A common tale: When I was a kid, the TV mini-series of Stephen King’s IT, starring Tim Curry as a child-eating clown named Pennywise, messed me up for life. It took me YEARS before I could shower without fear, and all clowns and balloons were officially ruined. As time moved on, the fear never faded, but it evolved into a minor obsession. IT would be the first long book (a whopping 1,100 pages) I ever read. The expanded story was far more magical to me, and the clown was far less human, which was a different kind of terrifying.
When I heard there would be a 2-part cinema version of IT, I wasn’t surprised. It’s a phenomenally easy target for box office returns. Especially with the success of Stranger Things, the timing was perfect. When I heard that Cary Fukunaga (True Detective, Beast Of No Nation) was to write/direct it, I got chills. A really serious writer, who is known for a deep and nimble mind for darkness, updating and exploring one of the scariest and most iconic monsters, sounded like a powder keg. Long story short, Cary wanted to tap into the sadistic nature of the evil and fear at the core of the story, and (as Fukunaga tells it), the script he wrote was “too offensive” for the studio, who were more interested in “archetypes and scares” instead of what he calls “an elevated horror story with characters, which takes time and patience.” Cary walked and many assumed the project would die on the vine.
Enter Mama director Andy Muschietti. With an apparently new script in hand (even though Fukunaga is still credited for the screenplay), the project was revived and completed, with a product with archetypes and scares, but also one that the studio felt wouldn’t offend the mainstream audience. I was very bummed that we weren’t going to see the original concept, but I kept an open mind.
The reason the original mini-series was so effective and iconic was, plain and simple, because of Tim Curry. He became that clown so completely that it’s hard to even remember that the entire “modern day” portion of the mini-series is absolutely awful. Only Tim Curry’s Pennywise could carry John Ritter and Harry Anderson (yes, from Night Court) fighting a kind of king crab / spider thing. It sucked. But it didn’t matter, because that damn clown was pitch perfect. The 2017 version could’ve followed Tim Curry’s lead and gone very psychopathic and human. They also could’ve taken Stephen King’s lead, and gone totally inhuman. But instead, on a very tricky performance by Bill Skarsgård, Muschietti’s version manages to marry the two Pennywise’s into something brand new. Skarsgård, like Tim Curry, vacates himself and becomes the character, but the product is less human and far more malicious. Curry’s Pennywise shows his big crazy teeth from time to time, but Skarsgård’s Pennywise has no brakes (a particularly grim moment features Skarsgård waving with a child’s hand from the bushes). The 2017 Pennywise is awkward at first, but only because of the iconic original. Once settled in, it is a perfectly effective, original interpretation that manages to still be true to both the miniseries and the book, with even a dash of Nosferatu (mostly the teeth).
One of the major strengths of the movie is the casting. “The Losers Club” did end up being comprised of archetypes (the fat one, the nervous one, the motor mouth, the tough girl), but (sorry Cary) they’re the archetypes that King wrote in 1986, so it works just fine. This story was always the scary Goonies.. Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ant Man) steals most scenes with his portrayal of Ben, the new/chubby kid and critical Jr Detective. The kids’ on-screen chemistry and delivery hits well. It’s a bit funnier than necessary at times, but comic relief isn’t necessarily a bad thing when so much of the movie is so grim.
One point of frustration is the special effects. To be clear: most of the big moments of this movie are very, VERY good. A few scary moments are like nothing I’ve ever seen in a movie. And that’s why it’s so frustrating in a couple of iconic moments when the CGI feels like a half-cooked after thought. In general, the scares are very effective.
Another minor drawback is the soundtrack, and weird moments of 1980’s pop/rock laying over a scene. Feels like the director was concerned the audience would forget that the film is set in 1989. Nothing major, but didn’t really feel natural. The actual soundtrack, however, is great.
All in all, Muschietti manages to skillfully capture the sweet, at times heartbreaking, coming of age story that validates so much of the horror that happens around it. This is a movie about friendship, and that part of it works really well. You care about a few of these characters a lot, and that makes the perils of facing Fear Itself, pretty effective.
The second movie will focus on the characters as adults, returning to face the monster when it wakes up again. And I really wish they would just skip it. This movie feels so good and complete, and (honestly) the adult part of the book is really pretty clunky.
Bottom line: if you love the book or 1990 TV version, you might just hate this, because it’s normal to be loyal to what you’re used to. But, I recommend that you suspend your loyalty and give this a try. Stephen King says this 2017 version of IT “succeeds beyond expectations” and I totally agree. I’m confident that Cary Fukunaga would’ve created something original and powerful and upsetting, but it really feels like Muschietti and Skarsgård really wanted to make this work, and they generally did.