FILM REVIEW – IT. With Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard. Written by Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman. Directed by Andy Muschietti. Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language. 135 minutes.
The basic problem with IT, based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel, is that it’s thirty years too late. Already turned into a television miniseries in 1990, the story of a group of misfit tweens who are terrorized by both sadistic bullies and a ghoulish clown who preys on their fears, has the disadvantage of having been told many times by now. Indeed, it plays like a cross between the “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies and “Stand By Me” (1986), itself based on a King short story.
Moving the action from the 1950s to the 1980s, the story begins when Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) makes a paper boat for his beloved little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). The young boy tries to retrieve it when he goes down a storm drain only to encounter Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a malicious clown who, improbably, lives in the sewer. George’s failure to return home psychologically scars his brother Bill.
The story moves to the following summer where there are enough plots for half a dozen movies (which may be why this project spent so many years in development hell). Bill and his friends are attacked by bullies led by the particularly sadistic Henry (Nicholas Hamilton). Each of the friends is a misfit in their own way. They are joined by three others, equally clichéd. Beverly (Sophia Lillis) has a “reputation” which is not only false but covers up her real secret. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the “new kid” who is overweight and shy. Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the home schooled black kid in the otherwise lily white town of Derry, Maine. Calling themselves the “Loser’s Club” they will have to unite and overcome their fears in order to defeat abusive parents, bullies, and Pennywise. And this is only Chapter One. The novel has the friends reunited as adults 27 years later which will presumably be the plot of the follow-up movie.
In adapting King’s overwrought prose, the filmmakers have done what others before them have done: scaled it back and toned it down. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of horror on hand, including a key scene with blood spewing out of a bathroom sink, but–to the film’s credit –they didn’t feel the need to make a verbatim transition from page to screen. The result is a tighter, more coherent story, even if it’s overlong at two-and-a-quarter hours.
The film’s real strength is in its young and unknown cast. This is a movie pitched to teens and adults where the major characters are all 12 and 13. Lieberher, Lillis, and Taylor are standouts, forming an unlikely triangle that is both emotionally truthful and age appropriate. Most of the attention, of course, will be on Skarsgård’s Pennywise. Buried under makeup and prosthetics, he is a memorable “evil clown,” employing a voice that simultaneously entices and frightens.
The bottom line is that “It” is one of the better Stephen King film adaptations, but falls short of the pantheon of such films as “The Shining,” “Carrie,” “Stand By Me,” and “Misery.” Nonetheless, it should be more than enough to satisfy his fans, as well as anyone else willing to go along for the ride.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.