Review: IT (2017) 'the best Stephen King horror adaptation blending terror with a coming-of-age drama'


Joseph Friar

By Joseph Friar
Sept. 7, 2017 at 9:23 p.m.


IT (2017)

Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgard, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott

Directed by Andy Muschietti 

It’s hard for a film to compete with your imagination and maybe that’s why there hasn’t been one Stephen King adaptation that’s frightened me more than the book.  Sitting alone in the dark, buried deep in one of King’s stories, I can imagine some pretty scary shite.  Andy Muschietti’s R-rated adaptation of “IT” not only gives my thoughts a run for their money it’s also the scariest reworking of a King horror novel.  The film features a talented young cast and a bone chilling depiction of Pennywise by Bill Skarsgard whose performance joins the iconic ranks of Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger and Doug Bradley’s Pinhead.    

Director Andy Muschetti grew up reading Stephen King novels and his love for the author comes blazing through in this updated version of “IT.”  The film is truly frightening but it’s more than just a horror flick. Like King’s novel, the film is a character driven coming-of-age drama (think Stand by Me) mixed with horror.  The book was released in 1986 and the storyline opened in the 50’s but Muschetti’s adaptation opens in 1989 complete with songs by The Cure, The Cult, and New Kids on the Block plus references to Tim Burton’s “Batman” and 80’s icon Molly Ringwald.  It’s a smart move by the director since this generation seems to be enamored with the eighties and the second chapter of the film will then fall in the present day.  

The frightening events that happen in Derry, Maine take place every 27 years as Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgard) awakens from his slumber to feast on the children of the small town.  The incredibly talented cast of young actors includes Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), a stuttering preteen whose six-year-old brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) has gone missing, foulmouthed best friend Richie (Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things), Jewish pessimist Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), and hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), collectively they are known as the “Losers Club.”  The nerdy group of boys are often victimized by school bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), a psychotic teenager with a mullet who is almost as frightening as Pennywise.  The rest of the young cast is rounded out by Sophia Lillis as red-haired Beverly, the only female to join the Losers Club, Jeremy Ray Taylor as overweight bookworm Ben, and Chosen Jacobs as Mike, an African American orphan who works for his grandfather in a slaughterhouse.   

Muschetti along with writers Chase Palmer, Cary Joji Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman focus on the coming-of-age portion of King’s novel splitting the story into two parts.  At 135-minutes, the film takes it’s time defining each of the characters while the sequel will focus on the grown-up versions of the Losers Club as they return to Derry 27 years later to face the evil that terrified them in their youth.  There are funny moments and a deep sense of camaraderie between the group and when they are not being terrorized by Pennywise the story takes on a tone similar to Spielberg’s “The Goonies.”  Each one of the characters in “IT” is facing real-life horrors such as racism and abuse, both physical and sexual.  It through these traumatic experiences that the group finds strength and courage.  Among the excellent cast Lieberher and Lillis standout out by delivering mature performances as the film’s two main protagonists that hold the group together.  

When discussing “IT” I’m always asked, “Is it scary?”  The answer is “Yes” but it’s a fright that is constituted by the terrifying images of Pennywise and his various incarnations.  Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, we witness the evil clown morphing into various forms, some more frightening than the others.  The special effects are impressive and they make up for the lack of building tension.  The film is rated R for violence and bloody images plus occasional profanity so this is not a watered-down version of the book although there are some changes including the omission of Beverly’s sexual scene with the boys. 

“IT” is one of the best Stephen King adaptations to hit the big screen and it carries the same weight as horror classics Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Halloween.  Muschietti, who caught the attention of Guillermo del Toro with his short film Mama, does an excellent job of reworking King’s novel.  The riveting climax is satisfying, it doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. Then as the title “IT” appears on screen the words “Chapter One” are superimposed, an exciting reminder that a sequel is on the way. 

(3 1/2 stars) 

Opens Friday September 8 in theaters.   



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