What scares you? I can pretty much promise that each of us is afraid of something different, and it has changed through the years as we age. It, the great Stephen King novel, was a masterpiece of terror that preyed on what the characters feared.
Let me clear, I have avoided reviewing this film because I wanted to see it again and get everything I had to say right. On one hand, I was sure the film was outstanding, on the other I had some questions that needed a second viewing. The second viewing confirmed what I thought – it is a very good horror film, one half of the book, which means a sequel is going to come. The book was a massive thing, dealing with a entity that takes its shape as a clown, Pennywise, but morphs into whatever terrifies its prey. It comes out of hibernation every couple of decades to feed, and in the book has reared its ugly head to a group of kids known as the Losers. They will defeat it, sending it into hibernation, only for it to come back and bring them together as adults.
This film deals with only the story of the children, and a powerfully good story it is. Light years away from the dreary made for TV movie of 1990, with the single exception of Tim Curry’s Pennywise, this film is genuinely frightening. It has been updated to the 80s, meaning what scares the kids are very different entities from the book – no werewolves, mummies, Frankenstein monster; no, these kids are afraid of much more modern things, equally frightening.
Director Andy Muschietti, who directed the frightening Mama (2011), is at the helm of this new film, and does a very good job. The clown is portrayed by young Bill Sarsgaard, younger brother of True Blood’s Alexander, and he is brilliant in the role. While watching the film, I was first struck by how he was shot, but on second viewing I paid attention to his movements, how he held his head, how he used his eyes – his performance makes the film the freakout fest it becomes. The actor commits with his entire body to the character, and it works spectacularly.
The picture opens with a big brother handing his kid brother a paper boat he has made for him. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is the leader of the Losers and has a vested interest in finding It because he knows It killed his cute little brother, tearing him apart after his precious boat went in a sewer grate. Richie (Finn Wolfhard) is the witty, foul mouthed kid in the gang, Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is the germaphobe, Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is the Jewish kid, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the chubby kid every group needs, Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the only African American kid in the group, and Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is the girl, adored by the guys, abused by her father, wanting to be free of him. They form the group of outcasts called the Losers, and they figure out very quickly it is best not to let Pennywise get you alone. On your own, he has all the power because he manifests into your worst nightmare; in a group they are more powerful. Bill wants revenge for the death of his little brother, whom he loved very much. The death of the little tyke left his parents shells of what they once were.
As they get closer to defeating It, he lashes out with horrific things, including Bill’s little brother, who laughs crazily about how “they all float where he is, and Bill will float too;” he screams with maniac glee over and over.
Sarsgaard is perfect in the role as Pennywise, a huge concern because Tim Curry was iconic. Sarsgaard goes in a different direction, speaking in a high squeaky voice sometimes, saying all the right things until the kids get close enough. At that time his eyes turn color, his teeth become huge incisors, and the monster lurking beneath is shown.
All the performances of the kids are very good, but Sophia Lillis is particularly strong as Bev, struggling with keeping her father off her at home, and knowing the looks she receives from Bill and Ben are more than admiring glances. She is a lovely presence, and I expect we will see her in years to come. It’s not that she is better than anyone in the cast, just that she settles into the role so well and creates such a full, interesting character.
Modern horrors often become bloodfests that lose me very quickly because they are, eventually, all the same. There is blood and gore here, but also some horrific moments that genuinely terrify the audience.
It is a fine film, an adaptation King will be proud of, not like The Dark Tower (2017), released not long ago to brutal reviews. Not the best of King novels put to film, but high up on the list.