2017, R, 135 min. Directed by Andy Muschietti. Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 8, 2017
What’s that you say? A Stephen King movie adaptation that actually lives, breathes, and renders you insensate from lack of sleep, just as the source material did? Stranger Things have happened. It, based on King’s 1986 bestseller that, at 1,489 pages, currently functions as a bookend for less voluminous King tomes in my library, is adamantly and terrifyingly faithful to the author’s narrative. And yes, Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Skarsgård) is as joltingly nightmarish as fans could have hoped for.
While King’s book was set in the Fifties, the film loses little in its updating to 1989 and indeed employs a cinematically sublime specificity of time and place – A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child is on the local bijou’s marquee – in the seemingly bucolic but small Maine township of Derry. Muschietti (Mama) and screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman have managed the translation to the big screen nearly as well as Rob Reiner did with Stand by Me. As in that far more gentle but equally spellbinding novella and film, the protagonists are young kids, the dual themes are loss of innocence and the pleasures and perils of youthful friendships, but It is a white-knuckle horror show blessed with an R rating, by which I mean it doesn’t have to rein in its gory, toothy terrors, like other, lesser, PG-13-rated King films must.
The story follows seven pre-internet teens as they play detective and discover – and then do battle with – the predatory, poisonous Pennywise, who feeds on childhood fears and is the presumable root cause of Derry’s disturbing history of unnatural deaths. Led by melancholy, stutter-afflicted Bill (Lieberher), who has lost his little brother Georgie to the rainswept unknown, the pint-sized posse (self-dubbed the “Losers’ Club”) includes bespectacled wisenheimer Richie (Wolfhard, of Netflix’s Kingsian homage Stranger Things), frail and asthmatic Eddie (Grazer), orphan-by-fire Mike (Jacobs), bar mitzvah-stressed Stanley (Oleff), chubby new kid Ben (Taylor), and lone girl Bev (Lillis), whose home life with her skeevy, leering father is a horror unto itself.
King’s frequent theme of being young, adventurous, and more-or-less unsupervised in small-town Maine runs through many of his best stories, and It captures that same elegiac tone with surprising poignancy. The whole of the Losers’ Club, as well as the older bullies that constantly harass them (chief among them Nicholas Hamilton’s mulleted, knife-wielding Henry Bowers) have the unmistakable ring of authenticity. Riding their battered bicycles through the woods while trash-talking one another as only pre-digital kids could, they’re misfit knights errant on an aberrant quest, not for glory, but for their own safety and sanity.
King’s book was actually two novels in one, with the second half revisiting the adult Losers’ Club 27 years on. A sequel to It is all but assured, and I welcome it with dreadful anticipation.