I think it’s fair to say that after it had been in development for years, not many people held out much hope for the new version of Stephen King’s It. That’s especially true as after a number of interesting directors had been attached, the job eventually went to Andy Muschietti, whose only previous feature credit was the underwhelming Mama.
However, it not only turned out to be a really good movie, but also a bit of a record-breaker at the box office. It scored the biggest ever September opening in the US, and ended up with the highest gross ever for an R-rated horror movie.
The movie covers the first half of King’s very long book, although with the era shifted from the 1950s to 1988. In Derry, Maine, a little boy called Georgie is attacked and disappears after talking to a sinister clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) who’s lurking in the sewers. However, nobody knows that’s what happened, leaving his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) guilt-riddled and desperate to know where Georgie is.
However, it turns out Georgie isn’t the only one in danger, as Bill and many of the other kids in town start to have strange and terrifying visions. The adults don’t notice anything (indeed, many of them are pretty dangerous themselves), leaving the youngster to fight against an immense evil where a dancing clown is just one of its manifestations. Bill and his friends – known as the Loser’s Club – realise whatever it is that they’re up against seems to emerge every 27 years, and will only be satiated if it kills enough kids.
Since It’s release there have been plenty who’ve held up It as a new horror masterpiece. It’s not quite that – and to be honest in the middle it’s pretty messy and repetitive – but it is an entertaining and creepy movie. Many questioned the casting of Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, largely because they thought the 27-year-old was too young for the role, but from the opening few minutes it’s clear he was a great choice. He manages to turn from looking benign to terrifying with aplomb. It is a bit of a shame they don’t make more of him, because as the film goes on it does tend to let the CGI take over and Pennywise becomes more of a generic horror villain.
But more than the villain, what helps It succeed, is that it doesn’t chicken out. This is a story about horrible things happening to kids, and part of its power is that the youngsters are increasingly left adrift by the adults, to fight against a terrifying force that doesn’t just want them dead – it wants them terrified and suffering. There’s a creepiness just in that, but in the modern age Hollywood has tended to shy away from (or at least tone down) stories involving violence and kids. It’s most noticeable if you watch 80s family films like The Goonies, and then see how tame its modern equivalents are). However, It doesn’t hold back, either with the supernatural horror or the horrors that many of the kids face elsewhere, from sexual abuse to the sadistic violence of the evil (but mentally abused himself) bully, Henry Bowser.
It also allows an emotional core to build, where Bill and his friends become their own little chosen family, whose camaraderie will be the thing that can help them succeed – if anything can.
Ultimately, what keeps it going through its lengthy running time (and to be honest, they could have chopped 20 minutes without hurting the film), is that when it wants to scare the audience, it succeeds. Pennywise essentially creates living nightmares for the kids. The film is well aware of that, giving those sequences a rather dreamlike feeling, which allows a sense of dread to build.
It’s box office success has ensured that we’ll be getting the second half of King’s book on screen soon, which sees the adult versions of the kids return to battle ‘It’ once more. While we should be getting that movie in 2019, this first outing is certainly a creepy success that works as well in the home as it did on the big screen.
Overall Verdict: Mixing genuine scariness with a story that has heart, It succeeds where so many films have failed, not least by not chickening out on some of the darker aspects of its sometimes-unnerving story.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac