The self-designated “Losers’ Club”—comprised of stuttering Bill Denbrough, hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak, overweight new-kid-on-the-block Ben Hanscom, bespectacled potty-mouth Richie Tozier, impoverished Beverly Marsh, African-American homeschooler Mike Hanlon, and Jewish germophobe Stanley Uris--face particularly tumultuous childhoods and adolescences while being stalked by an unknown entity able to wield their most deep-seated fears against them.
There’s a reason these kids call themselves the Losers. Besides the seemingly invincible threat posed by the nightmarish creature responsible for the death of Bill’s younger brother Georgie, now after them in the form of the killer clown Pennywise, they face dismal home situations, in which they’re regularly subjected to one form of abuse or another, while also being bullied by Henry Bowers’ psycho gang. In between the angst and loneliness and torture there’s not much time for enjoying simple coming-of-age pleasures. One of the film’s strengths is how it pops with brightness and even hopefulness in various group scenes, when the Losers experience a rare moment of collective fun or idleness. The screenplay--by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman—leverages this lightness, as well as the characters’ humorous quirks, and their lovable group dynamics, to relieve tension and narratively illuminate how the strength of their union represents their only fighting chance against the eponymous “It.” Andy Muschietti, who previously directed Mama, crafts by turn wondrous, sensitive, and spine-tinglingly horrific shots and sequences, expertly changing tonal gears as necessitated by the story. Benjamin Wallfisch contributes a wonderfully dynamic score which ranges from the melancholy piano melodies of tracks like “Every 27 Years” and “Paper Boat” to the pulse-pounding, nightmare ditties of textured children’s screams in cues like “Come Join The Clown, Eds” and “Shape Shifter.”
Each child/teen actor delivers a pitch perfect performance, rendering their characters instantly relatable and sympathetic. In this strong ensemble, perhaps Sophia Lillis as Beverly, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben and Finn Wolfhard as Richie offer highlights of depth and nuance. Nicholas Hamilton also informs his character with chilling ruthlessness and just the right hint of pathos. And then of course there’s Pennywise, unforgettably played with maniacal-glee-bordering-on-desperation by Bill Skarsgård.
In a way, this film takes on the seemingly foolish task of pleasing everyone, and mostly succeeds on all fronts. Fans of Stephen King’s work will find many familiar themes, such as the generational nature of horror, in this adaptation of his opus—a 1,100-page novel King has referred to as his self-imposed “final exam” in horror—, here brought to life with impeccable attention to detail. Hardcore horror fans may be less entranced by the film’s Goonies-esque adventure overtures and Stranger Things-ish 80s nostalgia nods, but will appreciate Pennywise’s generous screen time and his manifold maleficent deeds, as well as the creature’s mostly implied Lovecraftian backstory. (If nothing else, horror fans should be pleased that It has become the highest-grossing horror flick of all time). Meanwhile, aficionados of classics like Stand By Me will find themselves pulled along by the various emotion-laden story arcs of these deeply troubled kids.
One objection I’ve heard to this new film adaptation of It is that it’s over-the-top: the adults too heartless and cruel, the bullies too extreme and depraved, Pennywise too supernaturally sadistic. My response to this is threefold. First, the film suggests several times that adults are not immune to It’s effects, and some of the adults’ bad behavior can thus be attributed to this nefarious influence. Second, the film is chronicling experiences through the consciousness of children and young teenagers, whose greater impressionability and tendency towards internalized drama may subtly transform how they see the adults around them. According to Stephen King in a 1989 radio interview, childhood “is a secret world that exists by its own rules and lives in its own culture. […] We forget what it is to be a child and we forget that life, which is kind of exotic and strange.” It offers moments of humor, genuine tenderness and abject terror which combine to effectively conjure up that exotic and strange realm, returning us to the “secret world” of our own childhoods, in a sense doubling as a kind of anthropology. And finally, regarding Pennywise’s blood-thirst: the entity’s modus operandi is to maximize one’s fear through the projection of completely life-like illusions, because its victims taste better when drenched in fear. Why should such illusions be constrained? As long as the person being subjected to them believes they are real, the wilder the better.
Beyond the blending of genres/sensibilities I mentioned before, which may dilute the enjoyment of folks partial to one particular flavor above others, there’s also a risk that the film may be retrospectively tainted by an inferior second chapter. At least it’s self-contained and can be wholly enjoyed on its own. “We think in a different way as children,” says Stephen King in that same 1989 interview. “We tend to think around corners instead of straight lines. Sometimes for a kid the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line. And that’s the way we think and dream. I think that as children we tend to live in this kind of dream state and we’ve forgotten it…” Certain film-making aspects of It—its slick photography, its editing, indeed some of its stars’ charisma--result in it being too “commercial” to attain the dream-like aesthetic that might best benefit such a complex investigation of childhood. But that’s a small, sort of hypothetical criticism. At the time of its release, King described being surprised by how good it was and going back to watch it a second time. I don’t know how many viewings It can withstand, or whether it will become a true genre classic, but my first impression is that it contains all the ingredients to do just that.