Our story begins on a gloomy October day: through the near torrential rain, a boy in a duck-yellow rain-mac chases a paper boat down the street, a splash of sunshine in the grey. What could be more innocent? But this story is Stephen King’s IT and this little boy is Georgie Denborough: the moment his paper boat falls down a storm drain, his fate is sealed. Of course, IT has been adapted for the screen before, the small screen, with the 1990 mini-series for America’s ABC network. An adaption where the first half, it’s largely agreed, is more enjoyable than the second, and Tim Curry’s brilliant, if slightly campy, performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown is what holds it all together. However, with the benefit of more money, better technology, no network restrictions and a more grown up classification (R in the US, 15 here in the UK), Argentinian director Andrés Muschietti’s big screen adaptation is not only a lot more faithful to its original source material but much more consistent in terms of quality.
The opening encounter between Georgie and Pennywise is incredibly creepy and uncomfortable, the tension increasing before culminating in a sudden and shocking act of violence, showing the film, literally and figuratively, has teeth. Instead of attempting to tackle adapting a thousand-page novel in one two-hour film, the decision has been made to split the story into two chapters: this first film, ‘chapter 1’, which focuses on the children and their first encounter with the entity known as ‘it’ and a second which will see them return as adults to finish ‘it’ once and for all (which now looks to be official, seeing as, at the time of writing this, the film has grossed nearly $500 million worldwide against its $35 million budget and Warner Brothers have now announced a projected release date for IT: Chapter 2 of September 6th, 2019). This means that this film has an organic ending, able to stand on its own, and a more linear narrative – as opposed to the two intercutting time periods of the novel, something the miniseries tried to emulate with mixed results – benefits the pacing.
Another change that’s been made is moving the setting from the late 1950s to the late 1980s, which not only updates the story without harming it but makes it something of a genre throwback to 80s horror (Muschietti’s love, not only for King’s original novel but the work of people like Clive barker & John Carpenter, is clear) and kids’ adventure movies such as The Goonies and Monster Squad.
IT is brilliantly designed and shot with some very creepy and macabre set pieces, including a claustrophobic chase through a library basement and the famous ‘blood erupting from the sink’ scene in Beverly Marsh’s bathroom, a damp squib in the mini-series but here makes the climax from Carrie look clean. There’s also quite a bit of subtle horror, such as the scene with Ben in the library: as he’s reading up on Derry history, there are several shots where, in the background, an elderly librarian, who before was stacking a shelf, has now turned to stare at Ben – and by extension, the audience – with a predatory grin, before going back to shelving as if nothing happened. It’s almost blink and you’ll miss it but leaves you with a chill at the base of your spine.
This and similar moments tie into the theme that, for all the supernatural horror, oftentimes it is the human monsters that are scariest, and the idea that ‘it’ has subconscious control of all the adults in town.
But, of course, even the best-looking films need a good cast and IT has this in spades. First, you can’t have a film about an evil killer clown without an evil killer clown. Enter Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard. In contrast to Curry’s portrayal, Skarsgard’s Pennywise is more overtly hostile and fantastically sinister, with only a grin needed to give you a serious case of the willies. If you had any reservations as to whether Skarsgard could fill Curry’s shoes, leave them at the door. But the heart of the film is the Losers Club and these kids are brilliant: you believe in their friendship and camaraderie, rooting for them to come through all this unscathed. And brilliant though they all are, particular mention must go to Midnight Special’s Jaeden Lieberher, who lends determination and sincerity to the role of leader and grieving big brother Bill Denborough, relative newcomer Sophia Lillis, who easily makes Beverly the most badass of the bunch and Stranger Things actor Finn Wolfhard as Richie ‘Trashmouth’ Tozier, who not only gets a lot of the best lines but also tends to steal whatever scene he’s in.
Because, for all the supernatural shenanigans, IT isn’t just a horror story: it’s also a coming of age story about the power and importance of friendship. Consequently, this film is also really funny: from humour blacker than treacle (Pennywise waving at Mike Hanlon with a severed arm anyone?) to moments between the kids that range from sweet to hilariously awkward, cringey sex jokes peppering the air like bullets. From the opening strains of ‘Oranges & Lemons’ to the last echo of Pennywise’s laughter, IT takes your emotions on a joyride the speed of which is almost whiplash inducing.
Veteran horror fans may not find it as scary as they want it to be but my god is it enormous fun. Luckily, we won’t have to wait another 27 years for chapter 2.