After months of movie teasers and trailers promising a treat to Stephen King’s fanbase and horror genre buffs in general, It was released to instantly become a worldwide monster hit. The hype is well earned this time, as not only are moviegoers turning up by the thousands to see Argentine director Andy Muschietti’s adaptation, but even some big industry names came out to praise it, such as Canadian wunderkind filmmaker Xavier Dolan, who penned a passionate online post about his “favourite film this century,” saying It is “what entertainment should always be like, and also what it so rarely is.”
What is It, though? The Stephen King novel about the blood-thirsty shapeshifting entity preying on the fears of its victims already had a memorable TV adaptation in the 1990s, with Tim Curry famously playing the sadistic clown Pennywise. Muschietti revisits the Derry, Maine, horror scene and moves it to 1989 when King had set the initial story in the 1950s, the decade of his own childhood. In a press conference held earlier this week in Buenos Aires, an easygoing Muschietti, still dazed by the film’s box office hit, explained why he wanted to change gears a bit: “Mr. King portrays the childhood of the 1950s and the fears are very related to the monsters in the movies, from Dracula to Frankenstein to the Mummy to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I wanted to explore the fears in depth, link them to childhood traumas rather than movie monsters.”
Set in a 1980s opaque Derry, Maine, the story follows the Losers, a group of young misfits on their summer break as they try to dodge the town’s bullies and embark on a search for a missing child they believed may have been washed away through the sewers during a storm. The dreary world of the town’s decaying ironworks and slaughterhouses is contrasted with the sunny images of the kids frolicking, cliff-jumping and riding their bikes as they seem to bond effortlessly and drop an endless supply of witty repartee filled with F-bombs and “Your mom” jokes. The colourful group sets off as mere stereotypes – the stuttering thoughtful kid (Jaeden Lieberher), the smart mouth (Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame), the fat kid (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the asthmatic hypochondriac (Jack Dylan Grazer), the black kid (Chosen Jacobs), the Jewish kid (Wyatt Oleff), and the pretty girl (Sophia Lillis).
Topping the monster. As for Pennywise the Dancing Clown, many had speculated what the new film would come up with to top Tim Curry’s monster. Bill Skarsgård is in a league of his own as a twitchy, alien and unpredictable presence. Muschietti said this week he wanted to portray a character that would bring a feeling of undefined ancestral horror, since this clown had many features from different eras. “The 20th-century clown, the creepy clown with a colourful wig and baggy clothes, had already been done and I wanted to do something more sophisticated. The monster’s image is very speculative because most of what we know of It comes from the children’s perspective but there is a moment when the protagonist asks: ‘What if the monster eats kids because they tell us that’s what monsters do?’ And when Stephen King gets into It’s head, the thoughts are very simple and childish, so that may confirm the suspicion that this is a mythology created by the kids’ minds.”
The scares are perhaps more chilling when It appears to each kid separately, preying on their individual fears, from the leprous zombie to the menacing wall portrait coming to life and from the blood-spurting bathroom sink to the protagonist’s vision of his missing little brother uttering the trademark works: “You’ll float too.”
Skilfully shot by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, It doesn’t lack in stunning visuals and tends to juxtapose wide-angle, natural daylight scenes with grimmer indoor shots, which often play to composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s soundtrack of lissom pieces, rustling woodwinds and children’s voices. The minutely designed sets will tickle any lingering 1980s nostalgias, as will the period-appropriate rock music.
Muschietti’s It is that rare action-packed film that manages to retain at all times the feel of its premise with astounding naturalness: the kids’ youthful innocence doesn’t fade out in a world tainted by abusive, negligent or manipulative adults or threatened by the metaphors or spectres of growing up. It carries them through – and the viewers as well – quite brilliantly from childish mishaps to spine-chilling encounters with an otherworldly clown to something that is not a bitter end of a spooky summer but a sunlight-filled closing of a chapter. This Chapter 1 of It is a tremendous ode to childhood: its mix of danger and wonder is one of the best to grace the big screen in recent times.
Muschietti is set to direct Chapter 2, when the kids, all grown-up, return to face It again, and he said the sequel will feature flashes of the young characters to whom audiences reacted so well.
If you’re set on comparing this to the 1990 mini-series, control alt-delete that. It may be based on the same book but the similarities are few and far between. Where this adaptation pays more tribute to the book is not necessarily in its faithfulness to the facts on King’s pages, but in managing to transcend the mere display of horror to allow the larger story to sink its hooks into the audience.
Muschietti’s It will definitely make you float too – but this is the best kind of floating.