Oh fuck that.
So, after a prolonged period of development, the big screen adaptation of Stephen King’s IT is finally ready inspire a new wave of coulrophobia. And while we have some issues with this new version, which we’ll get to shortly, it’s a film that succeeds at making you want to stand up and leave your seat while loudly conceding “Oh fuck that. I’m not dealing with this clown. No way. Fuck that.”
Director Andy Muschietti and writers Gary Dauberman, Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer wisely tackle just part of Stephen King’s notorious and expansive story (the novel clocks in at around 1400 pages), with an adult centred sequel due should this first ‘chapter’ prove a success. The film is about an evil entity tormenting children in Derry, Maine in the summer of 1989. Stuttering teen Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) wants his friends, a collective of misfits dubbed The Losers’ Club, to search for his missing brother Georgie. The search brings them closer to the form-shifting dark force that is behind the disappearance of several local children.
You’ll need to stick with IT. It starts with a series of jump scares with next to no build up. In fact, the rowdy score and the charging visuals are quite off-putting. It feels like the film is shouting its scares at you, which isn’t very scary. However, your enjoyment of these scenes might depend on how you see IT. In a sterile screening room (with the volume cranked up deafeningly loud) they don’t play at all, but with a multiplex audience on a Friday night they might prove more enjoyable.
As soon as we get to know The Losers’ Club and the film settles down, though, the tension building before the scares gets longer and it’s able to create a sense of dread. By the time we get to the big showdown, it is relentlessly intense.
For a film that’s likely to sink or swim (or rather, sink or float) based on how frightening it is, a large amount of the film’s success ends up coming from the time we spend with the young cast. The performances suggest an authentic camaraderie amongst The Losers’ Club, who are The Goonies lost in a grimy drama rather than a bittersweet adventure. There are great performances from Jaeden Lieberher as Bill and Sophia Lilis as Beverly, although I don’t want to undersell how well cast and performed every member of the club is.
The real heart of the gang, though, is Finn Wolfhart’s Richie. He is so, so funny.
The theme of scared children is threaded brilliantly into the scares. There’s some really horrifying imagery, but a lot of the scares come from children being chased by scary things (often Pennywise), scenes that feel like they could have been dreamed up by terrified youngsters concerned about the shadows cast on their bedroom walls at night. The material is so strong. The kids in Derry are surrounded by monsters, everyday tormenters, and the attacks by IT always catch them when they’re vulnerable due to those struggles.
Right, let’s talk about scary clowns. Pennywise the Dancing Clown remains absolutely terrifying. Bill Skarsgård’s take is unlike Tim Curry’s iconic interpretation of the role in the 1990 TV adaptation. This take is more childlike, with a habit of dribbling that makes him look a bit like a toddler (it is so creepy that I had to take a moment to steel myself before writing this sentence), which aligns the character nicely with the overall theme of monsters and children.
Skarsgård gives a fantastic account of himself, supported by the filmmakers who have surrounded him with a collage of creepy imagery. The character feels wonderfully considered, with everything from his voice to his jerky movement precisely designed to twist you into a state of deep discomfort. It may lack the simplicity of Curry’s performance, as the film around never aims for the quiet unsettling feeling the old TV adaptation achieved in some of its more effective moments, but it’s hard to fault this new take on Pennywise.
And while IT has its weaknesses – the clattering first section, some ill-fitting pop songs and some unconvincing CG – the things that work are so effective that it’s an easy recommendation. IT is a scary horror film and one that finishes so strongly that you’re likely to have forgiven its flaws when you shuffle out of the cinema, treading on popcorn flung into the air during jump scares and watching out for clown hands sneaking up from under the seats.
I’m looking forward to seeing IT again. I wonder how the opening will play now that I’m already on board with The Losers’ Club, whether perhaps I might find it to be more effective. More importantly, I’m looking forward to taking my wife. She reacts to scary films – she shifts in her seat, she pulls faces and she hides behind her hands. I’ll be watching her face to enjoy her reactions, and because I’ll not be watching those Pennywise scenes again. Fuck that. No way.
IT is in UK cinemas from Friday.