Paranormal coming-of-age tales, especially those take place in the ’80s, have become so familiar in popular culture that it’s easy to forget their roots. Stephen King’s thrilling 1985 novel IT is a start: In small-town Maine, a dangerous shape shifting clown follows a group of children who return as adults to finish the job years later.
IT movie 2017 has been the ideal for tales about nerdy kids who face horrifying threats and grow up during the process. Its influence on the horror genre is incredible, reverberating in contemporary field successes rising from “The Babadook” to “Stranger Things.”
All of which makes the 2017 adaption a tricky project. Setting aside that King’s book already had one lengthy TV mini-series in 1990 with Tim Curry in the epic role of Pennywise the clown, IT movie must go beyond the familiarity of its story to appear new again. Director Andrés Muschietti nails that challenge by being totally committed to the source elements and the two-and-a-half hour horror-adventure movie turns out an enjoyable adaptation and just that.
That’s not to say horror fans won’t get their fix: filled with beautiful visual, fascinating music, and adorable adolescences facing absolute terror. The iconic case of “The Losers Club,” a self-called group of outcasts who discover that Pennywise has secretly murdered residents and preyed on their fears for years while keeping adults under its spell, unveils much as the book.
Thrill comes hard and quick: Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) pops up in a dark sewer entrance to attack and kill young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) in a rainstorm. The event leads his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) burying in guilt a year later, sending him on an adventure for answers accompanied with his group of friends. Bill, who suffers from stutter, and next-door bully Henry (Nicholas Hamilton), hang out with neurotic Jewish kid Stan (Wyatt Oleff), spoiled Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and rude Richie (“Stranger Things” star Finn Wolfhard).
The group ultimately adopts new resident Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a stocky introvert who mostly serves the purpose of explaining how their town is assaulted by a murderous clown that feasts on fear every 27 years for millennia. Complicatedly affected by the boys’ nascent testosterone, they are shocked to discover the lovely Beverly (Sophia Lillis) forcing her way into the club. Rejected by the girls in her school regarding nasty rumors about promiscuity, and dealing with an abusive drunk father at home, she’s more relaxed with the Losers Club than anywhere else. While yet somewhat objectified in the bigger context of the film’s plot – jokes about the boys staring her body and complimenting her hair are never too far away – the film doesn’t go overboard, thankfully parting from the novel’s notorious underage orgy detail.
Still, Beverly successes being one of few aspects in which IT movie remains an ancient vibe. With the setting advanced from the ’50s to the ’80s, with “Gremlins” posters decorated bedroom walls and New Kids on the Block references in the soundtrack, IT 2017 doesn’t just happen in the limits of a book written during King’s top creative output; it may as well have been made then.
While the effects stand out as contemporary – Pennywise appearing, bigger-than-life, from a projector and the amazing visual of floating corpses that fill his underground lair – the most effective, daunting aspects of the film need no 21st century polish. Each member of the Losers Club faces Pennywise in a different way matching with their personal fears, from Beverly’s “Carrie” – like face against blood bursting from a sinkhole to the gooey leper that hunts Eddie across a yard, and these encounters stand out as top of cinematic horrifying effects. Above all, the greatest effect of IT movie characters includes Pennywise himself, with Skarsgård teasing and wiggling his eyebrows whenever the event asks for it. He’s less character than creepy gimmick, but rather a chilling one.
Eventually, IT movie turns out just as much depth as its monster. For much of King’s masterpiece, Pennywise menaces because his danger is abstract; some residents indicate that his existence defies surreal explanation. That initial horror opens all kinds of thematic aspects around the anxieties of youth and the fears of death, but IT movie only agrees with these ideas. The film shows more interest in using them as a gateway to leap from one jump scare to the following.
Things pop up from the dark right on cue. The clown overly cackles, mashes his horrifying teeth, and wiggles his eyebrows. As the kids mention It’s legacy, ominous music involves to emphasize their stories. Though beautifully filmed by Chung-hoon Chung, no amount of pleasing visuals can save IT from the thud of familiarity.
It’s hard not to expect what director Cary Fukunaga might have done with the detail. (He quitted the project due to creative differences, but remains a screenwriting credit). His first season of “True Detective” featured a capacity for delivering deep-seated fear around unknown possibilities; that would make IT movie far better than the usual approach and bland dialogue that dominates Muschietti’s treatment.
Then again, a killer clown from outer space isn’t the cleverest metaphor for childhood terrors coming to life. Pennywise’s epic line – “We all float down here, you’ll float too” – becomes a kind of rallying cry, the monster’s ways of feasting its capacity to defy the natural order and force its preys to accept the mess of their lives. At times, the movie excels at showing the fear of children forced to face a world indifferent to their concerns. But no matter how many times Pennywise pops out from unexpected places, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve experienced it many times before.