The history of Stephen King adaptations has been a decidedly mixed bag over the decades. The most successful horror writer in history certainly casts a long shadow, and his propensity to speak out can muddy matters, showing a predilection for story accuracy over filmic quality (look no further than his spat with Stanley Kubrick over The Shining). It’s perhaps surprising, then, that It, among his most famous works, has only been adapted once as a two-part miniseries for ABC in 1990, neutered of its true horror possibility by network Standards and Practices. Run time is of course a problem, with the sprawling generational novel weighing in at over 1,000 pages (his other giant epic, The Stand, has also only seen the light of day as a miniseries), but you could always do what director Andy Muschietti has here, filming the first half and calling it a day. If it succeeds, it could open up the opportunity to finish one day. It’s a gamble, because if it doesn’t succeed (editor’s note: it succeeded), we might never get a chance to see it end.
Originally set to be directed by True Detective season 1 helmer Cary Fukanaga, Muschietti’s adaptation transports the kids of Derry, Maine from 1959 into the distinct cultural flavor of the late 1980’s, but otherwise leaves the majority of the kids’ story intact. Following a group of bullied outcasts, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), as well as new acquaintances Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) and Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the town is gripped with an outbreak of missing children. The teens soon come face to face with the source of their calamity in the form of demonic clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). Children are disappearing on the regular in Derry, including Bill’s younger brother Georgie, and one by one, the seven are tormented by visions of Pennywise around the sewers and an old abandoned house on the edge of town. Ben discovers a historical pattern of death and mayhem befalling the kids of Derry every 27 years, all tied to this evil presence. The losers take it upon themselves to stop the threat once and for all before more of Derry’s youths are claimed by the supernatural monster.
Much like the novel, It operates as a coming of age take and a horror story in equal parts, weaving the difficulty of growing up and the uncertainty of adolescence in with the abject terror of constant peril, a metaphor made something more direct. And it’s the coming of age story that sings; the troupe of mostly unknown young actors and actress (Wolfhard is the most recognizable of the bunch thanks to the runaway success of Stranger Things) have a breezy, natural and perhaps most importantly believable chemistry, creating a nice cross-section of the sort of social outcasts who would struggle to fit in at a middle school back in the 80’s. Bill’s a stutterer, Ben’s fat, Beverly’s been branded a slut, Eddie’s an asthmatic hypochondriac, Rich an awkward motormouth, Stan’s a Jew and Mike’s black. All of them have one trait that labels them a loser, and a lesser cast would have doubled down on that and that alone to do the grunt work of the characterization. Here, though, the actors and the script (credited to Fukanaga Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman) simply use that as foundation. They feel genuine, with the core four seeming like they’ve known each other all their lives. It’s honestly one of the better ensembles, especially of child and teenage actors we’ve seen in some time. Their work is immaculate and engaging.
What is not so immaculate, though, is Pennywise. The costume and makeup design is pretty good, quite angular and outwardly sinister, definitely getting across the creepy clown vibe IT helped define in its own way. It’s possible, though, that he’s too sinister. The reason Pennywise manifests as a clown is to lure the children he preys upon with a happy face, but that makes a little less sense when he looks so evil and threatening even from afar. That’s a bit of an authenticity problem, but the real issue with this version of Pennywise is how uninteresting he is in practice. He’s got one major move that the film goes to every chance it can, advancing on the camera with that sort of inhuman stutter motion established by the Japanese horror boom of the early 2000’s. Muschietti goes back to this well constantly, and it suffered from more and more diminishing returns every time. This neuters Pennywise’s effectiveness as a villain. He’s too sinister to actually be sinister.
The result of this is a film that doesn’t feel whole. It works so well as an adolescence story, weighing the pressures of society and culture against the outcast, the mistrust of adults and the fear of bullies, and it almost spectacularly falls on its face as a piece of horror fiction. It needs both halves of the pie to function as a satisfying whole, and that simply doesn’t happen here. The performances are good enough and the cinematography is good enough that It is a movie that can be recommended on balance, but it feels so hollow when going for scares. As a result, IT is a muddled, frustrating and uneven experience that feels like a relic of the horror genre that hasn’t accounted for the evolution of the genre over the past decade. It’s an 80’s pastiche that’s too stuck in the 80’s to be satisfying.