The second adaptation of Stephen King’s notorious novel takes It to the big screen with a big budget.

It is actually the first of two parts, yet can also function as a self-contained film, and It‘s1 makers clearly hope It will become the movie of Halloween ’17.

Title: It aka It: Chapter One aka It Chapter One: The Losers’ Club

Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, from the novel by Stephen King.

Cast
Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denbrough
Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh
Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben Hanscom
Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier
Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon
Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie Kaspbrak
Wyatt Oleff as Stanley Uris
Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise
Nicholas Hamilton as Henry Bowers
Jake Sim as Belch Huggins
Logan Thompson as Victor Criss
Owen Teague as Patrick Hockstetter
Jackson Robert Scott as Georgie Denbrough
Stephen Bogaert as Marsh
Stuart Hughes as Bowers
Geoffrey Pounsett as Zach Denbrough
Pip Dwyer as Sharon Denbrough
Molly Atkinson as Sonia Kasprak
Steven Williams as Leroy Hanlon
Elizabeth Saunders as Mrs. Starret
Megan Charpentier as Gretta

Premise:

In 1989, a group of middle-school outcasts2 discover that an eldritch evil inhabits their town, feeding on fear and death every twenty-seven years.

High Point:

The titular It plays on people’s fears, and the film captures that fact brilliantly in some scenes. The opening nastily evokes commonplace childhood terrors, while Beverly’s washroom encounter illustrates the fears associated with becoming an adult, physically and psychologically.

The child actors play nicely off each other, resulting in several funny moments that counterpoint the horror. The film’s strong performances have been addressed in additional detail elsewhere in this review.

Low Points

The actors do well, but they’re fighting a running time that shortchanges full development of any one character, a definite drawback in a town peopled by types. Connection to the characters, of course, is crucial to sharing and feeling their fears.

It focuses only on the novel’s childhood portions, updated to 1989. A sequel will handle the adult plot. The choice makes cinematic sense, but robs the story of depth.

The Scores:

Originality: 2/6 We have the second adaptation of the notorious novel. Pop will eat itself, apparently: It stars Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things, a series influenced by both Steves, Spielberg and King, and the film shows more than a little influence of Stand by Me, itself an adaptation of a King story.

Effects: 5/6 It features strong effects. Viewers will be conscious of the fact that they are effects.

Acting: 5/6 The success of It depends on the performances. The script may shortchange the characters in places, but the actors do not. Jaeden Lieberher leads the pack, with Sophia Lillis giving us a strong Beverly and Finn Wolfhard getting frequent laughs as Richie. I could have watched an entire film about these characters doofing around.

Bill Skarsgård’s performance—including his movement—make for an effective and disturbing Pennywise. While he’s supported by clever effects, the distinctive make-up and history-blending costume ultimately work against him. His look feels too overtly frightful and otherworldly, meaning he may have to accept second-place to Tim Curry’s 1990 interpretation, which had an element of visual subtlety, insofar as killer clowns can be visually subtle. Curry’s Pennywise could almost pass as a real clown; Skarsgård’s is clearly a monster. Skarsgård, however, inhabits a superior overall adaptation.

Production: 6/6 The movie features excellent production values, from its use of Port Hope, Ontario and Toronto’s Riverdale to represent most of the Maine exteriors, and its artificial sewer convergence house of horrors. The sense of place and history, central to King’s writing, is better-handled than in many adaptations of his work.

Story: 4/6

The film features a strong start, faithfully adapting the opening of the source novel. It moves awkwardly between some scenes, and the shortened length and changes minimize the role played by some characters. Mike, in particular, gets shortchanged, due to the different social attitudes of the 1980s time-period and the sharing of his historian’s role with Ben.

The ending feels a little cheesy, and it cheats us of any broader consequences. We don’t get, for example, any further sightings of Henry Bowers, who, in the book turns up, bedraggled and insane, and gets blamed for the murders and imprisoned. Collective amnesia aside, the town was actively investigating the death and disappearance of multiple children. As in the novel, they should have found some way to account for these events before they moved on.

Emotional Response: 4/6 It is well-made, but not overly scary.

Overall: 5/6

Stephen King established himself as a successful storyteller in the 1970s; his writing was sometimes characterized as uneven, but he understood the place of horror in the broader culture and, if his characters were often stock, they spouted snappy dialogue and inhabited credible locales. The apotheosis of King’s early work may be Different Seasons, which indicated his considerable talent for writing something other than conventional horror.

In the 1980s, the celebrity author began drinking heavily and using cocaine—he claims he has no memory of writing Cujo. He still had good ideas and a knack for narration, but his books became bloated, uneven, and in desperate need of a really good collaborative editor. King persevered, gave up his drugs, and demonstrated tremendous maturity and scope in his post 1990 writing.

It reflects the best and worst of his 80s oeuvre. It‘s a memorable book with a great sense of fictional history, but It features a number of odd missteps. Children see themselves murdered in a photo that comes to life, confirm that they both saw this, and then casually head to a horror movie. An old man retells the tale of a massacre from his youth, and only then finds it odd that the mysterious clown who took part cast no shadow. And we won’t get into the novel’s infamous and baffling kiddie group sex scene.

Any adaptation has to address the novel’s complexity and its flaws. The 1990 version had to simplify matters and lessen frights for period television, but it captured some of the creepiness, as it wrestled with the fragmented time-structure. In the end, the TV version is a mediocre adaptation, uplifted by some strong performances by the child actors and one excellent one by Tim Curry.

This 2017 film focuses only on the childhood portions, updated to 1989. A sequel will handle the adult plot. The choice makes cinematic sense, but robs the story of depth. At times, It feels like an old-school Disney family movie gone horrifically awry.

It‘s not the best horror movie of 2017, but It may well be the best Halloween Movie.

In total, It receives 31/42

Note

1. To repeat a comment I made when I retro-reviewed the mini-series, this is the one time the correct possessive form is It’s.

2. The kids are a couple of years older in the movie than in the book.