And you thought John Wayne Gacy was the only clown you had to worry about.
Cast of Characters:
Bill Denbrough – Jaeden Lieberher
Ben Hanscom – Jeremy Ray Taylor
Beverly Marsh – Sophia Lillis
Richie Tozier – Finn Wolfhard
Stanley Uris – Wyatt Oleff
Mike Hanlon – Chosen Jacobs
Eddie Kaspbrak – Jack Dylan Grazer
Henry Bowers – Nicholas Hamilton
Georgie Denbrough – Jackson Robert Scott
It / Pennywise the Dancing Clown – Bill Skarsgard
Director – Andy Muschietti
Screenplay – Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga & Gary Dauberman
Based on the novel It by Stephen King
Producer – Roy Lee, Dan Lin, Seth Grahame-Smith, David Katzenberg & Barbara Muschietti
Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language
In Derry, Maine, school may be out for the summer, but the troubles for Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) continue. He and his pals – Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) – keep on finding themselves the targets of local bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his goons, and more so, it hasn’t gotten any easier since his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) mysteriously disappeared eight months ago. Despite all that ails both him and his friends, the foursome meet fellow outcasts Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and homeschooler Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) and form “The Losers Club”.
Not long after, the newly formed septet hear more and more reports of children going missing under mysterious circumstances. To their horror, that’s when they discover the source of these disappearances is their deepest, darkest fears and traumas come to life in the form a sadistic clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), or as they refer to him as – “It”.
In the long, grand bibliography of famed horror novelist Stephen King, It is considered by many to be one of King’s best works, ranking right up there next to Carrie, The Shining, The Stand and The Dark Tower series. Thirty-one years after its publication date, we are now getting a second movie adaptation, following the 1990 ABC miniseries starring John Ritter, Harry Anderson, Annette O’Toole and Tim Curry, and the first to be given a theatrical release. While the TV version is far from perfect, the chief criticism being the novel’s dark subject matter being sanitized for network television, the miniseries does feature a strong cast, and benefits primarily from a great villainous turn from Tim Curry as the titular monster. Despite what criticisms it has received, the miniseries has garnered a massive following, and Curry’s enduring performance to this day is viewed as the TV movie’s biggest strength. Even long after this current version is released, many, I’m sure, will still consider his turn to be the gold standard of Pennywise performances.
Development on a feature film began all the way back in 2009, with True Detective and Beasts of No Nation director Cary Fukunaga attached to co-write and direct the first chapter of what would be two films, the first centering on The Losers Club as children and the second skipping ahead in time to those children reuniting as adults. In May 2015, Fukunaga dropped out as director due to creative differences with Warner Bros. (though he would remaining onboard as a co-writer), and a few months later, Mama director Andy Muschietti taking his place.
So after nearly a decade in development, with a fervent King fanbase hoping and praying for a successful, updated retelling, does 2017’s It live up to Pennywise’s legacy?
The Good: The performances by the seven main child actors are far and away the best thing about this film. Comprised mostly of unknowns, save Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special, The Book of Henry) and Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things), the six generate chemistry that’s on-point and build an authentic rapport that will immediately conjure up comparisons to The Goonies or Stephen King’s Stand by Me in viewers’ minds. If you haven’t seen these kids already onscreen, keep an eye out for them following this film, ’cause they all should have bright futures ahead of them (in particular, Sophia Lillis is a dead-ringer for a young Amy Adams).
Along with handling his talent well, Andy Muschietti is a gifted visual director whose eye for creepy sound design and imagery shines in spots here. While his feature-length film debut Mama (based on his short film) didn’t exactly revolutionize the horror genre, it was still an effectively moody effort that was carried by a strong lead performance by Jessica Chastain and Muschietti’s sharp sense of atmosphere. Now given the reigns to the Stephen King classic, Muschietti doesn’t disappoint on a visual level, working with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung to craft a retro aesthetic that hearkens back to many of the Amblin-era adventures of the ’80s (King’s novel placed the kids in the ’50s).
The Bad: Unfortunately, style appears to be all It is aiming to offer. King’s novel dives deep into themes childhood traumas, repression and the horrors that hide within idyllic small-towns, but Muschietti and screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman eschew the story’s thematic richness for visual flair. Sure, there’s plenty of eye-pleasing atmosphere to behold, but reducing most of the trauma these kids have experienced to footnotes misses the point of the novel. It isn’t about a killer clown that terrorizes children; it’s about the evils these kids have endured manifesting itself in many forms, the primary form being the clown Pennywise. It’s all the more a testament to the talent of these child actors that any sympathy that is able to resonate with viewers is strictly due to the kids and not the sub-par material in the script.
2010’s remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street made a similar mistake of abandoning the subtext in Wes Craven’s story, and look how that film turned out. Granted, It isn’t the dumpster fire that remake is, but similar choices do lead to similar results, and It lacks the substance found in its source that could’ve made this a great horror film given the talent attached in front of and behind the camera.
So why rate it R then when the filmmakers aren’t even gonna bother going further than skin deep into the dark elements of the story? Well, they get to amplify the blood spewing, guts spilling and “fuck” dropping, that’s why.
Another issue stems, oddly enough, from one of the film’s positive aspects. I mentioned the Goonies / Stranger Things vibe of the film, and the banter between the kids fit that vibe like a glove; however, that vibe becomes problematic when it bumps into the more horrific, gorier elements. From there, the film devolves into a tonal mess that doesn’t know whether it wants to be a psychological horror or an ’80s era coming-of-age story.
The Ugly: Look no further than the title character. Bill Skarsgard (son and younger brother of great character actors Stellan and Alexander, respectively) is a fine actor, but his performance here borders so close on unintentionally humorous, it could cure coulrophobia. Sounding more like a schizophrenic Scooby-Doo than a demented, child-preying entity, Skarsgard’s Pennywise can barely register a quick unsettling shiver, much less an authentic scare, oftentimes needing to be buried under an overabundance of CGI or accompanied by loud, sudden sound effects to do all the work for him in the chills department. In fairness to Skarsgard, I can’t say I blame him entirely; he’s just following what the director wants for the role, which, unfortunately, appears to be a bland, face-value interpretation of the character.
Some films can get by with one-note, unmemorable villains. You’re not gonna land a Norman Bates or Heath Ledger’s Joker every time, and Marvel Studios has put together a successful career with less-than-stellar villains (to be fair, their bread and butter has always been fleshing out their protagonists anyway). When your film is named after you, however, that’s a bit of a deal breaker.
Consensus: The performances by the core group of kids are all strong, and Andy Muschietti’s artistic eye provides some nice visual touches, but his mishandling of both tone and material has this updated retelling of Stephen King’s 1986 novel falling far short of sitting in good company with the best of his movie adaptations. While it’s not as jaw-droppingly bad as say Sleepwalkers or Dreamcatcher, It suffers a fate some could argue is worse – mediocrity.
Silver Screen Fanatic’s Verdict: I give It a C- (★★).
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