By Jack Dignan
Why do we fear the things we fear? Is it from a childhood trauma? A recent encounter? Or perhaps a scary movie we accidentally saw on TV? Often, there is no answer. We can’t explain why something scares us. It just does. Now, imagine a being that harnesses that fear. Imagine something so evil and sinister that it can manifest into your deepest, darkest terrors within the blink of an eye. Everything you’ve ever feared has been brought right in front of you, terrorizing you at every given moment. You can feel your heart beat against your chest as your lip trembles and your palms sweat. It shakes you to your core. Nothing can ever bring you back. That’s Stephen King’s It.
His book is iconic. For many horror fanatics, myself included, it’s up there as one of the all time greats. Sprawled across 1200+ pages, King digs deep into the psychology of our ragtag group of heroes, cross cut over two narratives at different points in their lives. The first sees our heroes at the peak of their adolescence, where video games are everything and a cute girl talking to you is unheard of. The second sees them grown up, forced to confront a childhood long left behind. This film is but the first chapter of King’s monumental epic. We follow these characters as they grow, strengthen, confront their fears and maybe also get eaten by a killer clown.
Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) has had a rough year. His brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) has gone missing, his parents are starting to neglect him and he’s being picked on by a handful of local school bullies, led by the relentless Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton, who I thought I recognised the entire film and only just realised he’s a homegrown Aussie talent from that excellent Tropfest film ‘Time’ in 2013). But summer is fast approaching, faster than kids are disappearing, and his friends are determined to make the best of a dire situation. He’s part of the Loser’s Club. They’re a group of teens consisting of Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), as well as newcomers Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) and young punk Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis).
As time passes by, and their friendship grows stronger, the Loser’s Club each starts to witness horrific sights. It brings each of their deepest fears to life, as orchestrated by an evil, child-eating clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). Together, they’re forced to bond in order to defeat the evil and uncover the secrets long buried within the town’s history. It’s a Stephen King story through and through, and, as a matter of fact, it may just be the best Stephen King adaptation in nearly two decades. The film plays out as a non-stop ride of pure terror and anxiety, striking a chord deep down inside and bringing fear into the eyes of even the toughest individuals. If you’ve read the book, don’t be fooled for a second into thinking you know what’s coming.
It’s a tantalizing and thoroughly frightening experience with the perfect blend of character and scares. Slow, eerie music cues draw you in before scarring your mind with grotesque imagery and brutal murders. Every kid born in the 80s and 90s probably still experiences PTSD from the 1990 ‘It’ mini-series, and now it’s back and better than ever with an adaptation far scarier and more unnerving than you could possibly imagine. Get ready for the next generation of coulrophobia (fear of clowns). If you leave this film unscathed, I envy you. While the character of Pennywise is just one of the many forms It’s demonic entity takes, it’s the most prominent one, and certainly the one with the biggest lasting impact. It is a creature that enjoys scaring you, and the audience is worse off because of it.
It, the character, will drain the screams out of you, citing fear as being the seasoning to a good meal. If you’re not afraid, you have nothing to worry about, but when Pennywise is on the loose, being afraid is about the only thing you’ll feel. This is a creature that doesn’t mess about. Of It’s several different manifestations, they do have a tendency to be hit and miss, and the first few feel a little rushed through. A painting come to life doesn’t instill a single ounce of fear, whereas an exploding sink of blood, as well as other terrors too good to mention, are incredibly effective. Some take the literal form of one’s fears, whereas others are an embodiment of something you can’t physically represent e.g. germs or getting one’s period, but they, for the most part, work in their own individual ways.
And that’s thanks to director Andy Mushietti’s firm grasp on what makes a horror film work. He’s got the gruesome imagery, the iconic villain and the unnerving set design, but what he understands best is pace, sound and camera angles. His direction of every department is immaculate. He’s able to get the best out of his performers, but really, it’s everyone involved with this film that needs to be thanked, right down to the make up artists and set dressers. It all comes together to form something pulled straight out of a nightmare. The entire cast kills it, most notably Sohpia Lillis as the damaged, complex Beverly Marsh, who faces trouble from her peers in almost every direction. Everyone does their best, even the frequently sidelined and minimally appearing Chosen Jacobs, but Lillis steals the show.
Or at least, she steals the show from the hero characters, as Bill Skarsgård is the film’s hardest hitting performer. His performance as Pennywise is a never-ending train of freights. Skarsgård has a lot to live up to following in the steps of Tim Curry’s show stopping interpretation, but he manages to not only meet expectations, but exceed them too. This is the definite Pennywise, in what’s going to become the definite adaptation of It, come the release of the second installment. One of the key reasons for this is because of Skarsgård. He’s pure evil, but with a twisted, taunting sense of humour that’ll have you giggling with unease before looking away in freight. A key scene in the so-called Neibolt House is grueling to watch, but it’s Skarsgård at his finest… and scariest.
He's able to transform and manipulate his body in the most terrifying of ways. Consequently, it's led to Skarsgård having Pennywise-related nightmares, but when you see him on screen, it's certainly a sacrifice for our benefit. Sadly, he just doesn’t get enough screen time. Pennywise becomes more of a physical threat than a psychological one. He comes and goes, often jumping into frame during a scene you don’t expect him to be in, which works to the character’s advantage. He’s always present, fuelling every scene with suspense, but he’s never utilised enough. The film’s best moments always derive from when Pennywise is on screen, however it does beg the question of ‘how many times can you slam a door in Pennywise’s face before it leaves you alone?’ Because that’s all that ever seems to happen to It, making his constant disappearances a little tiresome and justified far too late.
It is a tale told through the eyes of these children. They have often naïve, but shockingly mature look at the world made by a traumatic set of circumstances, and each and every one of them is full of likability and genuine humanity. When their fears are brought out, their true selves shine. Through their unfortunate curiosity, we get to know the real them. The writing is natural and evenly paced, getting straight into the terror without sacrificing what it is that made King’s book so good in the first place. Plot elements do get skimmed over from time to time, and a whole lot of characters do some… uh… disturbing things without legal consequence (I can’t say what without spoiling), but my admiration for each them overpowered any narrative flaws or inconsistencies.
Stephen King adaptations are released almost weekly. Just this year alone, between television, Netflix and cinema, we’ve gotten four adaptations with two left unreleased (It not included). Thankfully, it’s safe to say that Andy Mushietti’s first It adaptation is the best King film since 1999’s The Green Mile. The wait for It: Chapter Two, a presumed title insinuated through this film’s closing credits, is going to be long, but if it’s half as good as this, then we’re in for a terrifying treat.
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