Every 27 years, IT comes back. Not only in the wildly popular fiction’s universe, but in our timeline as well. Many grew up with the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s acclaimed novel leaving a lasting effect, myself included. Now, 27 years later, and just like the characters in the film itself, a new generation will experience their own form of horror. This new version, courtesy of Mama director Andy Muschietti, isn’t without some glaring faults, but is largely able to sidestep these issues due to its fantastic cast of young actors, a strong script that’s both horrifying and humorous, and a profoundly unsettling take on an iconic villain.
IT opens in grand, terrifying fashion in adapting one of the story’s most iconic scenes. In the small town of Derry, children are going missing at inexplicably high rates, including middle schooler Bill Denbrough’s (Jaeden Lieberher) younger brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). On a rainy October day in 1988, a bedridden Bill helps Georgie to construct a paper boat and sends him out alone to play, unaware that this would be the last time he would see his brother alive.
While Georgie does his best to keep up with the boat, the faster he runs to catch up to it seems to only feed into its own rising speed; the craft eventually spilling into a storm drain at the end of his block. Georgie peers inside to retrieve it, but is instead confronted by a mysterious figure residing in the sewer. The shadowy, shuddersome shape introduces itself as “Pennywise the Dancing Clown,” for the moment dispelling Georgie’s reluctance to strangers, but only reaffirming every audience member’s coulrophobia.
This clown is mad freaky in its appearance, bearing a tattered grey costume and chipping, dirty makeup caked upon its egg-shaped head with fiery-orange hair protruding out atop it. But while the visual itself could well enough fuel your clown-filled nightmares, it’s Bill Skarsgård’s striking performance that really strengthens the menacing character into something unforgettable, even when stacked up against the infamous and remarkable performance that the great Tim Curry effortlessly delivered in the original TV miniseries. This Pennywise is far more sinister than the aforementioned version (especially due to the freedom that the R-rating has allowed the filmmakers in showing the creature’s gruesome acts) and is featured sparingly in comparison, making every moment he’s onscreen that much more memorable (otherwise, he often takes the form of another creepy creature to better suit a specific character’s fears). His first victim in the film is Georgie, but it won’t be his last.
Following the noteworthy intro, IT falters in the build up to its satisfying climax with a particularly disjointed first hour that inefficiently attempts at introducing its many characters (something I like to call the “Suicide Squad effect”). The timeline jumps ahead to the following June as class is letting out for summer break — a time that would usually be defined by fun memories — but Bill and his friends will instead decide they need to defeat the evil that’s taking over their town.
We learn that Bill is the leader of a group of misfits that deem themselves the Losers’ Club, which will eventually, over the course of the film, include six others. Bill himself has become a ghost to his parents in the wake of Georgie’s disappearance, and stands out due to a speech impediment. Then there’s Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard, of Stranger Things fame), Bill’s best friend and the wisecracking loudmouth of the group. Then Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), a boy sheltered by an overprotective mother and relegated to using an abundance of medication for various ailments while also being restricted by an asthma condition. Also, Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff) is a Rabbi’s son who isn’t enthused by his Jewish faith nor ready to face the fears he’ll be soon confronting. These four make up the original lineup of the Losers’ Club, whereas the next three are initiated later on.
The first new member is Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who is not only the new kid on the block (*wink*) but also overweight, making him a constant target of the high school-aged bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his friends, who pose their own threat to the group opposite Pennywise. Ben finds his first friend (and crush) in Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the only girl in the group who carries unwarranted baggage of being the town “slut,” battling not only her own bullies at school but an abusive father at home. Finally, there’s Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), a home-schooled outsider whose parents died in a horrific fire and now lives with his granddad in town.
Some of these characters are given far more attention than the others — namely Bill, Ben, Eddie, and Bev. But even then, only Bill and Bev particularly stood out to me, along with the often hilarious Richie, but his character also gets the least backstory of them all. In introducing all of the characters separately, Muschietti takes time to show off each kids’ individual fears, but this act is handled quite poorly through short vignettes that feel stitched together at random. We jarringly jump from Pennywise scaring one kid to another with no connective tissue between sequences, except the notion that by the second act they will have all come together and figured out that they’ve all been experiencing similar terrors.
Thankfully, the story gets back on track by the halfway point as the group decides to take Pennywise on themselves after discovering that the adults in town either don’t see the consequences of the demon or simply don’t care. From thereon, the film becomes a fun ride with plenty of potential scares and wonderfully eerie horror set pieces. And while this definitely is a horror flick, it works just as much as a coming-of-age adventure story in the vein of another King adaptation, Stand By Me — almost like a quasi-horror version of the 1986 classic — tackling similar themes of everlasting childhood friendship, overcoming your fears, and dealing with bullies (both in terms of peers and elders). The young cast here is even very reminiscent of those boys in Stand By Me, sharing a similar charisma and excellent chemistry. And for the most part, the young actors and actress do very well in their roles, especially Sophia Lillis as Bev, Finn Wolfhard as Richie, and Jaeden Lieberher as Bill, with the astounding Lillis particularly demanding attention while onscreen.
The set pieces I mentioned earlier range from being pretty cheesy to particularly impressive, with some of the forms that Pennywise takes on being more successful than others. The leper that chases Eddie, for instance, is effective and looks convincing with its disgusting and distorted face, but the painting that comes to life to spook Stan is reduced to a terrible CGI effect that I’m not certain how it made it past the cutting room floor. Actually, there’s a lot of awful CGI employed here, but the creative designs of the monstrosities outweigh the lackluster execution for me. There’s also a distinct lack of built up tension in some of the scenes due to the film’s reliance on foreseen jump scares, leaving me to wish that Muschietti would have decided to keep some things hidden in the shadows, lurking, rather than constantly hitting the audience over the head with in-your-face, haunted house-like attractions.
IT didn’t quite live up to my expectations, but I also realize that they were sky high. Alongside its 1990 counterpart, this is definitively a better telling of King’s novel, but it isn’t flawless. With everything that is good about the film, there’s something else holding it back from being a modern classic. The acting is great, but most of the characters are painfully underdeveloped. Pennywise is terrifying, but the sometimes shoddy effects have the opportunity to ruin the film’s otherwise scariest moments. The cinematography is compelling, but the score is standard horror fare.
The film ends up being good, but not great like I had hoped for, with perhaps its biggest and most pleasantly surprising takeaway being that Bill Skarsgård’s portrayal of Pennywise is deserving of its own spot in the horror villain pantheon — right alongside Tim Curry’s version.
3.5 stars out of 5
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor