We’re interrupting our usual schedule of look-backs at the movie adaptions of Stephen King to leap forward to 2017’s It – or It Chapter One, if you will. With It Chapter Two out in cinemas this week, we revisit Andy Muschietti’s first movie – which has since become the highest-grossing horror film of all time. Suffice to say, there are spoilers for the first chapter ahead…
The film: It’s 1988, school’s out, and there’s something consuming the children of Derry. Something in the form of a clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). When Bill Denborough’s (Jaeden Lieberher) brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) goes missing in a storm, he becomes obsessed with discovering what happened. It’s then that he and his friends begin seeing the clown. Together, they form the Losers’ Club, consisting of Beverley (Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Ritchie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) and they take it upon themselves to face It.
You might notice that we’re a few years out on the usual chronological order this time and that’s because we couldn’t resist talking about It ahead of the release of its much-anticipated sequel. Hitting cinemas in 2017 to critical acclaim, ‘Chapter One’ is one of the best adaptations of one of King’s best novels and it benefits from multiple viewings.
There are some cracking Stephen King adaptations coming out now (It, Gerald’s Game in particular) and these properties are being adapted by people who grew up on King’s novels, feverishly reading them under the covers at night and terrifying themselves with the author’s words. There’s an innate understanding at work of how and why King’s scares are so successful. You get these in some of the earlier adaptations, particularly films like The Shining or Stand By Me, but never in such concentrated doses as we’re getting now.
The frights in King’s stories may manifest themselves in a churning mangler that eats people alive, or a car with a mind of its own, but they’re rooted in very human, relatable fears. It’s isolation, or being bullied, or losing your identity. The best horror always does this and there are few better than Stephen King.
In It, it’s the loss of innocence and the fear that comes with growing old before your time. When Georgie goes missing, Bill feels the heavy toll of grief, Mike has survivor’s guilt after he loses his family, and Ben feels alone in a new place. Beverley is confronted with an abusive father, Eddie with an overbearing mother and a litany of supposed medical conditions, Stan has his bar mitzvah, and Ritchie runs his mouth off to cover his own insecurities. They all have to deal with Henry Bowers and the apathy of the adults around them.
When Pennywise appears to them, he manifests himself as these fears, a walking torment of childhood insecurities and the looming threat of never escaping them. The fact that Skarsgard also makes him the scariest clown since John Wayne Gacy thought entertaining kids was a good idea is a big bonus. The film uses him sparingly at first. Other than his horrific entrance with Georgie, It appears not as Pennywise, but as direct representations of the kids’ fears, with occasional flashes of clown. Think of Stan’s painting. Or rather, don’t think of it because it’s horrible.
The reliance on jump scares was something that came under criticism on the film’s release, but it’s pretty in keeping with the idea of being a horror film about children. Making someone jump is a common game as kids so, to me, it makes sense that the kids would spend the entire film dealing with things that elicit a short, sharp shock. If the trailers for the new film are anything to go by, the fears have grown up with the kids. Older Bill (James McAvoy) in the hall of mirrors springs to mind.
Chapter One is not a film that hides away from other scares either. One of the most unnerving moments is Ben in the library. He’s pouring over a book of Derry’s horrific history and the shot pulls back to reveal the librarian with a horrific grin on her face, staring unblinkingly at him and getting ever so slightly closer. I am not ashamed to admit I cowered in my chair during that whole scene before the chase with Pennywise through the stacks.
The film’s young cast sell everything I’ve talked about so far and they are the key to Chapter One’s success. The Losers have a natural chemistry with each other, one that can shift depending on whether the scene calls for their unity or to bring out certain tensions at play, such as Ben’s quiet jealousy of Bill and Bev’s bond. Skarsgard had big clown shoes to fill when it came to Pennywise, but he makes for a truly unnerving antagonist, towering over the Losers and giving their interactions a playful, scary unpredictability.
Splitting the films into the two timelines, which are interwoven in the book, felt like a risk when it was first announced, but for the first film at least, it proved to be a masterstroke. Focusing on the Losers as kids gives these fears a chance to breathe, to fester and ooze. Chapter Two can build on that and, if it follows the way the adults grow up in the novel, show us how those fears have burrowed into every aspect of the Losers’ lives.
Scariest moment: Ben in the library is definitely mine, as it is in the book, but I think for sheer horror and “Oh wow, they really did that”, it has to be Georgie and Pennywise in the storm drain. It’s faithful to the book and all the scarier for it. Poor Georgie.
Musicality: Nursery rhymes are the creepiest things anyway, but kids singing ‘Oranges & Lemons’ as the movie starts is certainly one way to establish an atmosphere. It also works as a neat reference to The Wicker Man, another film which features a community sacrifice (the adults may not realise It is consuming townsfolk every 27 years, but they don’t seem to be too desperate to do anything about it).
A King thing: Which one to pick! It is one of those King stories that features just about every hallmark of his work, but it wouldn’t have the same feel if it wasn’t set in King’s Derry. Real estate prices must be so low considering the crime rate and general amount of deaths going on. It is probably the biggest work to feature Derry, but Insomnia, Bag Of Bones and Dreamcatcher all feature the ill-fated town. My favourite Derry mention is a brief Bev and Ritchie cameo in 11/22/63.
We’ll be back to our usual programming next time, Constant Reader.