Stephen King pushes red buttons
In 1986, Stephen King’s 18th novel was released set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine – a place King would return to in three subsequent novels. In 1990, ABC aired a two-part, four-hour miniseries that garnered good reviews, big ratings, and has become a cult classic, making Tim Curry an overnight sensation, 15 years after becoming an overnight sensation from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That novel and miniseries was It and now the movie has finally made its way to the big screen where it can delve a little deeper into King’s novel than a TV movie ever could (but some of the seriously messed up stuff from the book was still a bit much for the film, and for good reason… we’ll just leave it at that).
The first major change from the novel is the time period, moving it up 30 years to 1988 (which, perhaps unfortunately, gives the film a little too much of a Stranger Things vibe, especially with Finn Wolfhard appearing in both projects). The film opens with little Georgie Denbrough anxious to go play in the rain with his paper boat that big brother Bill made for him, complete with a sealing coat of wax to keep it waterproof. But Georgie loses track of the boat and just misses grabbing it before it falls into the sewer. Not to worry though because a helpful clown is there to help him. With a face half in shadow with still brightly lit eyes, the clown tries to entice Georgie to join him and his friends from the circus, all of them having been blown into the sewer by the storm. Georgie just wants his boat back and when the clown offers it to him, Georgie gets just a little too close … setting up the horrors of what is to come.
Months later, it’s the last day of school and Bill and his friends – Richie, Eddie and Stanley – should be about to enjoy their summer vacation, but Bill instead has a plan to find his little brother. They are joined by the new kid on the block, Ben, outsider Mike, and the lone girl in the group, Beverly, all now inducted into The Losers club. As the kids continue their search for Georgie, they begin to uncover an evil in Derry, something that has made this town the number one place for disappearances and deaths of the town’s children. This thing they call “It” is an entity that has been around for centuries, feeding every 27 years on the fears of the town’s children, manifesting itself into whatever scares them most and then taking them to its lair. Will Bill and the rest of The Losers be able to defeat “It” (aka Pennywise the Dancing Clown) before more of them die?
Early buzz for It has been excellent, calling the film one of the scariest horror films in quite some time. I wouldn’t say it’s a “scream at the top of your lungs while jumping out of your seat” scary (although I did jump once or twice), it’s more psychologically disturbing than anything else. And as you’re watching the story unfold, getting to know these kids and rooting for them to defeat Pennywise, you begin to wonder what might be worse for them: the clown or the adults/parents of Derry. Pennywise, of course, is pure supernatural evil, but the parents … are another level of evil altogether, to varying degrees. Bill’s parents have not dealt with Georgie’s disappearance and lash out at Bill for continuing his quest to find his brother. Eddie’s mom is just bizarre, a sort of hypochondriac by proxy, filling Eddie’s head full of fears of sickness and then giving him placebo pills to convince him he is sick (and half the stuff he relates to his friends about the dangers lurking around them are patently false, but he doesn’t know that). Stanley’s dad is disappointed with him for not committing fully to his bar mitzvah activities, and Beverly’s dad is … well, he’s just the most vile of them all. There’s nothing overt about his relationship with his daughter, but there is plenty of innuendo to tell us all we need to know about the guy and why Beverly is so afraid of him. It’s almost more disturbing than a demonic clown.
It almost never made it to the big screen after the original director walked when the studio balked at him making this a two-parter and filming in New York, where it would be more expensive. They wanted one movie or no deal. He left, a new director was hired, the filming location was moved to Toronto and … even though it’s not being promoted as such, this is the first of two movies (a title card at the end calls this Chapter One – and with a $100 million-plus opening weekend, you can be sure there will be a Chapter Two). And that is another of the changes from the book and miniseries which cut back and forth between the kids and the adult versions of the kids. As Pennywise only emerges once every 27 years, the kids make a pact to return to Derry to finally kill the monster when it returns, and they go their separate ways. So there is more story to tell. But don’t let that put you off from seeing It now because even if you’re not interested in waiting for Chapter Two, this movie does have an ending that doesn’t overtly leave off on a cliffhanger.
You’ll certainly want to see It for all the scares, but the film has been filled with an outstanding cast of child actors. Each one of them as a specific type, to be sure, but each one of them plays their part to perfection, and the script is written in the voices of real kids. You can certainly identify with any of these kids and think back to your own childhood and relate to them, which is a crucial part of the film. And to see how weird and awful the adults are to them (and we have to count the older teen bullies in with that group, in the midst of transforming from that childhood innocence), we as an audience want them to succeed even more, and hopefully get themselves out of Derry before they end up like their parents. The role of Pennywise became another defining moment for Tim Curry, and here Bill Skarsgård takes an iconic role and gives it his own spin (but be sure to look closely in a room full of clown dolls for one that looks suspiciously like Curry’s Pennywise). Skarsgård’s Pennywise, with the help of some killer makeup and CGI effects (I was more disturbed by his often wandering eye than anything else) is the stuff of nightmares – especially if you suffer from Coulrophobia. In fact, I’m going to put it right out here and say if you’re easily triggered by clowns, bullies, confined spaces, or some other kinds of abuse, this may not be the film for you. All of these things are what make the movie more disturbing than outright horrific.
But director Andy Muschietti, who also did the supremely creepy Mama, pulls it all together, keeping the pace moving along even at over two hours, and gives us some of the best performances by kids in a very long time. The only complaint I have is that we could have used just a little more background on the parents, especially Eddie’s mom and Beverly’s dad. Other than that, It is a supremely satisfying, self-contained story that is certain to get under your skin and make it crawl. And you might also think twice before walking past that sewer drain on the street.
It runs 135 minutes, and is rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and language.
- Chuck Duncan has been the film critic for Baltimore OUTloud and its various incarnations for 20 years. He was previously a film and TV critic for CliqueClack.com and now owns the pop culture website Hotchka.com where he reviews films, TV shows and theatre. Chuck is the head judge for the annual 29 Days Later Film Project, and works for Anne Arundel County's PEG Studio