Editor’s Note: It opens in wide theatrical release today, September 8, 2017.
One of the most prolific writers of the last half-century, Stephen King has earned the “master of horror” title by writing more than 50 novels and published close to 200 stories, selling more than 350 copies in the process, ultimately defining and redefining pop culture in myriad, unexpected ways. Not surprisingly, his novels and short stories have made the jump from the printed page to the big (and small screen) with unsurprising regularity, but like his prodigious output, the results have been uneven at best and abysmal at worst. One exception, the 1990 television miniseries adaptation of King’s sprawling, self-indulgent, 1,100-page horror novel, It, remains an influential standout 27 years later (coincidentally a key number in both the source material and subsequent adaptations). That, of course, didn’t stop It’s rights-holder at Warner Bros. from ordering up another adaptation, this time not just for the big screen, but a big-screen adaptation with an R-rating clearly meant to depict the novel’s disturbing, graphic imagery uncensored while also distancing itself from the inherent limitations (i.e., network regulations) of its long-ago made-for-TV predecessor.
Warner Bros. initially tapped Cary Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation, True Detective, Jane Eyre) to write and direct the adaptation, but he left over “creative differences.” Fukunaga, however, hasn’t disappeared completely from the production: He shares a co-screenwriting credit with Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman (Annabelle: Creation). With Fukunaga gone, Warner Bros. turned to Mama director and Guillermo del Toro acolyte Andy Muschetti to direct the new adaptation. By any estimation, it was a relatively safe bet to hire Muschetti after the commercial and critical success of Mama. To Muschetti’s credit, he delivers a competently directed, if anonymous, horror film. For filmgoers new or relatively unfamiliar to the horror genre, It will be an experience like nothing else, filled with plentiful chills, thrills, and scares, especially when It’s supernatural, shapeshifting, trans-dimensional monster-villain, Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), makes a terrifyingly unhinged appearance. A grinning, menacing aberration in greasepaint, a rictus smile, and a high-pitched, squeaky voice, Pennywise more than equals his TV predecessor (an unforgettable turn by Tim Curry) in the nightmare-fuel category.
But when Pennywise isn’t onscreen stalking, scaring, or consuming his prey every 27 years (children preferred for the purity of their fear and their flesh), Muschetti has little choice but to focus on Pennywise’s teenaged targets, the not-quite-originally-named “Losers Club.” Originally a group of four, closely knit friends, Bill Pembrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), they’re eventually joined by Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the lone girl/object-of-every-boy’s-attention. Each new addition to the crew means a new, momentum-stopping, surface-deep dip in each character’s backstory, often hampered or undermined by variable performances from a young, inexperienced cast. As the leader and protagonist, Bill gets the most amount of screentime, starting with the justly famous prologue involving Bill’s younger brother, George (Jackson Robert Scott), a paper boat, a rainstorm, a storm drain, and Pennywise’s introduction, that wracks Bill with grief for most of It’s over-indulgent, 135-minute running time.
Beverly doesn’t grieve over a lost sibling, but her life with an abusive father throws into sharp relief daily traumas that signal one of King’s overarching themes: For all of the supernatural monsters that stalk his heroes, the human monsters who bully, threaten, and abuse almost always pose a secondary, but no less real, threat. Every other member of the Losers Club, however, gets less and less screen time to flesh out relevant backstories: Eddie’s an asthmatic hypochondriac with an overly controlling, smothering mother, Stanley’s Jewishness guarantees his outsider status, while Richie’s penchant for expletive-filled, self-aggrandizing rants practically makes a charter member of the Losers Club. Ben gets little more than a running joke about his unironic affection for New Kids on the Block (nostalgia alert), a joke tied to his recent arrival in Derry, the home of the Losers Club and Pennywise, while the home-schooled Mike makes a late, belated entry, the result of an encounter with the town’s bully and the Losers Club central antagonist, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). Henry’s mullet alone marks him not just as a bad seed, but a bad seed with poor fashion sense and thus deserving of punishment, the more painful and protracted, the better.
Ultimately, it’s the Losers Club vs. Pennywise in the city’s sewers, good vs. evil in the equivalent of a steel cage mage to the death (or near death), but before we get to that last desperate attempt to extricate Pennywise from the town’s sewers, Muschetti stages a one-on-one therapy session between the Losers Club’s members and Pennywise. Alone, they’re vulnerable to Pennywise’s demonic manipulations. Together, the power of friendship puts them on an almost equal level with Pennywise. Thematically, that makes sense, albeit superficially, but given Pennywise’s repeated inability to take out members of the Losers Club individually, the threat he poses falls apart with each encounter. As (almost) always when it comes to the horror genre, less is definitely more (and more is certainly less): The more of Pennywise and his limited bag of tricks we see, the less terrifying and horrifying he becomes. And once Muschetti, showing admirable restraint by relying primarily on prosthetics, gives into to his baser instincts (CG mode), Pennywise and with Pennywise, It, becomes another routine, rote horror film, a disappointment by any horror fan’s measure.
For filmgoers new or relatively unfamiliar to the horror genre, It will be filled with plentiful chills, thrills, and scares, but for horror aficionados, It is sure to be a disappointment.