Review: 'IT' Stays Afloat With Genuine Frights And Haunting Performances

Have you actually sat down and watched the 1990 TV adaptation of Stephen King's IT lately? It's not that scary, more cheesy than anything else. And yet Tim Curry's take on Pennywise the Clown remains as a symbol of pure unadulterated terror. Even if you aren't afraid of clowns, Pennywise is not to be trifled with. So imagine how terrifying Pennywise could be on the big screen, in the hands of a horror maestro like director Andy Muschietti? Well imagine it no more because IT is here and Pennywise is the stuff nightmares are made of.

IT is beyond a shadow of a doubt the most blood-curdling film of the year and possibly the best King adaptation yet. That's not a small feat because the novel is so good on multiple levels. The film captures perfectly so many of King's pet themes, particularly adolescence and the fear that comes with being on the cusp of adulthood. The world has begun to change for you in ways that nobody is prepared for. As the innocence of youth fades, the darkness that comes with maturity has started to creep in, and at least in the small town of Derry, Maine that darkness isn't an imagined thing. Monsters really do lurk under the bed, in the sewers, and in the shadows.

Muschietti handles this brilliantly, by mingling the bleak areas with humor and the love that comes with friendship. The film takes place in 1989, far removed from the 1950s setting of King's original story, and perfect for the Stranger Things-obsessed who love some pop culture nostalgia with their horror. They won't have to wait long for it; within minutes Bill Denbrough (the ever-busy Jaeden Lieberher) has lost his little brother Georgie to a gruesome fate in the rainy sewers of Derry. Months later and Bill is still haunted by his brother's disappearance, especially as other kids begin disappearing at an alarming rate. Something's not right in Derry. Something is taking and killing kids, but of course the adults, who have mountains of their own problems, don't see it or don't care.

But Bill and his group of misfit friends, the Losers Club, see it and have to do something about it. Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) are all terrorized by whatever this thing is stalking Derry's kids. It takes the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), however Pennywise comes in other forms, too. It can peer into the soul and see where you are weakest, feeding on your fears and becoming that which you dread most.

The Losers Club have a lot to fear, let's put it that way.

Muschietti doesn't screw around with cutting the kids down to size. Whether it's an abusive father, dead parents, obesity, hypochondria, or being pushed around by the neighborhood bully, their fears are laid out on the table and used to fuel some terrifying sequences. Heaven help you if you're afraid of dark rooms, or clowns. Or dark rooms filled with clowns. Nothing in Derry feels safe. Even without Pennywise the threat of bodily harm always seems to be around the corner, and often is. That feeling creates a tangible prison effect for the kids, but also for us who can't help but sense their captivity. Many of us have felt that sense of being trapped, not by an evil clown of course (Hopefully that isn't the case), but by where we live and the people we are surrounded by. The need to escape and be free of it all is ever present, and that is what the Losers Club are fighting for, that chance to be free. Free from the troubles left behind by their parents and other grown ups.

Wisely, this version of IT focuses solely on the kids and jettisons the other half of King's novel that takes place 27 years later. That part of the book and the TV series was always a bummer, anyway, because King has such an expert way with writing young people. At its best, IT resembles a much grimmer version of Stand by Me, with the Losers Club a tight-knit group that feels like a real friendship. They don't all get enough of a chance to shine, which is to be expected with so many characters to deal with. While Lieberher is excellent as Bill, the character is so narrowly focused that he's kind of a drag. As the only girl in the group, Bev is both the apple of their youthful affection and an outsider among outsiders, which we see play out in her disturbing home life. Lillis plays her with just the right balance no matter what Bev is going through, and I think she proves to be the most easily relatable an interesting character of the bunch. Stranger Things fans will probably love Finn Wolfhard as motormouth Richie, although he starts to wear on you after a while. Comic relief is great, but sometimes it distracts when the full emotional force of a scene is needed. And I have to admit to admiring the performance of Jeremy Ray Taylor as new kid Ben, for the way he captures the "Awwww shucks" adoration of Bev, and for not being the typical overweight kid in these stories.

Of course, for many IT will live and die on the performance of Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise. He's definitely a more terrifying creature than Tim Curry's was, and they made a smart move by having him shift into the kids' actual fears rather than random monsters. It just makes the scares more personal and thus even more skin-crawling. But I do take issue with all of the CGI effects that muddle his performance and, as we see later on in the film, come to detract from how effectively chilling the character should be. At 135-minutes in length we see a lot of Pennywise, and dancing clown with child-chomping teeth or not, it's tough for anything to remain scary for that long.

What will remain long after IT ends is the overwhelming sense of dread and sadness, that evil is a thing passed on from generation to generation. No matter how many times King tries to teach us this through his many stories, it is a tough lesson to learn and a tougher one to accept.

Rating: 4 out of 5