A dark and rainy day. Standing on her porch, a woman and her cat catch sight of a boy as he lingers in front of a storm drain. Moments later, both of them look back to see a pool of blood flowing into the drain and the boy gone. Unbeknownst to them, the scourge of their town has returned.
Twenty-seven years after the television mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s hugely popular novel which villainized clowns forever, Andy Muschietti, director of the horror film “Mama,” brings “It” to the big screen for the first time. Muschietti’s version ratchets up the violence echoed throughout the novel, and his “It” pays greater attention to its source material.
Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), a chronic stutterer, Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), hygienically-obsessed and sheltered, Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), a soon-to-be bar mitzvah boy, Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), always quick with a joke, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a heavyset new kid in town, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), a misunderstood tomboy, and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), a home-schooled African-American boy, are a group of friends belonging to the self-dubbed “Losers Club” and living in Derry, Maine.
The kids are being tormented by different personifications of their greatest fears, some being accompanied by the presence of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard). Ben, the group’s local historian, reveals to them the extent of his research into Derry’s dark pas. They attribute the town’s terrible happenings, including the disappearances of countless numbers of children, to some kind of monster which awakens every 27 years to wreak havoc on Derry in the physical form of Pennywise. The “losers” band together to face their fears and destroy the monster holding the town in its evil grasp.
One aspect of the film which fans of the book will appreciate is that the monster actually takes the forms of each of the kids’ greatest fears, as opposed to the mini-series, which nearly solely featured appearances by Tim Curry as Pennywise. Those personifications, perhaps with the exception of Stan’s, lend a nice dose of emotional gravitas and insight into what has shaped who they are. On the other hand, the personification of Richie’s fear provides an irony which gives the audience a different kind of insight.
Speaking of the kids, some of the personalities in the Losers Club are the best parts of the movie. Wolfhard of “Stranger Things” fame offsets the horror with a multitude of verbal zingers mostly directed at Grazer, who is more than happy to dish much of the same right back at him. The standout performance in the group, however, is definitely Lillis. She effectively shifts back and forth between the tough exterior she has to develop from being falsely labeled as the most promiscuous girl in school to moments of sheer sadness and torment which stem from the “close” relationship she has with her father (Stephen Bogaert). The group does partake in several bonding moments, such as a swimming sequence at Derry’s quarry, but there could have been a bit more done to get the audience more personally invested in its members.
Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise is a bit of a double-edged sword. Compared to Tim Curry’s campy and at times over-the-top performance, which also treats Pennywise like he is a human, Skarsgard is more faithful to the novel because he portrays Pennywise as an alien being unfamiliar in proper interaction with humans. This unfamiliarity makes Pennywise seem much more twisted in his actions. Skarsgard’s Pennywise is definitely creepy, especially when setting the scene and atmosphere to frighten the kids, but his Pennywise is not quite scary enough. It was a good idea, however, to change Pennywise’s wardrobe to reflect his extended time of existence on Earth.
“It” is an effective first part of King’s gargantuan novel. Hopefully, the saga of the Losers Club as adults can equal or surpass part one. Regardless, before Pennywise disappears from the kids’ sight, his last word to them is no doubt foreboding of things to come: “Fear.”