In 1990, Tim Curry scarred children forever as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in ABC's 1990 adaptation of Stephen King's brick of a novel, It. Now, 27 years later, just like the eponymous character, It returns to theaters.
This fall's It is directed by Andy Muschetti (Mama) and stars Bill Skarsgard (Hemlock Grove) as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the favorite form the mysterious and terrifying It takes on while haunting the children in the town of Derry. When little Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) goes missing after encountering Pennywise, his 13-year-old brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special, The Book of Henry) goes on a hellbent search for him with his band of "Losers" as Pennywise hunts them all.
From the opening scene with Georgie, it's readily clear that this film will go to uncomfortable places. The film does not shy away from the stark violence and the fully horrific situations these characters face; the stakes the Losers Club must come to reality with are apparent and understood. We are given every reason to be invested in their pursuits. Of course, the performances of these kids makes their circumstances all the more real.
The quality of these performances are on par with the exceptional kids from E.T. Lieberher has to show a difficult organic quality to a wide range of emotions, some subtle and some not, while incorporating a realistic stutter, and he succeeds. Jeremy Ray Taylor (Geostorm) as Ben and Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) as "Trashmouth" Richie Tozier both threaten to steal the show in their own ways: Taylor as the loveable new kid on the block and Wolfhard with his hilarious quips. Sophia Lillis (37) may be given the most emotionally difficult task as her character Beverly faces horrors beyond Pennywise on a daily basis from her sexually abusive father. And I think that's a thing the film does well by having It partly embody, and not necessarily be, all of their fears and troubles: fear that your brother is dead, fear of sexual abuse, fear of clowns, of bullies, of sickness, of death, of guilt, of isolation. But while these subjects are terrifying things, they wouldn't be half as terrifying if these actors couldn't sell it, and they do in spades. I think it speaks volumes when, as I speculate who they will cast in the inevitable It: Chapter Two, I wonder if the adult actors will do the kids' performances justice.
They surely hold their ground against Skarsgard as Pennywise/It, who lives up to the legacy of the role. What defines his interpretation is how unnerving it is. During the opening scene with Georgie, he sent chills down my back-even when their conversation was lighthearted-through acting choices like quiet growls, subtle drooling, and effective use of his natural lazy eye (including some special effects work). Even then, he still captures some dark zaniness in light of Curry's performance, such as a scene in the Neibolt House where he teases a child, threatening to eat his arm straight off. It's primal, It's unsettling, It's scary--emotional and unemotional, playful and dangerous, occasionally funny but never a pansy.
I feel like the scares are where people will be divided. When scares happen, they are intense; this is a bona fide horror film. That said, I wasn't terrified throughout the movie like I was with Annabelle: Creation or The Conjuring, and most people I have talked to weren't either. I see this as a natural result of the fact that the goal of the Losers Club is to face and conquer their fears once and for all, to make them not so scary. So while the final sequence is not as terrifying as Pennywise would hope it to be, that totally works for the story, like an action movie villain running dry his ammunition in desperation. But there will still be some divide in the choices made to present Pennywise as he goes in for the kill. More often than not, there is an otherwordly quality to him, strongly resembling the "horror" portions of Beetlejuice. I was fine with it, but for some, it might take them out of the movie. Still, I was scared and thoroughly invested in the briskly-paced movie.
I wish that 15 more minutes could have been added to give a couple of the kids more character development (Mike, played by Chosen Jacobs, is surprisingly hardly in the movie, and we learn relatively little about Wolfhard's Richie) and I wish there were a few more horror sequences, but this is a darn great movie--a 2 hour adventure about coming of age, accepting grief, surviving, and facing fears. There are extremely memorable sequences, namely the unsettling Georgie cold open, the absolutely terrifying projector scene, and the awesomely-composed Neibolt House sequence. Whether you are a Stephen King fan, a horror junkie, or someone who just wants a quality movie with all sorts of 80s charm, I'd recommend It to you.
4 out of 5 stars.