Content Warning / Trigger Warning: Sewer Clowns.
The new adaptation of Stephen King‘s It starring Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Clown is one of the best scary movies in a long time and even puts itself in the running for one of the best adaptations of King’s work. It’s scary. It’s funny. It’s nostalgic. But most of all, it keeps the focus where it should be — on the kids who call themselves “The Losers Club” — to deliver a poignant, touching story about growing up, loss, fear, and grief. And on top of that, it’s just a great scary movie.
But it’s not just a scary movie. Most surprising is just how funny it is at times. The Losers Club talk more like the kids from South Park (and therefore like your average 13 year old) and the humor helps cut the tension in important ways.
And yes, the film is scary. And not just in the easy-jump-scare-loud-noise scare we’ve become accustomed to. Since the monster feeds on fears, we see supremely disturbing and scary images brought to life. This is layered on top of super-creepy atmosphere that lurks under the idyllic charms of small town pastiche.
Director Andy Muschietti understands his craft and understands how to layer on the fright. Like any good magic trick, there’s the set up, suspense building, and the big reveal.
And the big reveal here is the film’s Pennywise the Clown. While they certainly show plenty of Pennywise in the film, they definitely take a less-is-more approach with him. Bill Skarsgård is fantastic. He’s taking as much of a page from Heath Ledger’s Joker (and Mark Hamill’s Joker) as he is from Tim Curry’s portrayal, and the results are creepy and intense.
The less-is-more approach with Pennywise means the focus ends up back where it belongs: the kids. And these kids are fantastic. Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent, Midnight Special) gets top billing as Bill, whose brother George is the first victim in the film. Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) is another familiar face who is no stranger to the nostalgia-laden horror story. But here he really gets to break loose as the kid with the dirtiest mouth and dirtiest mind, giving breath to the unfettered id that it is to be a 13 year old boy.
But the best performance among them is from Sophia Lillis, the lone female in the Losers Club. She is both independent and strong, while also vulnerable and scared. With her home life as much of a hellscape as anything involving evil sewer clowns, she brings an extra layer of emotion beyond anything any of the boys do.
Gone are so many of the affectations and deep worldbuilding of King’s original story– and it’s for the better. There is no jumping back and forth between times and adult and child versions of the main characters. There is no greater mysticism, giant turtles or spiders, or mumbo-jumbo. There is (thankfully) no child orgy. By jettisoning so much of this and focusing on a simple monster vs. kids story, we get the distilled essence of what makes King’s story work in the first place.
Purists will definitely have a problem with this adaptation, but one way to approach this is that the film seems more inspired by other great Stephen King adaptations, like Stand By Me, and other classic 80’s kid-centric adventure movies like The Goonies, Space Camp, Flight of the Navigator, D.A.R.Y.L., Big, War Games, Weird Science, The Neverending Story, or Explorers than by the original source material. But, fear not– the film leaves itself wide open for the inevitable sequel, ostensibly the story of the adult versions of our characters. . . which would be set today.
The movie makes possibly the smartest choice of all in making this a period piece set in the 80’s. Not only does that allow for maximum nostalgia, but it also keeps the story simple. Without things like cell phones, social media, helicopter parenting, etc, it makes it normal for kids to be outside riding their bikes, exploring sewers, and swimming in quarries. Yes, it even has a “cleaning up” montage with a jaunty soundtrack (in this case The Cure’s “Six Different Ways” — a deep cut from one of their best and most under-recognized albums). There are also dozens of Easter Eggs throughout the movie, from the movies on the marquee of the local theater to posters the kids have on their walls. It’s enough to make any 80’s or 90’s kid’s heart flutter.
And this is, again, where the film draws smartly from things like Stand By Me. The same sort of childhood nostalgia for the 1950’s audiences had in the 80’s (see also Back to the Future) is what many audiences feel now. So of course it makes sense to update this and set the film in the 80’s.
It is not a perfect film. It suffers from a few convenient plot holes and contrivances, but no worse than your average Marvel movie. And despite wearing its heart on its sleeve when confronting fears and grief, it doesn’t feel like we’re treading any really new ground here. That could be because we’re talking about the adaptation of a thirty year old novel. Or it could be that any film that comes out in 2017, especially of the horror genre, is going to have to stack up against the social commentary and innovation of Get Out.
So it’s not the rebirth of cool– so what? It’s still an incredibly fun flick that will make you spill your popcorn bucket in fright and make you nostalgic for 1989 and that awesome, scary, fun time of being 13. You’ll float, too.
4 out of 5 stars