Review – It (2017)

When I went to see Annabelle: Creation, there was a preview clip (not a traditional trailer) for the first theatrical adaptation of Stephen King’s legendary novel, It.  We were shown the famous scene near the beginning of the story where little Georgie is confronted by Pennywise, who is lurking in the storm drain.  In just that few minutes, I was absolutely enthralled by Bill Skarsgård’s commanding and charismatic performance as the infamous demon to the point that I just wanted to keep watching it and forget about Annabelle.  And, while I enjoyed Annabelle, I honestly think said enjoyment was smothered by what I had seen in that clip previous to the film.  I had high expectations for It before that.  But, much like when the elevator battle clip from Captain America: The Winter Soldier was previewed before screenings of Thor: The Dark World, the clip had confirmed that I need not worry; It was going to be spectacular.

Right on schedule (according to legend), it’s been 27 years since Pennywise arrived to terrorize both the children of Derry, Maine, as well as audiences around the globe.  In 1990, King’s epic novel about a demon who takes the form of a clown in order to feed on children was adapted into a two-part, three-hour (without commercials) television movie.  That movie has gone on to perhaps become the most beloved television movie ever made (Roots and The Thorn Birds are the only competition I can think of and I’m not sure the word “beloved” is what I would use to describe either of those).  Tim Curry’s terrifying performance as Pennywise brought him as much love and recognition as his role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and has also stood the test of time.

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But, as much love as that movie has received over the last 27 years, it seems as though everyone knew it was destined for something bigger.  It’s quite rare that audiences don’t whine when a remake is announced, but when Warner Brothers revealed that It was finally making the leap to the big screen, there was nothing but celebration from fans.  Without the budgetary and content restrictions of television, Pennywise could be fully realized in all of his horror and it would hopefully be glorious for us all.

But it hasn’t been an easy journey.  Originally, director Cary Fukunaga was tapped to helm the production and even got extremely deep into the process before deciding to bow out and leave Warner Brothers to virtually start from scratch.  He and the studio couldn’t reconcile their budgetary or creative differences, which led to Fukunaga stepping aside in 2015, just a few weeks before cameras were slated to roll.

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Taking his place is fresh-face director Andy Muschietti (Mama).  The decision was eventually made to separate King’s story into two parts, which is actually very easy to do, for those familiar with his original book.  King’s narrative follows his group of protagonists at two different times in their lives: first when they were children and initially encounter Pennywise and then 27 years later when Pennywise makes his regularly-scheduled return to their sleepy little New England town.  This first film tells their childhood story.  A second installment (as of now unscheduled, but reportedly fast-tracked) will presumably follow the adult portion of the narrative.

But Muschietti couldn’t make the film alone.  As important as having a capable director with a love and understanding of the source material was finding the perfect Pennywise.  Audiences generally have (often unfairly) high expectations of every horror film they see, but not only is this a rare event horror film, but the memory of Tim Curry has never faded and is an awful lot to live up to.  But the new Pennywise couldn’t just be a rehash of Curry’s performance.  Warner Brothers needed someone who could reinvent the role and make it their own in the still-trembling wake of Curry’s iconic portrayal of the classic monster.  They needed a Pennywise version of The Dark Knight‘s Heath Ledger to Batman‘s Jack Nicholson.

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Muschietti and Warner Brothers found him in relatively-unknown Bill Skarsgård.  If Skarsgård didn’t deliver, then nothing else would matter.  And deliver he does.  As suggested by that preview clip that I was fated to catch before Annabelle, he gives as magnetic a performance as I’ve witnessed, this year.  My only complaint is that I wanted more.  I wanted to see more of him manipulating the children, the way he manipulates Georgie.  Even with a running time of well over two hours (and being cut in half, to boot), King’s mammoth tome required trimming.  There’s no time to fool around and the festivities kick in rather quickly.  Not quite too quickly, but Pennywise doesn’t have time for a lot of subtle games.

So, as Pennywise commences his torture of the children of Derry and – more specifically – our protagonists, the Losers’ Club, Skarsgård fully commits.  When he gets the chance to be nuanced, it’s splendid to watch.  And when it’s time to go full-bore, it’s terrifying.  There are some more subtle, mostly unspoken characteristics of Pennywise that Skarsgård communicates perfectly to the audience while never coming across as heavy-handed or as though his physical mannerisms are unnatural or contrived.  There’s a finesse buried within the mania of Pennywise that I hope audiences are able to recognize.

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But most of the screen time goes to the Losers’ Club, and that’s not a bad thing.  The cast of kids chosen to play these roles is full of talented actors who come across as real and authentic pre/early-teens.  They talk and act like middle-schoolers, but they also hide fears deep within themselves.  Pennywise preys on these fears and it’s the kids who make it work.  If they aren’t convincing, then the viewer doesn’t care.  If the viewer doesn’t care, there’s no empathy.  If there’s no empathy, there’s no emotional investment.  And without emotional investment, there’s no fear.  Because, lets be honest; we don’t fear for ourselves when watching horror movies.  We fear for the characters on the screen.  At least, if both the filmmakers and we do our jobs right.  And these kids do.

As far as the horror elements go, I imagine I’ll have a different response than most.  I’ve read all of Stephen King’s books.  I’ve seen most of the adaptations of his work.  And It is one of my favorites, both in terms of his novels and the original movie.  So, this particular story isn’t scary for me, anymore.  For me, this felt like going back to a favorite vacation spot that I hadn’t visited in a while: things were kind of different than I remembered, but mostly the same, and very comforting.  Yes, I’m comforted by a story about a child-eating demon who masquerades as a clown.  What do you want me to say?  I APOLOGIZE FOR NOTHING!

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But the audience that I was a part of reacted accordingly and in the desired fashion.  Pennywise isn’t the only demon is this tale.  There are several other personal, non-supernatural demons that haunt our leads, so it’s scary on several levels.  And it’s delivered in a way that mostly curbs the typically inappropriate responses one usually hears at a horror film (laughing at reprehensible actions or deaths, etc.).  There is some deliberate humor sprinkled throughout the film to ease the tension and allow for that release.  But Pennywise, himself, isn’t funny.  And if you’re laughing at him, you should probably be asking your psychiatrist why.

As far as recent horror films go, It doesn’t quite reach the heights of the Conjuring series (Muschietti lacks James Wan’s experience with mood and timing and, as good as the kids are, they aren’t at the level of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), but it stands tall with the best of the rest and above the vast majority of scary movies that have come out over the last ten years.  It’s certainly in the running for the best adaptation of one of King’s works (but let’s not forget The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile) and almost certainly the best horror adaptation.  It’s also pretty easily the best horror film of the year, with plenty of scares and atmosphere that’s well-balanced with character, story, and nostalgia.  It is exactly what you expect and exactly what you want.  So . . . don’t you want to say, “Hello?”

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