When it comes to the works of Stephen King my familiarity is only casual at best. I did grew up in a home that had several of his tomes readily available on the shelves (and I did read some), but I’ve always been picky when it comes to writers and King’s style was always a bit too lengthy and overly descriptive for my tastes. Nevertheless, I still have a great deal of respect for him as an author just from the few things I have read and the few film adaptions I’ve seen (Carrie, The Langoliers, Pet Semetary, The Green Mile).
When the first trailer for this new adaption of Stephen King’s “It” hit the web I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I came away eager to see the film. From the opening shots of the teaser I was immediately impressed with the strong production values and what appeared to be great care and respect for the source material. However, what stood out most was that it looked like it might actually be pretty scary, with an emphasis on traditional methods of inducing terror rather than the CGI or gimmick infested material as of late. That sentiment seemed to be echoed throughout the webosphere from comments I saw and the hype surrounding the films release.
So, now that “It” is here, what’s the final verdict? I’ll go ahead and get the biggest question out of the way: Is the movie actually scary? Honestly, not really. I don’t imagine anyone except the extremely faint at heart will have any problems getting through this one. I’d describe it as creepy more than anything. Despite that let down for hardcore horror enthusiasts this film does have a lot to offer outside of scares.
The basic story of “It” takes place in King’s favorite locale of Maine, in a fictional town called “Derry”, which historically has had a high incidence of strange accidents and people going missing, especially children. We follow a rag tag group of kids who call themselves the “Losers Club”, who, while getting terrorized by a gang of bullies, and facing real life demons at home, must also make sense of a phenomenon involving a mysterious shape shifting entity that is preying on them. This being the “It” creature of the title, who is capable of manifesting itself as a persons worst fear. For the “Losers” this is everything from a creepy woman, to a leper, to an image of a lost loved one, to perhaps the most famous and iconic transformation of all, a carnival clown named Pennywise.
The whole thing calls to mind the great coming-of-age films from the 80s that involved groups of friends riding around on bikes, talking shit to each other, and sometimes coming into contact with the supernatural, such as “E.T.”, “Stand By Me”, and “The Goonies”. The R rating lends itself less to the violence and gore and more to the crude banter and dick measuring common among teenage boys. The original novel was released in 1986, but the modern update applied to this adaption should play well to the “Stranger Things” generation.
Of the young people who make up the bulk of the cast, the actress who played Beverley (Sophia Lillis) was probably the best of the bunch. She reminded me of a young Amy Adams, and since “It” is a story told across two eras, one as kids, and one as adults, it would be a missed opportunity if they don’t cast Adams in the inevitable sequel. Finn Wolfhard is also a perfect fit as Richie, crossing straight over from his work on the similar Stranger Things, to this character, who had some really funny laugh out loud lines. I also enjoyed Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie, the hypochondriac of the group. Really though, they all did a pretty good job and by the end you do feel the sense of camaraderie that forms between them.
Bill Skarsgård does well as Pennywise, walking a fine line between the creepiness and just the right amount of quirkiness. He has this strange lazy eye thing going on in most scenes that makes his presence even more unsettling. While the sense of dread and the frights never moved the needle much on the fear scale, the film does have its moments. There’s one scare in particular, I won’t say which, that had everyone in the group I saw the film with talking at the end.
The strength of the film for me though was more in the characters interactions and development. While the film sticks very close to the book, with only a few minor changes or additions, the change in time period from the 50s to the 80s should make the film resonate well with anyone who grew up in that era. Spoilers! There’s a particular scene at the end when they make a blood pact that is exceptionally well done and was the emotional peak of the movie for me, especially when the camera pans across Eddie’s cast covered arm where the “s” in “LOSERS” has been written over to spell “LOVERS”. Really nice touch there. Oh, and for those book readers wondering, the infamous sex scene doesn’t show up here, although I doubt that’s surprising to anyone.
The idea to break this 1138 page book into two films, one focused on the characters as children, the other as adults, was a great decision in my opinion. By taking their time with it they’re able to make an adaption that doesn’t cut corners and endears us to this band of misfists that should make for huge payoffs in the sequel. I actually wish they would have taken this approach with the other King adaption from this year, “The Dark Tower”, which was decent, but could have been so much more had they not crammed seven books into one film.
The pacing of “It” does run a little slow at times, although I’d argue that’s fitting with King’s writing style, and it was never so dull that I lost interest. In fact, my biggest take away when the credits rolled was that I was eager to see the second one, which I think says a lot about the foundation they built here.
So to summarize…unless you’re deathly afraid of the mere sight of clowns you’ll probably be disappointed if you go into this expecting to have the crap scared out of you, but if you enjoy well made coming-of-age stories with a horror twist this is definitely one to see.
The Rebel Domain Score: