Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
It is a coming-of-age horror film released in 2017 and is based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King.The film follows the efforts of a group of children to rid their hometown of an ancient and unfathomable evil that stalks the inhabitants of Derry, Maine. The film stars Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer and Bill Skarsgård while the film was directed by Andy Muschietti. The film had been in development for a number of years and was originally going to be directed by Cary Fukunaga, whose name is attached to the screenplay. Critics were impressed by the film with some calling it one of the best King adaptations ever made while audiences flocked to see the film, which took more than $700 million - the most ever for a horror film. It would be followed by It: Chapter Two in 2019.
What's it about?
During a heavy rainstorm in October 1988, Bill Denbrough makes a paper boat for his younger brother Georgie to play with. However, Georgie's boat quickly disappears down a drain. As Georgie tries to see where it went, he is startled to find a clown called Pennywise in the sewer who has retrieved Georgie's boat and is offering it back to him. Unsettled by Pennywise's demeanour, Georgie nevertheless attempts to grab his boat from the clown - who then shows his true colours by ripping Georgie's arm off and dragging the body into the sewer, never to be seen again.
The following summer, Bill (who is still haunted by his younger brother's disappearance) persuades his school friends Richie, Stan and Eddie to help search a marshy wasteland called The Barrens for any sign of Georgie. Running afoul of local bully Henry Bowers and his gang, they quickly meet fellow 'losers' Ben Hanscom and Beverly Marsh as well as befriending orphaned Mike Hanlon. As their investigations progress, they discover that tragedy always seem to strike the town of Derry every 27 years and all of them have had visions of the same monstrous clown...
Trailer (contains disturbing images)
What's to like?
Given the high regard that the 1990 mini-series is still held in, It was up against some high expectations from the start but thankfully this more than meets the challenge. From Skarsgård's terrifying performance as cinema's least popular children's entertainner to the core group of seven kids that make up the Loser's Club, the film is loaded with quality in the casting from top to bottom. I liked the fact that I didn't recognise any of the cast but if there's any justice in the world then all of them should grow into genuine stars. I especially enjoyed Lillis' feisty tomboy, Lieberher's stammering hero and Taylor's love-lorn bullying victim. The film spends a lot of time with these kids and allows them to become actual people with genuine fears, something which becomes more apparent as time goes on.
But fans of the novel or the TV series will be more interested in Skarsgård as Pennywise, the shape-shifting haunter of dreams and consumer of children. His portrayal feels more nastier and less comical than Tim Curry's performance but both actors capture the playful charm and primal rage of the character with worrying ease. Pennywise here feels like a threat at all times but more than that, he has an insidious quality that seeps into the film like a cancer, appearing in places where he should not be. I especially enjoyed the projector sequence which doesn't just illustrate how cunning and subtle Pennywise can be but also how truly terrifying when the urge takes him.
- The film was hugely successful at the box office, taking $123 million in its opening weekend which was double the previous record held by Paranormal Activity 3. To date, it is the highest grossing adaptation of a Stephen King novel - beating films like The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
- Skarsgård was kept away from the young cast during filming while Muschietti warned the kids how scary the clown was going to be. All of them dismissed this as they were all professionals but on the first day of shooting with Skarsgård, they were all genuinely terrified.
- The film had been in development hell since 2009. Initially, an adaptation was written by David Kajganich but this was scrapped after Fukunaga was announced as director and co-writer in 2012. Fukunaga then dropped out of the project in 2015 after clashes with the studio over budget cuts and Muschietti then took over as director. It is unknown how much of Kajganich's script was used for the shoot.
What's not to like?
Obviously, a true horror film needs to be an unsettling and disturbing experience for the viewer - otherwise, what's the point? It is both of these things and more with a genuinely frightful antagonist, relatable but vulnerable heroes and a director with a keen eye for horror. Muschietti displays some visual trickery regarding Pennywise's nature as the character contorts, flickers and morphs on screen. It's most noticeable when he comes charging towards us, the viewer but sometimes I felt it distracted from the overall affect of being viciously hunted by a clown with endless rows of teeth. Frankly, I'm not sure the character needed such enhancement as it doesn't necessarily make him scarier. If anything, the warped flautist in the painting that pursues Stanley is just as chilling.
Not having read the book (and not likely to either!), I can't claim to know how close the film is to the source material other than the understandable omission of an orgy between the kids. But I'm guessing that the book doesn't have as many cultural references on display as the film did. I know the book is partially set in the 1950s but It has cinema displays, t-shirts, bedroom posters and more offering a wry look at the films, bands and pop culture zeitgeist at the time. Again, I just felt that it took me out of the picture briefly - this isn't Stranger Things but it almost feels like it wants to be. I also felt that the film relied too much on jump-scares, so much in fact that even a relative horror newbie like myself could spot them coming. For the most part, the film is a look at the loss of innocence by these children whether it's realising that their own fears must be confronted or learning of the apathy displayed by most of the town's adults regarding the frequent disappearance of their children. But don't think that this film wimps out on the blood and guts - there are some sequences that are repulsive, gruesome and over-the-top so I'm sure proper horror fans won't feel short-changed.
Should I watch it?
More than just an updating on King's classic novel, It succeeds in being a proper horror film that almost makes a mockery of its 15 certificate. This is dark, disturbing and unforgettable in a way that few horror films are these days. Having said that, the film would benefit from some new ideas and techniques to give audiences something we've never seen before instead of relying on traditional horror tropes. But as a film to move you to the edge of your seat before making you jump out of it, it works just fine.
Great For: horror veterans & newbies alike, fans of King's novel, oppressed children (over 15, of course!), anyone with a phobia of clowns (who will be doubly effected by this film)
Not So Great For: actual clowns, anyone afraid of the dark, anyone who hasn't seen the 1990 TV series, my mother
What else should I watch?
Without sounding too obvious, It: Chapter Two now becomes essential viewing after watching this film as it follows the now-adult Loser's Club reform to battle Pennywise once again. Now featuring big name stars like James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader, the film was not as well received as this first movie with critics calling it over-long and unwieldy. King and cinema have had a long and fruitful relationship through the years with classic horror films like The Shining and Carrie, unsettling thrillers like Misery and even action films like The Running Man. However, for every film as great as Stand By Me, there is a flop like The Dark Tower or any one of a number of sequels to Children Of The Corn. Like a heroine in one of King's novels, I'd advise viewers to tread carefully.
One film that was compared to It by a number of critics was Wes Craven's A Nightmare On Elm Street in which the antagonist Freddy Krueger is also a shape-shifting, reality warping killer of children who feeds off their fears. Having seen it a long time ago and not being particularly impressed by it, I've also said that some of the best horror films are more psychological and simply jumping-at-the-scary-killer train rides that Hollywood seems ever more obsessed with. Japanese cinema agrees with me and with films like Ring, Audition and the ever-expanding Ju-On franchise, some of the very best horror films I've ever seen come from the Land Of The Rising Sun. Just don't say I didn't warn you.
Pennywise The Dancing Clown
Jeremy Ray Taylor
Jack Dylan Grazer
Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga & Gary Dauberman*
Release Date (UK)
8th September, 2017
© 2019 Benjamin Cox