While his eight volume cycle The Dark Toweris considered by many to be the greatest achievement of Stephen King, it is his 1986 novel It which is often regarded as his single greatest standalone work, though that term is somewhat inaccurate as it does also link to many of his other stories, the town of Derry, Maine, within a short drive of the settings of several of his other tales of horror domestic and supernatural.
The original novel set across two time periods recounting the lives of “the Losers’ Club” in 1957 and 1984 as both children and adults, that structure was recreated in the 1990 miniseries directed by Hallowe’en III‘s Tommy Lee Wallace starring Tim Curry as Pennywise but is significantly altered in this new feature film version by Andy Muschietti where only the portions of the story pertaining to the childhood experiences of the characters are depicted but shifted forward in time to the summer of 1989.
The year after George, younger brother of Bill Denbrough, vanished in a rainstorm, never to be seen again, despite being updated to a time when Bill’s bedroom is decorated with posters for Gremlins and Beetlejuice it is a faithful creation of the world depicted by King in forensic detail, George sensing the evil which permeates Derry as much as the grey rain even before he leaves the house where every corner hides nightmares, the darkened basement, the open risers of the downward leading stairs.
Like the storm which swept George away, in Derry everything leads underground to the labyrinthine lair of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (a manic performance by Atomic Blonde‘s Bill Skarsgård), his eyes shifting in focus and colour as he teases shiny promises through his Bugs Bunny teeth, but that rain also sweeps together the seven children who become the Losers’ Club.
Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), new kid in school Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and latecomer Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) each have their own traumas, parents consumed in grief, overbearing mothers, overly possessive fathers, trapped in a town which breeds cruelty where a blind eye is turned and violence and murder are a cycle repeating every twenty seven years.
Much of King’s juvenile banter carried forward unchanged, hardening them against the true barbs and blades which lie elsewhere, Ben’s research into his new home reveals the rate of disappearances and murders in Derry is six times the national average for adults, higher still for children, and with more missing persons posters than Santa Carla, “murder capital of the world,” it is not a safe place for anyone.
The back-and-forth structure of the novel offering a counterpoint and perspective to the events of the past, robbed of this the film quickly becomes repetitive as the children each experience nightmares driven by the ubiquitous presence of Pennywise, the dreamlike aspects inevitably reminding of A Nightmare on Elm Street yet with overdone apparitions who border on the comical rather than the horrifying, Pennywise never sufficiently terrifying in any of his many guises and as with Muschietti’s pitiful Mama the obvious digital work lacks presence or menace.
Echoing the repeating cycle of Derry on a smaller scale the film is essentially variations on the same scene over and over, and without the return of the adults and their climactic confrontation with Pennywise, saved for a proposed sequel as yet not even in production, it lacks a grander structure to hold the narrative together.
Crucially hobbled by the 15 certificate of the film, Benjamin Wallfisch’s soundtrack positions It more as an eighties children’s fantasy adventure movie than horror and possibly through the powerful influence of the source material the screenplay by Chase Palmer, True Detective‘s Cary Fukunaga, originally scheduled to direct, and Annabelle‘s Gary Dauberman feels tame and derivative and insufficient to maintain interest across the two and a quarter hour runtime.
While undoubtedly half of a better adaptation than the miniseries whose adherence to television standards and practices undermined any hope of recreating the depth, complexity and horror of King’s novel, though the young cast of leads are all excellent, particularly Lillis as the feisty and defiant Bev, so far the book remains the unchallenged definitive telling of this particular story to which this is another pale and soggy subterranean pretender.
It is currently on general release and also screening in IMAX