So, the new adaptations of Stephen King’s novels are hitting the big screen, and the latest, IT (2017), in particular… or, should I say, IT: CHAPTER ONE (a title withheld till the film’s end, that got a grieving heaving sigh from some in the audience I saw IT with).
by and © Stephen R. Bissette
note: this review has two sections. Part 1 is spoiler-free. Part 2 is full of spoilers (we’ll warn you when you get there, promise.)
Andy (MAMA) Muschietti/Chase Palmer/Cary Fukunaga/Gary Dauberman’s adaptation of IT (2017) aka IT: CHAPTER ONE is heads-and-tails more fun than was the recent THE DARK TOWER, in terms of King screen adaptations. Given the box office scored by IT this week alone, rest assured the tsunami of new King fare is incoming, and behave accordingly. Make no mistake, King is the ‘star’ of this production; save the modest cache of Bill Skarsgård (DIVERGENT: ALLEGIANT, ATOMIC BLONDE, ‘Hemlock Grove,’ etc.) effectively playing Pennywise, and maybe Jaeden Lieberher (MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, THE BOOK OF HENRY, etc.) who carries the film as lead Loser Bill Denbrough, the ensemble cast is comprised of Finn Wolfhard (memorably of ‘Stranger Thing,’ but that’s not above-the-title movie star status yet, folks), a radiant Sophia Lillis (as Beverly), Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs (of the recent ‘Hawaii Five-O’ reboot), Jeremy Ray Taylor (really terrific as Ben), Owen Teague, Nicholas Hamilton (as bully Henry Bowers), Logan Thompson and Jake Sim. And no, ‘Stranger Things’ fans, that series didn’t lead to this IT remake: it had been in the works for years, and director Andrés Muschietti (MAMA) was on board a full year before Netflix debuted ‘Stranger Things’ last summer.
Now that all that’s out of the way, how’s the movie? Well, despite the bitching I’m seeing about how Muschietti handled the Derry demons (a lot of twitchy CGI, which has been pretty much de rigueur since JACOB’S LADDER back in 1990), there’s much to enjoy here. First off, the ‘R’ rating cards are right on the table from the get-go: little Georgie’s (Jackson Robert Scott) fate is jarring and vivid in the opening minutes, Henry Bowers and his gang’s bullying is almost Krug-like (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT reference there) at times, Beverly’s plight isn’t soft-peddled, so be ready for occasionally strong stuff after the cushioned blows of so many PG and PG-13 horror flicks over the past few years. For that alone, IT won me over in short order. Secondly, though Ontario doesn’t look the least bit like Maine, the sense of time and place anchors IT pretty well, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s musical score and especially the cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung delivers from opening shot to final shot.
Is IT scary? The scariest stuff here is the nuts-and-bolts of hard childhoods, no doubt about it. King’s writing always nailed the phobias and punishments of childhood with unerring precision, and this IT captures all that in ways the 1990 TV miniseries simply couldn’t and wouldn’t. And it’s not just the relatively straightforward savagery (bullying) Muschietti and (credited) screenwriters Palmer, Fukunaga, and Dauberman capture that gets under the skin: it’s the nasty stuff, from grief-stricken absent parents to the home-as-prison enforced by an incestuous father, to the snapshot of paternal cruelty that makes Henry what he is here. The occasional fakery and false notes never defang the meat of the story—kids having to do that which their parents and Derry’s adults will never do—and King’s storytelling bones keep the pot a-boiling and the tale tantalizing. I couldn’t look away, though I’ve many a reservation: as with other effective King adaptations (like George A. Romero’s THE DARK HALF), the greatest faults of IT were the faults of King’s texts, and I can’t blame the filmmakers for that.
That, more than the overly-art-directed Derry haunted house at the center of the film or the goofier incarnations of It, makes this IT a studio horror outing with some teeth. It’s long—135 minutes—but none of that is fat or padding, and this is a pretty potent piece of work given its pedigree and production model.
That duly noted…
NOW, SPOILER ALERT (stop reading now, unless you’ve seen the film already):
Forget the novel IT, by and large, and forget IT, the November 1990 TV miniseries; this is the new IT, set in the summer of 1988. Generational fears change, and corporate proprietorship (Warner Bros., as with the TV miniseries) has determined what some of the ‘it’ projections can be: the shape-shifting titular “it” (though there are visual clues, we still don’t know what “it” is in the context of this first film) that, Kamara-like, takes the form of whatever you fear the most. However, this IT vision of ‘it’ doesn’t confront Ben as a mummy, Richie as a werewolf, Mike Hanlon as a carnivorous bird, Patrick Hockstetter (played by Owen Teague, who played a youthful Walt Disney in 2015’s WALT BEFORE MICKEY) as airborne leeches, Vic Criss and Belch Huggins getting theirs via Frankenstein’s monster, or Eddie Corcoran taken out by the Gill-man. Save for Mike’s updated backstory, those monsters were drawn from a past generation’s monsters—fears of the ’50s, and in that context mostly Universal ‘properties’ at that—while this IT is set in the late 1980s. We’re immediately grounded in late 1980s fear-fare by the GREMLINS poster on Bill’s wall and other pop cultural artifacts (i.e., New Kids on the Block). But those seeking fidelity to King will savor germophobic Eddie’s assault-by-leper, and you can bet your bottom dollar Bill is haunted throughout by George’s ghost, here presented with at times remarkable associative cues from the Nicolas Roeg DON’T LOOK NOW (including the staging of the film’s climax: spot on!).
The drunken sheriff’s son Henry Bowers and his sadistic bullying is vividly front-and-center, though it’s not Mike and Mike’s father Henry is dead-set on tormenting here: Henry’s pretty much the all-purpose bully, carving his initials into kids’ flesh and murderous in his rages. We do get the rock-fight by the stream here; we don’t get the novel’s more outre (and difficult-to-effectively-adapt-to-screen) elements (i.e., the ramshackle American-Indian smokehole in which the Losers essentially hallucinate the dubious origins of the titular creature; the “Ritual of Chüd” and Bill’s trip into the Macroverse; the elder turtle Mataurin; the “Deadlights” revelation, and so on). Also thankfully gone is Beverly’s sexually “servicing” all the Losers, the point at which I quit reading the novel in 1986 in utter disbelief, never to re-engage, though now I reckon I will.
Beverly’s pivotal role is as fascinating as it is unsettling, and again, that’s of the novel, not of the film alone. As in ‘Carrie’ and CARRIE, King has the cultural stigma of menstruation stick to the character; in terms of the film, Sophia Lillis carries the whole enterprise in her eyes and freckled face, and she does so magnificently, but she’s not given much gender support here. Molly Atkinson is Eddie’s insane mom Sonia, Pip Dwyer is barely visible as Bill’s mom Sharon, leaving Beverly to bounce off Megan Charpentier as bullying class snob Greta Keene, who torments Bev and the rest of the Losers with zeal. Then again, the men aren’t much to look up to in Derry, either.
There are other changes from the novel, all of which made sense to me (i.e., Eddie isn’t hospitalized due to an attack by Henry and the bullies, but from ‘it’ in the house; gone is Hockstetter’s lethal animal-killing refrigerator; Ben forging silver slugs for his slingshot to try and kill ‘it’, Henry’s cronies chasing the Losers into the sewers—its all down to Henry here—etc.). Gone, too, for the time being anyhoot, are the origins of ‘it’ and references to the Macroverse, and though this film does eventually communicate clearly that ‘it’ feeds on and needs the children’s fear, we’ve no clue why (and certainly no clue to its possible physiology: it’s all oogie-boogie magic, essentially). There will be a lot of head-scratching and WTFs from the uninitiated, but that’s nothing compared to what it COULD have been if they’d stuck closer to King’s source novel, trust me on that one.
The scares are often silly, really, truly they are, but it’s all staged with enthusiasm, and that carries much for me. Skarsgård’s Pennywise quickly becomes its own ‘it,’ strong though Tim Curry’s 1990 incarnation remains in the memory; I think it was Skarsgård letting that little rope of drool flow as Pennywise is chatting up Georgie from the drain that got me over Curry’s indelible claim on the role. The toothy ferocity of some of Pennywise’s attacks (the closer these cling to invertebrate/arachnid/annelid flesh-avarice and appetites, the better) is at times impressive.
Even when this IT is plunging off the deep end, it doesn’t do so without intent, and it’s never as out-there as the first half of the novel was for me (Good God, Mataurin would bring flashbacks to THE NEVER-ENDING STORY or THE MANITOU, honestly, it would!). The plastic studio ‘polish’ on things like the Derry haunted house/well setpieces or that fucking piano didn’t pull me out of the movie, and once we’re in the sewers I’m all in (oddly enough, Warner Bros. has always handled sewage horrors with aplomb: THEM!, Larry Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE, etc.).
All in all, I’m glad I caught it at a matinee, and I’m looking forward to seeing IT again—after I finally finish reading the novel after, what, 30 years of dithering after I abandoned it half-way through? And after I finish revisiting the Tommy Lee Wallace-helmed TV miniseries again.