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Saturday, September 09, 2017

It

Stephen King is one of the hardest writers to adapt to the big screen.  That's why it's such a joy to see one of his most famous horror stories, It, be adapted so deftly.  The movie only covers roughly the first half of the book (The end credits promise this is only Chapter One, with the second film set for release in 2019.), but it doesn't feel incomplete or leave audiences wanting.  This is as thrilling, exciting, funny and as crowd-pleasing as a movie based on one of King's books has ever been.

King's original story (which weighed in at a massive 1,138 pages) has already been adapted famously back in 1990 with a two-part TV miniseries that played up the shock horror, and featured a scene-chewing performance by Tim Curry as the villain, a monstrous entity that takes the form of a child-killing clown named Pennywise.  Curry played the character to the highest tilt, as is his style, and pretty much gave a performance that was all at once terrifying and pure camp.  Director Andy Muscheietti (2013's Mama) goes for a much subtler approach with the story.  Rather than hit you over the head with the shocks like the previous film, and play up the presence of the evil clown as much as possible, this take prefers to take a more subtle and eerie approach.  There are frights for sure, but the film also emphasizes the adventure element and the humor that can be found in the story.  King's story was deep and complex, and while the movie does not perfectly capture its complexity, it does a much better job at pulling off its mixed nature of tone and elements than the earlier film adaptation did.

It has always been a mix of a sweet coming of age story about a bunch of kids bonding in friendship, and a supernatural horror story, and that's what this movie gets and pulls off.  It's a difficult balancing act.  Go too far in either direction, and the movie would suffer severe and possibly fatal tonal shifts.  Muscheietti guides the film with a steady hand, and creates the right balance.  The way it flows from the stuff with the kids (who all look and act like they stepped out of an 80s Spielberg movie), to the horror elements with the evil creature lurking in the sewers and snatching local children away, it all works here and creates an experience that is memorable and fun.  You could say that the recent success of the Netflix series Stranger Things (which shares a lot of the same elements) probably gave the filmmakers a template to work off of, and you would probably be right.  But, this always manages to feel like a tribute to a beloved novel, not a cash in on something else that's popular.  There have been some omissions and changes made from the original story, obviously, but the important thing is that the movie understands why the story worked, and the important elements are represented up there on the screen.

Just as in previous tellings of the story, the town of Derry, Maine is being besieged by a series of child kidnappings and disappearances.  In the original story, the setting was 1958, but here things have been updated to summer 1989, and the movie has some fun with some nostalgic throwbacks in the background. (One of the kids has a Beetlejuice poster on his wall, and the local theater is showing Tim Burton's Batman and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5.  There are also some very funny references to The New Kids on the Block throughout.) The child kidnappings and murders are the result of a creature that lives beneath the city, and has been terrorizing it literally for centuries.  It can change its shape into whatever form it chooses in order to lure in or terrify children (the creature is attracted to the smell of fear), but its favorite form to assume is that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard).  Unlike Curry's take on the homicidal clown, Skarsgard is much more subtle, and has an almost child-like innocence to his line delivery.  That's what makes it all the more terrifying when the character suddenly turns vicious and attacks, as he does in the opening scene, when a poor little boy named Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) has an unfortunate run-in with the clown, which kicks off the series of murders and kidnappings.

Georgie's older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher, recovering nicely from The Book of Henry), becomes obsessed with his brother's disappearance, and wants to spend his summer vacation looking for clues as to what happened to him.  This is one major difference from the original story, as in previous versions, there was no denying what had happened to poor Georgie.  Bill hangs out with a group of kids who are all outcasts in school for one reason or another, and so they call themselves the Losers Club.  Bill, himself, has a terrible stutter when he talks, which makes him an easy target for local bully Henry Bowers (Nicolas Hamilton) and his friends.  Bill's friends include the smart-mouthed and wise cracking Ritchie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), who is a hypochondriac and seems to know everything about every disease known to man, and average kid Stanley Uris (Wyatt Olef).  During the course of the summer, their group becomes bigger as they are joined up by the sweet natured and overweight Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the recently orphaned Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), who lost his parents in a fire, and the tomboyish Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis).

As the children dig deeper into the mystery surrounding their town, they not only learn about its dark history of murder and tragedy, but also form an inseparable bond.  They have all had experiences with the supernatural evil, and since many of the adults in town cannot see or are not aware of the creature's actions, they decide that they must be the ones to stop the monster's current killing spree.  The friendship that forms between the kids is what sets this version of It apart from the earlier TV movie.  This film devotes plenty of time to let us get to know and love these kids, and when they get together, they create one of the more natural and innocent depictions of childhood friendship to hit the screen in a while.  It certainly helps that these are all talented kids, and that the screenplay gives them unique personalities so they can play off one another.  Whether they are riding down the streets of Derry on their bikes and talking about girls, or confronting an ancient evil in the sewers, this movie never forgets that their bond is the most important aspect of the story.  This gives the film a surprising amount of innocence, heart and humor to go with the terror.

And when it does come time for the scares to come, the film is mostly successful.  I say mostly, because while the filmmakers have a real knack for atmosphere and for creating tension, they also have an unfortunate habit of relying a bit too heavily on CG for their monster effects.  The special effects that are employed here are not terrible, but they simply do not have the same skin crawling effectiveness as Skarsgard as the clown.  Just watch his performance, and the ways his eyes shift (often in different directions in the same time, like he is checking all corners for any adults who may be coming), combined with his line delivery.  It's one of the better "monster" performances I've seen.  But whenever the movie requires a more complex vision of terror, it turns to CG, and it's just never as convincing or as scary.  I understand why it is necessary, but it can't help but take you out of the film when a blatantly animated monster is suddenly standing in front of the kids.  These moments are the only time when It loses just a little bit of its creepy effectiveness.  Fortunately, there are plenty of moments that are successfully pulled off, most memorably Beverly's encounter with the evil in her bathroom sink.

In all fairness, I couldn't be happier with this adaptation.  It not only manages to create some genuinely frightening images, but it also has a sense of wonder to it, and some genuinely heartfelt and even laugh out loud moments.  This makes it so much more than just a horror story.  It's a total entertainment from beginning to end, and it has left me anxious for the second installment.  After the embarrassing Dark Tower movie we got last month, this is Stephen King done right.

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