It (2017) / Horror-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language
Running Time: 135 min.

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgard, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenplay: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman (based on the novel by Stephen King)
Review published September 10, 2017

The works of Stephen King are a strong influence on the popular Netflix show, "Stranger Things", which, in an interesting twist, becomes the influence on a Hollywood studio pushing for a popular Stephen King project to get adapted to the silver screen.  As with that show, It is set in the 1980s (mostly 1989), pushing it over 30 years from the setting of King's original 1986 forest-killing magnum opus in print.  "It" was adapted before, in a television mini-series made around the time this new film is set, 1990, featuring another of Tim Curry's iconic performances.  Given the millions of King fans, as well as those who consider themselves fans of the TV production, the 2017 version of It is going to have to provide more than jump-scares and a killer clown to satisfy.  For the most part, It does.

The action in It takes place in the fictional small town of Derry, Maine, where we mostly follow a group of seven adolescents on their break during the summer.  The de-factor leader of the group, Bill Denbrough (Lieberher, Midnight Special), has recently been plagued by thoughts of his younger brother Georgie's (Scott, Skin) disappearance, though we in the audience know that the tyke is but the latest victim of a sewer-dwelling, fear-feeding demon who mostly presents himself in the form of a clown named Pennywise (Skarsgard, Atomic Blonde).  Georgie's not the only child to go missing of late, and the group soon learns that Derry has a special history of children who disappear without a trace about once every generation, causing them to have to confront their innermost nightmarish fears, lest they become the latest victim of the sinister Pennywise.

Playing Pennywise, and filling the enormous floppy clown shoes left behind by Tim Curry, is Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan and brother of Alexander.  However, It doesn't present the clown as the source of the fear, as they have their own major issues to contend with, from being persistently bullied (their group is dubbed ''The Losers' Club"), sexually abused, or dealing with personal trauma they feel personally guilty for causing.  Pennywise targets them when they are most afraid, which seems to be a constant in their lives at this time.  Avoiding one-note staleness, Skarsgard frequently changes tempo for the psycho clown, who shifts the tone of his voice as well as his delivery, depending on the way he wants to lure individual children into a vulnerable position.  It works well for the overall story of a clown that shifts his appearance to stoke maximum fear, though it does feel like another iteration of Freddy in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, which gets a nod on a local theater marquee in the movie itself.

A major asset is that It benefits from a likeable and memorable group of child characters, breathed to life through quality performances by the young actors all around.  While the film never quite encroaches into territory that I personally find terrifying (your mileage will vary), it's still enjoyable to see the kids interacting with one another throughout their adventure, even when Pennywise remains out of the picture, which is surprisingly often for a modern horror movie.  While Pennywise doesn't creep me out as much I would have gathered, there are still some aspects of the film that border on disturbing, especially at the hands of characters like the psychotic Bully, Henry Bowers (Hamilton, Captain Fantastic), who attempts to disfigure or kill for his own pleasure during certain moments, or Loser girl Beverly's (Lillis, 37) home life with a father that has likely been sexually abusing her for many years.  In the world of It, the children are and have always been the prey, leading Pennywise to target them as the lowest hanging fruit for him to feed off.

Director Andy Muschietti (Mama), working from an adaptation scripted by Chase Palmer (Shock and Awe), Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation, who had been the initial director, but left due to creative differences with the studio), and Gary Dauberman (Annabelle), set the lengths to which the children are vulnerable early, with the horrific killing of the younger brother in a particularly nasty fashion at the hands of Pennywise.  From then on, especially given the film's well-earned 'R' rating, we know anything can happen, and though the film borrows heavily from Stand by Me (another Stephen King adaptation from the 1980s) the the kid-friendly early works of Steven Spielberg (a la E.T. and his production house's The Goonies) for creating their atmosphere in the 1980s, they aren't afforded the same notion of protection in making it alive to the end.

A daunting aspect of It is in the two hours, fifteen minutes run time, though, the way that it's presented, the length isn't felt as much as you'd think.  Nevertheless, the film does spend time exploring some of the characters in their own storyline that aren't as compelling, such as Eddie (Grazer, Scales: Mermaids Are Real), whose mother (the actress portraying her is stuffed into a very unconvincing fat suit) has made him believe he's got a disease, or Mike (Jacobs, Cops and Robbers), who has recurring visions of losing his parents in a fire.  Its not all doom and gloom, as there are choice moments of banter among the children that result in some good humor throughout, especially in its references to such things as New Kids on the Block and other cultural touchstones of the era.

People in the audience at my screening groaned when seeing the "Part I" under the film's title at the beginning of the end credits, feeling like they are getting only part of the story.  Indeed, the film does set up something that also occurs in King's book, where we meet up with certain characters about 27 years later for anohter round at confronting their fears.  While the sequel feels inevitable, especially given this film's box office performance, the "Part I" is unnecessary, as it works as a standalone film, perhaps only placed there for fans of the original thousand-plus pages of novel to know they weren't just adapting part of the story and intending to be done with it.  We fully expect sequels to popular films these days.

By the end, you begin to realize that Pennywise is the manifestation that occurs in a town that has undergone a cycle of fear, with parents manipulating their children in the way that we suspect that they were also manipulated and used in their own.  It mostly keeps its pleasures and terrors on the surface level, but underneath the somewhat nonsensical supernatural storyline, there is still enough to say about how important it is for kids to be strong enough to overcome their fears rather than to succumb to them to the point where they too are passing off their real-life nightmares to others to form a long and melancholy chain of abuse.

Qwipster's rating:

2017 Vince Leo