Review: It

It is instantly one of the greatest Stephen King adaptations, filled with terrifying tension and sheer malevolence that make it a worthwhile watch.

In 1980s Maine, kids and teenagers keep going missing in the sleepy town of Derry, with a bunch of young teens are haunted by visions of their worst fears and a disturbing clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). The group of outcasts (calling themselves the Losers) band together to combat the terror and figure out what the clown really is.

Anyone’s who read a Stephen King horror or thriller knows he has an incredible ability to scare, disgust and horrify, and It was no exception. Adapted in the 1990s for TV (famously starring Tim Curry), a film adaption has been in the works for years, experiencing development issues but eventually ending up with director Andy Muschietti. And it’s a good thing for viewers and King fans, as the Argentinian director expertly retells (half) the novel, effortlessly carrying across elemental fears at its centre.

By necessity, this is the first of two parts or “chapters” (the book is 1,100 pages long), and working on a screenplay from Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga (former director) and Gary Dauberman, the strong imagery and terrifying twists are modernised and adapted thrillingly. Certain unadaptable areas are swerved, the core coming-of-age relationship between the kids focused on in the shadow of the death and terror swirling around.

It may all seem very Stranger Things to those unaware of King, but he essentially cornered the market in coming-of-age fiction in the 1980s with this and Stand By Me. This film highlights his incredible ability to convincingly convey the human experience, distorted through a prism of unimaginable horror. To be quite frank, the film didn’t terrify me (I knew what was coming), but unsettling tension and jump scares are almost volcanic in the way they erupt at the audience.

You probably know already if this is the film for you, and while Pennywise is at the forefront of the marketing, ‘It’ is much more than just the clown. Other manifestations are no less disturbing in the moment, some are excellently showcased with grisly practical effects, though a couple require slightly naff CGI. Regardless, this is not for the faint of heart or easily distressed (one early scene might make your decision for you!), and this doesn’t reflect entirely on violence.

There are a couple of scenes effortlessly lifted, repurposed and filmed that, while not conventionally scary, gave me chills in the cinema, simply as Muschietti stages them so well and because the cast is up to the task – an encounter at a library and a slideshow gone wrong in particular.

The script also absolutely nails the unsightly, disturbing way in which the whole town is corrupted by It’s presence, as incidental characters behave in creepy or downright evil ways but on a distressingly human level (Bev’s experiences in particular). It’s a testament then that laughs are peppered throughout, while the kids’ cooperation and bond feels real, boosted by the young cast’s performances.

Bill Skarsgard’s utter transformation into Pennywise sees the Swedish actor unrecognisable in decaying make-up, and incredibly unsettling in his performance. He seems to use every trick possible (a disturbingly huge grin, his own ability to look in different directions with each eye) alongside eerie characterisations (drool and a bizarre accent) to leave a remarkable impact. The film suffers for his absence, but as mentioned above its eruptions of terror see Skarsgard steal every scene – his performance will haunt the careers of clowns for years.

The Losers are worth talking about as a group as well as individuals, as the talented bunch don’t cross over into annoying kid territory. Jaeden Lieberher convincingly presents the stuttering Bill with a growing inner strength, conveying emotional damage and a steeliness. Sophia Lillis’ Bev displays a strong air of maturity in a tough role, clearly standing out among the boys and central to many of the more harrowing scenes – she’s one to watch for the future.

Finn Wolfhard’s filthy and gobby Richie is the cheeky comic relief, while Jack Dylan Grazer’s hypochondriac Eddie and Jeremy Ray Taylor’s thoughtful Ben are other standouts, often the source of other laughs, though all three get the chance to show their dramatic ability. The other two characters, Stan and Mike, are interesting but not given as much prominence, though Wyatt Oleff and Chosen Jacobs respectively offer rounded if underserved portrayals of the neurotic voice of reason, and the outsider forced to grow up early but enriched by becoming part of the group.

Nicholas Hamilton’s sadistic bully Henry Bowers is full of twisted zeal but again given short shrift, while young Jackson Robert Scott, as Bill’s younger brother Georgie, is excellent, doing incredibly well in distinctly harrowing scenes and putting older colleagues to shame.

Other elements deepen the tension and unrelenting unease. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score vacillates between Spielbergian tones and chilling thriller tones, while Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography displays Derry’s dichotomy between the sun-drenched summer holiday and normal lives of the kids, and the colourless, drained and gloomy pervasiveness of It’s presence. Both types of lighting, and the shifts in musical tone, combine excellently at times as a visual for horror intruding on normality, as an otherwise normal scene is punctured by a blast of terror.

As mentioned earlier, the effects are (unsurprisingly) better when practical (Eddie’s fear in particular is disgustingly depicted), and the CGI is rather poor, perhaps best left for the events of Chapter Two. However, this is probably the main negative I can identify, and beyond giving some kids more character development, I can’t complain about much here.

Sure, it could have been scarier (for me), but an accurate depiction of all the horrors King dreamt up would probably make for an 18, and It’s spectacular success justifies its lesser focus on more adult scares and more on mainstream horror. Besides, with a more challenging but potentially mind-bending and disturbing sequel to come, there’s still time for me to be properly scared.

It, for me, is an absolute must for Stephen King fans, and a highly recommended watch for horror fiends. I hope it yields more King adaptations of this quality and more big budget horror too!

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