Director: Andy Muschietti
Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård
Watch IT online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Don’t be surprised if a Stephen King cinematic universe gets going in the next few years. The long gestating adaptation of It (or It: Chapter One, as we should call it) was one of the big surprise hits of 2017, capturing the Stranger Things audience and coming at just the right time for horror fans and audiences alike. Even though it’s clearly been greenlit for fans of the King-esque Netflix series, it’s a bit of pop culture ouroboros that pays off nicely.
The film covers the first half of King’s unwieldy novel, updating the setting from the 1950s to the year 1989 and adapting certain other wilder aspects to make a more accessible horror adventure. Set in the town of Derry, ME, the story follows a misfit group of teenage friends – the so-called “Losers Club” – who run up against the titular entity, which appears in the guise of Pennywise the dancing clown (Bill Skarsgård).
Several months after the disappearance of his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) and his friends grow to believe that there’s something more sinister beneath the bad feeling that afflicts the town and its people. With the help of new friends Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), they have a number of terrifying encounters with Pennywise, as they try to overcome their fears and defeat It.
The film’s major success is in making you root for these kids. As in Stranger Things, you’ll be less interested in the supernatural machinations underpinning Derry’s abject awfulness than in the Losers Club. Performance wise, Lillis and Taylor are the standouts, but there’s an easy rapport between everyone in the young ensemble that immediately gets you more invested than you might otherwise be.
The well-developed characters are not the only aspect that makes It feel like a rare treat for horror fans. Director Andy Muschietti has made a classy horror picture of the kind that they don’t make any more. It doesn’t just rely on cheap jump scares and misanthropic twists to give you some fleeting jolts of terror, but makes you fear for the characters instead. It sounds simple, but it’s a masterstroke of suspense that he maintains focus on the kids and their terror, rather than, say, cutting away to adult characters every 10 minutes or so.
The scares are good too, with Skarsgård’s drooling, genuinely terrifying Pennywise setting out his own stall, separate from the iconic Tim Curry performance in the otherwise not very good miniseries version. One scene set in a garage is far and away the most exhilarating and effective set piece in a major horror flick for many a year, and Muschietti expertly harnesses genre expectations to keep the scares coming for the duration.
That’s not just down to Pennywise, either, and the film’s sense of place is a big part of how it creates a general feeling of unease, which lingers long after the credits have rolled. King’s fictional town is inhabited by bullies and cowards, with the unspoken effects of the supernatural terror only serving to underline the more mundane evil that lies in everyday life.
This has the adverse effect of making the more fantastical third act feel more muddled. Chapter 1 largely lays off on the specifics of the source material, but in deviating from some of the more infamous plot points, it also obfuscates its new workings. The characters generally elevate (or float) this rougher passage of the film, although the ensemble feeling drifts apart as it goes on – Wyatt Oleff and Chosen Jacobs both feel somewhat sidelined, while Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things’ Mike) steals scene after scene.
It is a hugely entertaining thrill ride that stands apart from just about every other horror film that studios have put out since, well, the 1980s. Despite some tonal vagaries, the main attractions are the intrepid youngsters and the otherworldly creep factor of Skarsgård’s performance. A prestige horror film this good, every once in a while, would be lovely, but let’s just see if Hollywood learns the right lessons from the resounding success of this one, starting with 2018’s Chapter Two…