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Review: It

September 30, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Stephen King’s 1986 novel It is a mammoth text that has become a definitive classic of the horror genre, following a group of friends in the small town of Derry, Maine who have to band together to defeat a terrifying demonic figure who takes the form of a clown named Pennywise.

The book was turned into a two-part miniseries in 1990, with Tim Curry delivering an iconic performance as the killer clown.  Now It has gotten a proper big screen adaptation, and the wait was well worth it.  This is a film that’s just as scary, intense, entertaining and surprisingly emotional as you want it to be, offering a non-stop thrill ride that is a total blast to watch.

The film opens with Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) making a newspaper boat for his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott).  When Georgie floats the boat down a puddle in a rainstorm and it ends up going down a sewer, the menacing face of the shape-shifting Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) pops up offering him a red balloon, and the young boy gruesomely meets his fate.  Cut to a few months later, and Bill is still grieving the loss of his little brother, insistent that he is only missing since no body was ever found.

When more kids go missing and strange things start happening around town, Bill enlists the help of his friends – the wisecracking Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard); nervous germophobe Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer); nerdy rabbi’s son Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff); chubby new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor); lone female Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis); and butcher’s helper Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), who has a fascination with the town’s dark history – to get to the bottom of things.  The kids are outcasts who all face threats from a gang of bullies led by the psychopathic Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and they band together to form the Losers Club, determined to stand up to their fears and take down Pennywise, who emerges from the sewers every 27 years to wreak havoc on their town.

Directed by Andy Muschietti, and produced by his sister Barbara Muschietti – the same team behind the underrated 2013 horror film Mama – It is an adaptation that does justice to the source material, while also delivering a thrilling and wildly entertaining horror movie that stands on its own.  The production design is across the board excellent, nailing the look and feel of the 1980s, mainly utilizing locations in Toronto and Oshawa.  Tinged with autumn colours and utilizing low-angles, Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography recalls the Steven Spielberg classics from the decade in which the film is set, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s atmospheric musical score ups the tension at every turn.

The film earns its R rating and doesn’t shy away from grotesque images or bloody violence, but I’m also willing to bet that It will be a defining film for this generation of teens who are looking to get scared in all the best ways.  The film recalls elements of earlier Stephen King works, and instantly cements itself in the upper echelons of his film adaptations.  There are some changes that have been made from his novel, mainly updating the setting from 1959 to 1989, and foregoing the book’s crisscrossing narrative to only focus on the childhood portions of the story, with the adult side set to be portrayed in the upcoming It: Chapter Two.  But the film remains fundamentally true to the spirit of his work, offering a dark and chilling tale that works precisely because of the fact that it’s grounded around its characters.

The young cast does a great of filling out their roles, having amusing banter between them and playing off each other extremely well, while also delivering their own dramatic arcs.  Jaeden Lieberher continues to prove himself as one of our best child actors with a completely natural screen presence, and Sophia Lillis emerges like a breakout star, with the perfect mix of confidence and vulnerability.  Finn Wolfhard, who is easily recognizable from the stylistically similar Stranger Things, steals every scene and gets most of the best lines, delivering crude zingers with aplomb.  While he has some pretty big clown shoes to fill, Bill Skarsgård absolutely makes the role of Pennywise his own, disappearing behind the makeup and wig to deliver a menacing performance that carries with it an unpredictable energy.

Pennywise is a menacing figure, a monstrous being that feeds on fear and is able to attracts its victims by preying on their weakest points.  But equally terrifying are the bullies and abusive parents that the kids have to confront, and the clown becomes a physical representation of their collective fears, that they can only battle when banded together.  The film taps into something universal about the fear of being an adolescent, trapped somewhere between childhood and adulthood, when you’re just starting to see the world for what it is and learning how to navigate it on your own, but you’re also somewhat paralyzed from doing anything about it.

Fear is a powerful thing, and It is precisely so effective because it explores this emotion in all its many forms.  Fear of growing up, fear of being bullied or abused, and fear of being killed by the monster who lives in the sewers.  This is why It works so well, not only offering a terrifying monster movie but also an affecting coming of age tale, almost like Stand By Me crossed with a killer clown.  The film plays like a relentless haunted house, breathlessly offering jump scares and an assortment of various terrors that chase the kids, but it’s the relatable character drama that keeps us equally gripped.

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