For many, the 1990 television mini-series event It, even with all of its pitfalls, remains a cinematic classic. In what’s become a remake/reboot-centric Hollywood, audiences are primed and ready to be (re)introduced to the terror that is the interdimensional creature known as the sinister clown Pennywise. Bill Skarsgård’s performance of Pennywise alone is simultaneously rife with glee and malice that will make your blood run cold, making his own mark on a character immortalized in our nightmares in 1990 by Tim Curry. So gather your friends and steel your resolve as you’ll need every bit of your wits to survive Andy Muschietti’s (Mama) interpretation of the Stephen King classic…and this is only Chapter One.
One fateful night in October 1988, brothers Bill and Georgie Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher and Jackson Robert Scott) build a paper boat, cover it in wax, and send Georgie out alone to set it afloat in the running waters from an ongoing storm. When the boat drifts into a sewer grate, the mysterious Pennywise appears and drags Georgie away. Eight months later, as more people go missing in town, Bill continues to search for his brother, dragging his friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dyland Grazer), and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) along to help scour the entire pipeline of Derry, Maine, for any possible sign. Hindering their journey is a roving band of bullies led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who terrorizes the four friends and anyone else that gets in their way. This is how the four friends meet new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), home-schooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and lone wolf Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who are each targeted by Henry for various reasons. The newly deemed “Losers Club” manages to keep Henry and his gang at bay as they find that they’re stronger as a unit. However, bullies are not the only evil on the hunt for the Losers. What’s coming for them is the stuff of nightmares, a malevolent force whose attacks on the citizens of Derry have occurred since the town’s creation.
All great horror is a push-pull experience: tension and release. Going into a Stephen King story, the audience is already primed for a horrific ordeal. What makes Muschietti’s adaptation stand-out is the way it manipulates the audience by using older horror techniques to cultivate deliciously appalling anticipation. Instead of repetitive jump scares shocking the audience with surprise after surprise, the tension comes from knowing exactly what’s happening and what is coming. In a scene from the trailer, the Losers are reviewing pictures through a slide projector when the machine begins to change slides rapidly on its own. As the group struggles to get it to stop, the slides change faster and the images change from a Denbrough family photo to a close of up mother Sharon Denbrough’s hair-covered face. The hair slowly moves with each slide to reveal the stuck-smile visage of Pennywise underneath. The audience knows that something’s coming and we know from where, resulting in a terror born from anticipation rather than uncertainty. When you add in a nearly seamless blend of practical effects with CGI, the end result is as engrossing as is it horrifying. In an era of in-your-face gore and relentless body torture, this is an attack on the psyche, not just the senses.
But what makes It special, the key to the heart of the film, is the human element. Relationships, whether the one between Bill and Georgie as siblings or the ones between Bill and each of the Losers as friends – this human connection, the familiar sense that as children we need our friends to survive – drive the narrative. Due to fantastic performances by this ensemble cast, there’s not an ounce of dishonesty in the presentation of any of the central characters. For though this is a horror film, at its core, It is about growing up and growing up is exactly what the Losers must do in order to survive. King himself described the original novel as an exploration of the trials of childhood and adulthood. In this, Muschietti’s Chapter One, the theme couldn’t be more clear as the Losers find themselves isolated from any support in their search for answers. Not only do no adults listen to or believe them, but the adults tend to be aggressors themselves. This portrayal is not to suggest that all adults are terrible but creates a hard line between childhood and adulthood. Impressively, this adaptation highlights the average terror that exists in everyday life. From the bullies that beat us to the simple horror of a darkened basement, when you’re a child, these things feel insurmountable. As each Loser persists through these trials, each finds the inner strength to persevere and vanquish It.
For some viewers, there may be some issues with Muschietti’s adaptation: Pennywise is mostly a mystery, several aspects of the original story appear to be cut from Chapter One, and, if you take away the inclusion of a malevolent force, It falls into the category of your average coming of age story. However, not everything requires an explanation. What we see works within this iteration flawlessly and all coming-of-age stories require some kind of monster to defeat – real or imaginary. To that end, It is a superb film that will delight, terrify, amuse, inspire, and instill anguish.
Put simply, It is good.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.