Just like its titular menace slumbers for 27 years before starting its next cycle of murders and mayhem, we now have a new adaptation of Stephen King’s terrifying novel IT – oh, let’s see now, 27 years after the last one.
Which was back in 1990, four years after the book came out: a largely faithful, ambitious TV miniseries let down by a “meh” finale, and starring John Ritter, Annette O’Toole and Richard Thomas (The Waltons).
Happenstance? Or a deliberate choice to set social media buzzing about the “coincidence”? It all depends on how cynical you are. Similarly, your enjoyment of this new version will also depend on how sceptical and suspicious the world has made you.
Indeed, enjoying the 2017 IT relies a fair bit on a certain kind of, shall we say, guilelessness – this, despite all the F-bombs, family slurs, nastiness, creeping fear and horror on display (warning: disturbing imagery galore).
The reason for this is the courageous young cast members who deliver candid turns as King’s neatly rendered characters.
Some of their deeds and lines may be overly familiar by now, thanks to the success of more recent “kids vs the world (and otherworld)” adventures like J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 and the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things. But hey – IT was a seminal work of modern horror, defining the dark corners of that sub-genre after E.T. made it all shiny-hopeful and The Goonies established its swashbuckling quotient.
Not quite as warped as the source material, nor as convoluted (no “spirit quest”, no silver projectiles and slingshots, no universe-creating turtle… well, not yet), this new IT is a solid effort by director Andy Muschietti (Mama) that captures the heart and essence – if not the narrative structure – of the book.
Muschietti has served up a compelling tale that works not just as a horror yarn but a coming-of-age story, too. The book told of how a group of friends in the cursed town of Derry, Maine, confront a great malevolent force first as children and then as adults. This first “cinematic chapter” focuses strictly on the children, outsiders who are bullied, ostracised and gossiped about, who come to be known as the Losers.
Individually at first, their lives are impinged on by the nasty entity that has haunted Derry every 27 years since the town’s founding in the 18th century. Taking the form of a sinister clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), it strikes fear into its victims – sometimes gradually, sometimes in a sudden burst of violence, always to make its “meal” taste better.
I had a terrific time watching IT, memories of the book and original adaptation flooding back with each scene, even those interpreted quite differently by Muschietti and his collaborators (the setting here is the late 1980s, not the late 1950s as in the book, setting up all kinds of New Kids On The Block jokes).
While the child ensemble is just fantastic, credit should also go to Bill Skarsgard and the make-up/costume departments for giving us a Killer Klown worthy of the enduring Tim Curry interpretation from 1990.
The costuming has a more vintage look, and Skarsgard – whose role really, really ought to be expanded in the next chapter – delivers each menace-imbued word, every posture and pounce with relish.
He is well matched by the young cast, with Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) standing out among a fine ensemble as the group’s loudmouthed joker, Richie Tozier. But it’s really the sweet kind-of-love-triangle of Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) and Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) that gives this that extra dose of heart.
Don’t let that lull you into thinking that this is all touchy-feely, though. It is one of King’s specialties to ferret out the common bonds of humanity in even his most twisted scenarios and use those to draw readers into his fright-filled narratives – all the better to startle the starch out of you, kiddies.
Likewise, Muschietti proves himself equally adept at translating that skill on a cinematic level, making us really care for these Losers even if the people against them – absent or abusive parents, bullies, indifferent authority figures – are mostly one-dimensional background figures.
But perhaps it’s necessary, so as to present them as offshoots of the IT entity’s malignancy. Now, more than ever, Pennywise becomes a painfully obvious distillation of the darkness in society that preys on the voiceless and defenceless.
No wonder, then, that we want to applaud these Losers when they find their voice, and their courage, to do what those meant to be their protectors have forgotten.
Director: Andy Muschietti
Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgard, Jackson Robert Scott, Nicholas Hamilton