger Things, is given the film’s best and funniest lines as the bespectacled Richie, and Jack Dylan Grazer is absolutely lovable as the hypochondriac Eddie. Jacobs and Wyatt Oleff as Jewish kid Stanley (who’s preparing for his bar mitzvah) are not given as much screen time as the others, but they make every scene they’re in count.
As a drama, It is terrific, and it’s because the drama is so good that the movie is so effective as a horror movie. We love these kids, and we’re scared for them when the evil Pennywise shows up. Bill Skarsgård takes the role of Pennywise and makes it his own, creating an intensely sinister figure just with his creepy-eyed smile alone. Unlike Tim Curry’s performance in the 1990 miniseries, there is nothing goofy or playful about this Pennywise. Even when he’s doing a goofy dance at the climax, there’s something really creepy and off-putting about it.
Special mention must also be made to Nicholas Hamilton as the mullet-headed bully Henry Bowers, a character who can be just as disturbing as Pennywise the clown. In an earlier scene, he tries carving his initials into poor Ben’s stomach, and as the movie goes on, it becomes clear that the kid is a serial killer in the making. I wouldn’t dream of telling you some of the things his character does later in the movie, but Hamilton is frighteningly convincing in the role. I can’t image too many people went to school with a bully like this (I didn’t, at least), but if you did, then count your blessings that you’re still alive.
As a period piece set in 1989, It made me smile on many occasions, from seeing Batman and Lethal Weapon 2 advertised at a local theater to seeing Richie playing Street Fighter at the arcade. As a horror movie, the movie contains its fair share of frightening and disturbing images, including the scene involving a headless zombie with a handful of Easter eggs, as well as the “You’ll float too!” scene we’ve seen in so many of the advertisements (which doesn’t play out as the trailers showed). As a drama, the movie is flawless. It works on so many levels, that it deserves to become a hit at the box office.
There are a few unanswered questions left in the movie, such as what Pennywise actually is and why he seems to target children. I'm sure the second film will go into further detail, and since it's been announced that the second film is scheduled to be released in 2019, I'm looking forward to finding out.
Final Grade: *** ½ (out of ****)
Rated R for bloody violence, disturbing images, profanity, teenage smoking