“It” Review: Don’t Miss “It” by Justin Nordell
I was in the third grade and already a die-hard horror fan when I first pulled It off of my aunt’s bookshelf. Having just moved to a new school following my parents’ divorce, I found solace in the group of friends I made in the novel’s characters: the Losers Club. Sure, the kids were a few years older than me… and in a book, but here was a group of fellow new kids, outcasts, and broken homed children whose lives sucked just slightly more than I felt mine did at the time… because they also had the distinction of being tormented by a centuries old malevolent force taking the form of their deepest fears, and in the off moments, as Pennywise the Clown. The book terrified me.
Stephen King’s It has scared millions of unofficial members of The Losers Club for decades and finally makes its way to the big screen after a foray on the small screen in 1990 – an oft fondly remembered, but quite actually terrible TV miniseries (there’s a reason John Ritter is remembered for sitcoms) – and a tumultuous behind the scenes journey that saw cast and director changes galore. Despite all this, we all know what matters is the final product itself. Losers everywhere… breathe a sigh of relief: It is fantastic.
Opening on a rainy day in 1988’s Derry, Maine, we’re introduced to brothers Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent) and Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) who are prepping a paper sailboat to take advantage of the storm. With Bill sick in bed, Georgie gets to be the sole captain, and, armed with the walkie talkie, yellow slicker, and rain boots heads out to set sail. It isn’t long before the rainwater’s current sweeps the boat far ahead of Georgie who struggles to keep up. The boat is swept down a storm drain and, not wanting to upset his brother, Georgie attempts to retrieve it, only to be taken aback by a clown in the drain. While any normal person would scream “OH HELLLLL NO THAT BOAT IS PAPER AND I’M RUNNING HOME NOW,” this is a kid we’re talking about, and Georgie engages with the sewer dweller, who in turn introduces himself as Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard – yes there are more Skarsgards, Atomic Blonde). Pennywise entices Georgie to join him in the sewer for their mutual favorite circus treat (popcorn, naturally), but Georgie just wants to get home to Bill. Georgie reaches into the sewer drain to retrieve his boat… and the rest is horror movie history. Do I have to say spoiler alert for a thirty-year-old novel? I hope not, as Georgie’s death is bloody, unnerving, and destroys every ‘you can’t kill a child’ trope to become downright iconic. These first ten minutes of the film set the tone for whether or not you’ll love the feature: fans of the novel will be devastated all over again, and horror fans everywhere will be delighted.
Georgie’s “disappearance” sets in motion an obsessive Bill who ropes his best friends Richie (a scene-stealing Finn Wolfhard, “Stranger Things”), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer, the forthcoming “Me, Myself, and I”), and Stan (Wyatt Olef, Guardians of the Galaxy) into spending their summer searching for clues on Georgie and an increasing number of other missing kids, while avoiding the beatings of Henry the town bully (Nicholas Hamilton, Captain Fantastic) and his crew. While the self-dubbed Losers Club gets closer and closer to the truth, they begin to be plagued by visions of their worst fears come to life (including a film-only fright of a Modigliani painting come to life that, while a bit obtuse for most moviegoers, will haunt even the most discerning art enthusiast). Elsewhere, homeschooler Mike (Chosen Jacobs, “Hawaii-Five-0”), new kid on the block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip), and teen gossip victim Beverly (Sophia Lillis, 37) receive similar torments from not just Pennywise the Clown, but the town bullies as well, the latter of which unites them together and empowers them to take on the greater evil.
While the 1990 “It” miniseries relegated the childhood trauma of the Losers Club and their battles with Pennywise the Clown to a series of flashbacks, screenwriter (and original director) Cary Fukunaga (“True Detective”… the good season) and rewriters Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman (the current reigning horror box office champ Annabelle: Creation) have wisely chosen to dedicate the entirety of the film to the teens. The result is a coming-of-age horror master work that somehow manages to give endearing, fully developed character arcs to six of the seven Losers (sorry Stan).
It exists in both the pre and post “Stranger Things” world we live in, highlighting the influences that It obviously had on the cultural phenomenon while succumbing to the series’ dynamics and structures… and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. These are kids acting like kids, using kid logic, and making stupid kid decisions as they struggle in the horrors of their personal lives (with allusions to child molestation, Munchausen by proxy, and overbearing Jewish parents) and the burden that they are seemingly the only ones willing and capable of stopping Pennywise the Clown before the children of Derry suffer further. It’s heavy stuff handled remarkably well through standout performances by six of the seven Losers (again, sorry Stan) and a surprisingly deft directorial hand by Andy Muschietti (whose debut Mama I refer to as “that Jessica Chastain in a wig movie”). While so many horror films highlight the terror their character’s face, they do so with the audience in mind and ultimately at the film’s expense. Remarkably, It does so for the characters themselves and pulls the audience eagerly along for the ride, as swiftly as a paper boat in a rainstorm.
Horror fans will appreciate the well-constructed scares and flashes of gore (though the first few get quite repetitive in the hands of a novice director), while King fans will appreciate the care given to translate and update the source novel (though I missed the mummy, werewolves, and leeches). But even if you don’t fall into either of those two camps, there is something to connect to in It for you. While not perfect, It has a near perfect combination of smart writing, stellar performances, chilling sequences, well-timed humor, and the secret weapon that is Bill Skarsgard (whose Pennywise fully eclipses Tim Curry’s beloved but wackadoo performance) to propel it to truly become a new classic.