I’ve already spoken about IT by Stephen King ranking in the top 5 of my top 10 all time favourite novels. I’ve also discussed how much I frickin hate horror films. But because of my whole fan of Stephen King anomaly thing I’ve been eagerly anticipating this latest film adaptation since hearing the rumours IT was going to happen.
Thanks to a preview screening at the BFI this week, I have watched IT and I’m glad to say I survived and I’m quite satisfied. (Side note, the BFI will be honouring Stephen King and his films with a dedicated Stephen King season this September. Details at the bottom of this review).
The story goes, in a small American town called Derry, children have started disappearing at the hands of an evil entity. When 12 year-old Bill Denborough’s younger brother Georgie goes missing presumed dead, Bill joins forces with a misfit bunch of friends to fight off the evil which masquerades as Pennywise the Clown. No easy task as Pennywise’s cyclical murder spree dates back centuries. This reboot of IT will be presented as a two-parter, part 1 begins with what happens to the children, part 2 will show what happens when they reconnect as adults.
Outside of how well this modern adaptation was going to work, the biggest concern for me was the casting. The more you repeat-read a book the more the world you build in your head becomes almost like a true / familiar memory. Casting did a great job here. Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special), is brilliant as Bill the leader of ‘The Losers’. He’s rightly not too handsome, but has that bright spark that pre-teen girls will be drawn to, stutter aside. Bill becomes the default leader as he’s the one who has actually lost someone to the ‘thing’ disappearing children. We meet Bill as he builds a paper boat for Georgie, the boat that sends Georgie outside to play, never to return again. Lieberher carries the angst of young guilt and determination with believable ease.
We are then introduced to the rest of them, through various scenes. Richie, Stan and Eddie are in Bill’s class at school and again casting did well, with Wyatt Oleff (Guardians of the Galaxy) as Stanley Uris the serious Jew, carrying the stereotypical weight of the world on his shoulders we imagine Jewish kids to bear. He’s the practical voice in the group. Jack Dylan Grazer (Tales of Halloween) is Eddie Kasbrak, the overly coddled boy who as much has he tries to rebel against his over-protective, mentally torturous mum he carries her anxieties outside his home, becoming the hypochondriac worry wart, basically the mother of the group. Providing quite a few comedic laughs with his constant babble of reasons why infections will kill them all. Finn Wolfhard is probably the most known young actor out of this bunch, recognisable as one of the main characters in the hugely successful Netflix series Stranger Things, in IT he’s been cast as wise-cracking motormouth Richie Tozier. Never knowing when to shut up, having all the dirtiest jokes, and perfecting what we call today the ‘clap-back’ Richie is the type of friend you often want to scream ‘shut the eff up’ to but once they go silent you miss their noise. As Bill’s best friend and right hand man when things get real; Wolfhard does a great job.
Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs – upcoming Cops and Robbers) is the outsider in every way, one of the few black children in the town and he’s home schooled. He works on a sheep farm and lives with his grandfather. This is the first deviation from the novel that I had to make peace with. In the book, Mike lives with his parents… where his parents are in this version, is a spoiler for those who care about the minutiae so I’ll leave that alone. We also meet Beverley Marsh (Sophia Lillis – 37) separately. Lillis is perfect as Beverley. Her red hair being a defining feature in the book, is on point. Another small deviation, she’s bullied and singled out for being a slut, for no reason but her loner status and pretty looks. It is through Beverley we get to meet IT’s other hero Ben Hanscom. Played by Jeremy Ray Taylor (Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip) this was the only casting that took a while to settle. In the book Ben is described as a big child all round, tall, heavyset to the point he’s called ‘Haystack’. Taylor is suitably chubby, but also tiny. At first I was disappointed. But, this fine young actor charms his way into your heart. Especially when in the presence of his unrequited love interest, Beverley.
After each of the kids has a scary encounter with Pennywise they gravitate towards each other, eventually becoming The Losers – their misfit underdog status connection becoming a powerful weapon when the time comes. Gathering at ‘The Barrens’ an area of woodland that they often play in, they bond in their determination to resolve what’s preying on the town. Another thing they have in common is that they’re all tormented by the school bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his goons Belch Huggins (Jake Sim), Victor Criss (Logan Thompson) and Patrick Hockstetter (Owen Teague) great casting again. Hamilton does a good job as the Losers’ human tormentor.
So what is this thing killing Derry’s children and haunting The Losers? Pennywise the Clown who in this version is played by Bill Skarsgård (Allegiant, Hemlock Grove). As the iconic horror figure and the reason people hate clowns Pennywise The Clown’s legend has been secured by its realisation by Tim Curry in the 90s series adaptation of IT. Which if I’m totally honest wasn’t really scary when I first watched it. The series was eerie but I was disappointed with its made for TV extreme sanitation. Skarsgård’s Pennywise has been the focus of much discussion, based on the trailer reveal. Was it too much, was he trying too hard, could he live up to Curry’s version? Safe to say Pennywise 2017 is a freakingly scary-muthaeffah.
Where IT works is when it’s in Stand By Me mode (the iconic film also adapted from a Stephen King tale). The friends united in determination, capturing the nostalgia of that best summer ever. Brought from the 50s into the 80s I guess so that part two could be based in the now, The Losers are believable. The fear and haunting they experience is also believable. The scary house that you used to be scared to walk past, check. The creepy family picture you hated walking past, convinced the eye would move, check. The dark part of the local library that freaked you out, check. The film does a great job of turning the audience into 12 year old kids reminding you of the simple things that scared us in our childhood. Except these guys’ fears aren’t childish nonsensities, they can lead to death.
There are suitable scary parts of IT, there are some creative scenes which with Horror being such an extensive genre, it’s always going to be hard to find original ways to make people jump. IT has the luxury of have the novel as its blueprint. But still, there are times that the horror is a little too thought out. A little too clever and sometimes I found myself wanting to get back to the Stand By Me of it all. Also there’s a key theme to IT, in that Pennywise draws from the fear of children, it’s not clear until really explained that he’s unable to kill the children because of their bond. So there’s a while where as much as you love the kids, you kinda want him to just kill one of them because all his shouting and scary faces become a bit eye-rolly and predictable.
Overall however, Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman have done a great job with the screenplay. Looking forward to part 2, which should be arriving in 2018.
IT is in UK cinemas from Friday 8th September 2017.
To find out more about the BFI’s Stephen King season where you can catch films like Carrie, Stand By Me, The Shining, Shawshank Redemption and more here.