USA 2017 135 mins Dir: Andres Muschietti Cast: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Sophia Lillis
Although The Dark Tower was both a crushing disappointment and a commercial flop, the good thing about Stephen King film and TV adaptations is that there’ll always be another one along in a minute. Fortunately, IT earns a place somewhere in the upper quartile, despite being a tad over-reliant on rote horror movie jolts and cliches. Oddly however, if you extract the killer clown and pleasingly plentiful nasty gore, the King adaptation this resembles most closely is that atypically sweet coming-of-age flick Stand by Me.
Mama director Andres Muschietti updates the story from the 1950s to 1989, but this being smalltown America (Derry, Maine, since you’re asking) it’s primarily pop culture that has changed. This permits fun to be had with vintage Airwolf and Anthrax T-shirts, New Kids on the Block references and even a Molly Ringwald gag for those who remember the actress whose casting in Brat Pack movies (ask your mum) was compulsory. A cinema advertising Nightmare on Elm Street 5 also acts as a sly acknowledgement of thematic similarity between King’s sinister clown and Freddy Krueger, who prey on teens through their fears and dreams respectively.
The striking opening scenes will be familiar from the 1990 TV mini-series, but Muschietti stamps his own stylish mark on it as little Georgie chases his paper boat in the driving rain until it disappears down a storm drain. First seen as a pair of cold, penetrating eyes, Pennywise the dancing clown peers back up from within its dark recesses and offers a balloon. Magnificently played by Bill Skarsgård with a blend of sheer menace and inveigling charm, augmented by a nervous chuckle and multiple layers of pointy teeth, he’s a fabulous horror creation who promptly proves his worth by biting off little Georgie’s arm and dragging the hapless boy into the sewer.
We then meet the self-styled Losers’ Club – a gang of bullied outcast kids led by Georgie’s stammering older brother Bill (Lieberher): the fat boy (Taylor), the nerdy Jewish kid (Oleff), the hypochondriac (Grazer), the sweary bigmouth (splendidly named Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things), the home-schooled African-American boy (Jacobs), and so on. Some of these struggle to make much of an impression beyond their sole defining characteristic, but the young actors work comfortably together as an effective Stand By Me/Goonies-style ensemble, their characters’ real-life ordeals at the hands of parents and peers being just as harrowing as the supernatural ones. Bringing a touch of Manic Pixie Dream Girl to the proceedings is feisty tomboy Beverly (Lillis) – who’s lusted over by her fellow Losers, especially fat boy, but endures the most miserable home life at the hands of her sexually abusive father.
Having determined that Pennywise – or It, as they dub him – is an evil shape-shifting entity who returns every 27 years in search of tasty nippers, the Losers must decamp to his subterranean lair and overcome their fears to polish him off. Along the way, we revisit such familiar, venerable horror movie staples as the cobwebby old abandoned house straight out of Scooby-Doo and the scary bathroom sequence (whose gallons of gushing blood will put King enthusiasts in mind of similar sequences in Carrie and The Shining). As plotting continues to exert its steely grip, IT builds to the traditional FX-laden climax, after which we’re informed that we’ve just watched chapter one. Given the projected box office performance of this instalment, it’s a safe bet that we won’t have to wait 27 years for the concluding part.