Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Andy Muschietti
Stars: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, Stuart Hughes, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Molly Atkinson, Stephen Bogaert.
It is set in the summer of 1989. Children have been going missing from the streets of the fictional small town of Derry, and a curfew has been enforced. Seven teenaged outcasts, known self-deprecatingly as “the losers’ club”, band together to defeat Pennywise and save the town. But they also confront their own fears and personal demons, as well as face some real, very human monsters. And there is also the town bully Henry Bowers (Australian actor Nicholas Hamilton, from Strangerland, etc) to contend with.
This band of misfits includes the guilt-ridden Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, from St Vincent, etc), who is the de facto leader of the bunch. He is still grieving over the disappearance of his younger brother Georgie, who was dragged into the sewers by the killer clown while chasing his paper boat down the street in pouring rain. The tomboyish Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) tries to avoid the unhealthy attentions of her creepy and abusive father. The studious and inquisitive Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the typical fat kid who is bullied at school and is something of a loner until befriended by Beverly. Hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) suffers from allergies and lives under the watchful eye of his over protective mother. The orphaned Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) is haunted by visions of the fatal fire that killed his parents. Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), the son of the local rabbi, and the wise cracking Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) round out this small clique of loners and losers.
Like the best of King’s novels, It is a dense, richly layered work with lots of subplots, well developed characters and backstories, and a strong sense of setting and place. It was previously filmed as a two-part miniseries in 1990, which starred Tim Curry (from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, etc). This feature film version is a superior horror film.
The trio of scriptwriters – first time feature writer Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman (the Annabelle series, etc) and Cary Fukunaga (who was originally slated to direct before stepping aside) have remained reasonably faithful to the source material, and they capture the essence of King’s 1100-page opus. They have concentrated on the first part of the novel here, and they have updated the setting from the 50s to the 80s. The film is steeped in a sense of nostalgia for the period, and seems to have been heavily influenced by the likes of Stand By Me and The Goonies. The film deals with some universal themes like loss, grief, death, abuse, bullying, dysfunctional families, friendship, loyalty, resilience, facing your fears. The film is also littered with meta references to many of King’s other stories – a scene in which a bathroom is bathed in blood will have many recalling his classic The Shining.
Director Andy Muschietti (Mama, etc) comes from a background in horror, and he effectively raises the tension, and he also brings a nastier edge to the source material that has been missing from many recent horror films. The film is quite atmospheric, with some quite creepy and suspenseful set pieces. Our first introduction to the character of Pennywise is quite disturbing. The town of Derry itself reeks of corruption. There is also some superb production design from Claude Pare (Night At The Museum, etc), which effectively creates the sinister Well House, the dilapidated old crumbling house on the outskirts of town that is Pennywise’s lair. The dark cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung (Stoker, etc) is also very atmospheric and unsettling. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score also adds to the mood of the material.
Pennywise is another creation that earns a place in the pantheon of great horror movie characters alongside Freddy Krueger and Mike Myers. Bill Skarsgard (from tv series Hemlock Grove and the recent Atomic Blonde, etc) steps into the shoes of Pennywise, the scary killer clown who was modelled on the notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy. This role was previously played to good effect by a truly malevolent Curry in the 1990 miniseries, but Skarsgard brings a different, more predatory and unsettling approach to his performance. It’s a very physical performance and he seems to be channelling Heath Ledger’s Joker, with his manic energy and chilling laugh.
The young and relatively unknown cast all are solid; they have a natural screen presence and they develop a strong chemistry. They also make us care about these characters and their fate. Lillis brings plenty of spunk and attitude to her role as the tomboyish Beverly. Wolfhard (from the tv series Stranger Things, etc) provides some much-needed comic relief with his performance as Richie.
It seems ironic that this film about a demonic presence that emerges every 27 years has been released 27 years after the mini-series hit the small screen. But thankfully we won’t have to wait 27 years for Part 2, in which the outcasts return to Derry as adults to once again do battle with the evil spirit.