Cleverly hyped and marketed in a fashion that would make the old exploitation pioneers proud (scary clown murals painted around town, red balloons tied to sewer grates, etc.), the first instalment of Andy Muschietti’s new adaptation of Stephen King’s epic tome IT may not work on every level but it still succeeds as not only a very good and well-crafted ride through a cinematic haunted house, but as a surprisingly strong piece of characterization and storytelling.
The first adaptation of IT was produced in 1990 as a two-part TV movie, and while enjoyable the trappings of network television at the time were clearly evident in its production values and rather flat look. But New Line Cinema and Warner Brothers have clearly thrown a lot of money at this new version, and the expense seems justified as the film looks spectacular and feels like the kind of horror cinema we enjoyed back in the 1980s, when this version of IT is set, although there is a definite injection of a more modern, STRANGER THINGS vibe, which you will either love or hate depending on how you felt about that Netflix series. This is well worth seeing on the biggest screen possible, and in a theatre with a good sound system as the film’s aural soundscape definitely enhances its impact.
I was initially unimpressed with the first images released of Bill Skarsgård in character as IT’s iconic face of evil, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but seeing him perform on screen I was completely sold on him within a few seconds of him making his first appearance. Skarsgård is not as showy as Tim Curry’s beloved Pennywise from the 1990 version, nor does he get as much screen time, but whenever he does appear he makes for a truly nightmarish visage, not just frightening but creepy and often doing things with his body and eyes that impressed me as much as they disturbed me. And it was good to see the film explore It’s shapeshifting abilities and alternate visages in a bit more depth.
While the film has some good scares (which will probably be more effective to those unfamiliar with the story), where IT really succeeds is in the terrific casting and the creation of young characters with some depth that we come to really care about, which helps make the tension even more palpable when they are being threatened. I have heard some people compare IT to THE GOONIES (1985), but as someone who doesn’t care one bit for that Richard Donner film I was very happy and much relieved to discover it was much less THE GOONIES and much more STAND BY ME with monsters.
With strong reviews and predictions of big box-office, it seems a certainty that Muschietti will get the green light to proceed with the second half of his adaption of the King novel (which has the young characters reuniting as adults to combat It when the entity reappears 27 years later). I’m looking forward to it already.