By Jonas Schwartz
Evil oozes through Derry, Maine. Not just one evil, but a sewage of cruelty permeates the town. The decent ones face abusive dads, sadistic bullies, vile mean girls and death on every corner. The Chamber of Commerce is worth every penny if people continue to populate this death trap. For at the center of the madness, a malevolent being tracks your worst fears and turns them to realities, feeding off dread and delighting in ripping little children to shreds.
Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård), the main incarnation of the beast, is Stephen King's brutal joke to childhood. The new film, directed by Andy Muschietti (Mama), plays the audience like a cacophony of terror. Though it could be tighter, Stephen King's IT is still a funhouse of a film.
Based on King's 1986 epic novel (at 1138 pages, it is still one of his longest books), seven adolescent outcasts form a bond while fighting brutal monsters both human and supernatural. Though the sheriff's son Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) is a psychopath, who carves his name in little kid's bodies, he's no match for the spectral creature who haunts the town. Though IT can turn into any manifestation, he takes gruesome glee in inhabiting the dancing clown, Pennywise. The de facto leader of the "losers," Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), has already suffered devastating loss when, a year before, his baby brother disappeared. Now he gathers his friends to destroy the menace who plagues their town.
Muschiette and his writers Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, take liberties with the book, most that do not damage the substance. Primarily, IT has been broken into two films. The first, which is currently being released, focuses on Bill and his teenage friends as they first encounter IT. The second film, to be released in a few years, will cross-cut between the children and their adult selves 27 years later. The film also forwards the timeline to 1988-89, so that the second phase will be in modern times. The novel introduced us to the kids living through the late 1950s.
The film also escalates a supporting character's death to the first section and gives victims' families no closure by keeping all the children corpses in the sewers so that no one can be sure their relative has died. That includes our hero Bill, whose brother Georgie is still considered missing, even though the audience witnessed his violent murder in the prologue.
ABC-TV produced a popular mini-series in the early nineties that followed the book's essence, but it still had the limitations of network television regarding budget and violence. In the current rendition, Muschiette smartly utilizes his big budget tools to set the movie's mood.
Visually, IT is a gripping slice-and-dice of Americana. Cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung floods the film with light, which is usually blocked by impediments, including streams of light that push through wooden barricades and a deluge of sun beating through a stain glass Jewish star in a synagogue office. The picket fences and soft focus seem more rooted in the original book's era of 1959, but the film does a good job of placing the story in the late eighties, with baggy clothes, mullets, and people already anchored to their televisions at all times.
The look for Pennywise differs greatly from the family make-up worn by Tim Curry in the original TV film. Curry was superbly horrifying in the 90s, but the current make-up artists reshape the clown's face to resemble a king cobra, with protruding teeth and a forehead the size of Montana. In the opening gutter scene, his eyes don't glow in the dark as much as shine brightly, causing a menacing effect. Some of the other creatures are less haunting, particularly the leper who frightens young asthmatic Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), who looks like he wandered off The Walking Dead set seeking a diet coke. The score by Benjamin Wallfisch captures the childlike innocence of being 13-years-old during summer vacation while quickly melding into creepy horror motifs on a moment's notice.
The film's weakest element is the drawn-out editing and pacing which dissipates some of the tension. Many scares are repeated. Several scenes could have been cut down. A two hour and fifteen-minute horror movie is not an issue, a two hour and fifteen-minute horror movie that felt three hours is a problem.
Also, in horror, rules are essential. Even if characters don't know how to kill a beast, the audience must have some understanding, but in this film, the rules on injuring the ethereal monster are vague. Plus, though a character explains that IT returns to cause havoc every 27 years, it's unclear how long he can stay active. Is it exactly a year, a year and two days, etc.? Without that countdown, there's no ticking time bomb to pump up the suspense. He seems to evaporate just because the credits are ready to roll.
Muschiette's strongest asset is his cast. Skarsgård is playful, taunting the kids as a cat would with mice, and frighteningly ferocious. The kids' chemistry is remarkable for a group of mostly newcomers. Lieberher, who had been captivating in a mostly silent role in Midnight Special, is the perfect anchor for IT, identifiable to anyone who suffered through high school as a runt of the litter. Finn Wolfhard, who won over audiences as the leader of another band of kids in Netflix's Stranger Things, is appropriately aggravating as the jokester Richie. Wyatt Oleff as the skittish Stan and Grazer as the invalid Eddie are vulnerable, making the audience fear for their safety. Jeremy Ray Taylor is heartbreaking as the heavy-set Ben, who harbors a deep love for the solo girl, Bev (Sophia Lillis). Lillis is the breakout star. Playing a sexually abused but defiant girl, who faces her fears every day, Lillis reveals layers of pain and empowerment.
Stephen King's IT will be a divisive film, particularly to the Generation X who read the book when it first came out and crawled under the covers on the Sunday night in November when Tim Curry and his red balloon first told little Georgie he'd float too. And though the film suffers from issues that a more experienced director may have reigned in, Muschiette's youthfulness perfectly sets the stage for Stephen King's ode to youth in peril.
Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.