IT is the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s classic horror novel of the same name. The story, and its signature antagonist Pennywise the Dancing Clown, are maybe best know from the 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry. This new version takes the first half of the story, following 7 young friends in Derry, a small town in Maine, who are terrorised by this evil presence, as many other children from the town go missing.
A lot of the focus on the film will revolve around Bill Skarsgård’s performance as Pennywise, but whilst his performance is great, it’s the 7 young actors who play the members of the Losers’ Club who really stand out and make this version of IT so memorable. Jaeden Lieberher, who plays Bill, the character who lost his younger brother to Pennywise, is absolutely brilliant in the film. He has one moment in particular in which he gives a speech in front of an abandoned house where he gives a performance so good that you wouldn’t expect from such a young actor. The other real stand out is Sophia Lillis as Beverly, particularly in the scenes involving her abusive father. But all of the young actors are great, they truly sell the friendship between these characters, you believe in their bond that is so crucial to this story, which is as much a coming of age tale as it is a horror one.
As for Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise, he had an awful lot to live up to as Tim Curry’s performance is still held up by many as one of the iconic horror villains. Skarsgård doesn’t have huge amounts of the film to showcase what he can do in the role, as the primary focus is the Losers’ Club, but when he does get to he’s excellent. He brings an otherworldly feeling to the character, which really fits the trans-dimensional alien that Pennywise is. He has the joyful innocence that you’d expect in Pennywise when he’s trying to lure the children in, but it’s the way that Skarsgård can drop this and become so inhuman that makes it such a creepy performance. The effects on Pennywise have also come a long way since the miniseries, and allow him to be so menacing throughout.
And he delivers on making Pennywise a scary and menacing character. If you’re scared of clowns then the film will absolutely terrify you. Director Andy Muschietti brilliantly executes the way that Pennywise manipulates the children’s individual fears. IT doesn’t overly rely on jump scares, there is a couple, but it manages to avoid most horror clichés. Even if you aren’t scared of clowns, you can’t escape the feel of unease that Muschietti manages to create. The whole town feels wrong, and the parents and the other adults that the Losers’ Club encounters make you feel so uncomfortable. The levels or violence, bullying, and abuse that Pennywise had brought to Derry are what really unsettles you out about IT, not the scary clown who is just the face of this.
Andy Muschietti and screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman do a terrific job of bringing Stephen King’s work to life. They resist the temptation to go too overboard with some of the more out there moments in the novel. So if you were hoping for Maturin to make an appearance then I wouldn’t hold your breath, but most of these changes help to keep the film far more grounded, and as a result far creepier. The forms that It takes are more limited as well; as this version of It focuses on haunting the Loser’s specific fears, rather than taking more generic “scary” forms.
The only real problem that this version of IT has is that a couple of the central characters, mainly Stanley and Mike feel a little shortchanged in this adaptation. We don’t really dive into Ritchie’s back-story either, but he gets enough opportunities to stand out almost as the comic relief member of the group. It feels as though there is more to explore with Stanley, although he gets his moments in the story. With Mike they lay out his character, and the fears that IT plays on very well, but he just doesn’t get to contribute hugely towards the story, as his role as the town historian has been handed over to Ben in this version.
But for the most part IT is a pretty great Stephen King adaptation. The friendship of the Loser’s Club and the coming of age aspect work brilliantly. And the whole feeling of unease that Andy Muschietti is able to create in the film makes it very effective as a horror film, although it is more unsettling than scary if you don’t have a fear of clowns. IT manages to avoid a lot of the horror clichés and as a result stands out as one of the best, and well made, horror films in recent years.