If The Dark Tower was the underwhelming studio-trimmed Cliff’s Notes YA version of that Stephen King story, It is the R-rated unabridged directors-cut vision of this one.
In October of 1988, children begin to go missing in the sleepy town of Derry, Maine. The first is a little boy, Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), last seen chasing a paper boat down the street in the rain. Months later after more children disappear, Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) clings to hope that his little brother is alive somewhere, working out how he might have slipped into the sewers and out of the town’s spillways. Even before enlisting the help of his friends — the Loser’s Club — to help look for clues, each of them were encountering waking nightmares of their worst fears brought to life… all pointing to a shadow-lurking clown calling itself Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). It isn’t the first time this has happened, and It may not be the last.
Twenty-seven years (wink wink, nudge nudge) have passed since Tim Curry portrayed the sinister entity that terrorized both children and adults in a made-for-television adaptation of the Stephen King novel. Much had to be cut to get the story onto TV, and with a cinema system keen on reducing big-budget film concepts to the lowest common denominator to fill seats, the biggest fear was another generic PG-13 horror flick dressed up like a King novel but lacking any actual bite. That said, since the first teaser image of Bill Skarsgård’s turn as the clownish villain, fans of King and horror have held out hope that the evolved evil image was a hint of things to come. Does It live up to the hype, or should It have kept its head beneath the gray water for another three decades?
Surprise, horror fans! As the start of the unofficial September 1st to October 31st Halloween movie season, It sets the bar very high… especially with all the floating going on. The influence of Neflix’s “Stranger Things” is more than evident here, starting with a well-cast group of kids that bond well and are convincing enough to care about, including Finn Wolfhard appearing in both productions. Whereas “Things” skewed into dark science fiction, It wallows in its R-rating and wears it like a badge of horror, not only going places the mini-series couldn’t but pushing the boundaries just shy of NC-17 anywhere it could. The story may be about kids but isn’t meant for them (read: parental guidance is highly suggested). Keep the little ones home; you know who you are.
The secret of the King novel is also the secret of the film: blending childhood fears and trauma with a supernatural entity that uses those against you. It’s relatable and horrific, both trusting and daring the audience to relive their own formative years. The film isn’t all gloom and doom, balancing fear and horror with hope and fun, hitting the right notes while keeping viewers guessing. More than once it felt like the film was on the verge of ending prematurely only to pick up the machete and run to another forest clearing. While some characters got shortchanged due to running time, no one feels miscast, out-of-place, or overshadowed within the group. As with most kid-focused stories, adults become obstacles to overcome and minor villains themselves rather than mentors, but those who’ve read the novel understand King’s unique solution to that trope as well. Shh!
And then there’s the shape-shifting, fear mongering clown himself: Pennywise. In addition to Skarsgård’s performance, the makeup-to-CGI effects are so seamless you often can’t tell which is which. The actor worked with a contortionist and also brought his own skill set to the role. Example: watch the clown’s eyes for them to eerily start looking off in different directions; intended to be a computer effect, Bill could actually do it all on his own. As the kids are drawn deeper into the world of Pennywise, so are the viewers, and what a twisted and fascinating world it is. Can you imagine what it will be like in another twenty-seven years? Fortunately, you won’t have to wait long; come for the clown and stay for the murder! No, wait: run from the clown and avoid being murdered — how does this all work again?
It is rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, language, and answering the selfish prayers of Stephen King fans everywhere.
(4 skull recommendation out of four)