When I was 16, I read Stephen King's brick of a novel in one weekend. This is both a testament to King's readability and to my dorkitude. I think I had read just about everything he had written up to that point, but for whatever reason — my being the same age as its young protagonists, the usual teenage angst centered on feeling like an outcast — It sucked me in. Four years later, in 1990, I watched the television miniseries. I was unsurprised that it wasn't very good; it was network television, after all.
The miniseries still worked its way into the public unconscious because of one thing, and one thing only: Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise the Clown, in which he somehow manages to twist the campiness of his immortal Frank-N-Furter into something both terrifying and (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious.
Needless to say, Bill Skarsgård has some big clown shoes to fill in the new big screen adaptation of It, and from the unsettling scene that opens the film, he most definitely does. He is creepy, but not so creepy that a little kid playing with a paper boat in a rain storm would run away screaming the moment his white face pokes out of a sidewalk gutter. Little Georgie is intrigued, amused, and eventually scared, but by then it's too late. What happens to Georgie is the most effective scare in the movie, because it is shocking in its brutality. But by the end of It, brutality becomes the film's driving force, and it gets a tad redundant.
While the book took place in the past and the present, the film sticks firmly in the past, this time not the 1950's of the novel but in Derry, Maine in 1989, at the beginning of summer break. Friends in their mid-teens who are most definitely not the most popular kids in school, the self-proclaimed Loser's Club is headed by Georgie's big brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), who has a pronounced stutter and is still living with the guilt of not being there to save his little brother, whose disappearance a few months prior remains an unsolved mystery. Richie (Finn Wolfhard, from Stranger Things) is the smartass loudmouth of the group, forever making jokes that refer to his own dick; Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) is worried about his upcoming bar mitzvah; and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a hypochondriac and germaphobe.
Eventually the Loser's Club gets three more members: African-American orphan Mike (Chosen Jacobs); overweight new kid in town Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor); and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a girl with an unearned "bad" reputation.
There aren't a lot of adults in the film, and the ones who do show up are uniformly awful, from the parents to the teachers to the local police. The Losers are also hounded by a gang of bullies led by the psychotic Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) who very clearly isn't all talk when he tells them he wants them dead. The icing on the crapcake that is life in Derry is the growing list of unexplained disappearances in town, mainly of kids close to the age of the Losers.
Director Andy Muschietti makes it clear that the only happiness the Losers are going to get is from each other, and the film's Stand By Me moments of summertime bonding, with swims in the quarry and bike rides through town are some of its best, allowing the group of young actors to shine (they are all outstanding) and their characters to develop personalities bigger than their assigned stereotypes.
But the rest of the film is relentless, as each Loser is introduced to the horror that is "It." Most of these scenes have the same kind of buildup and payoff, as the kids are confronted with supernatural manifestations of their worst fears, with an appearance by Pennywise at the end.
This is a bit of a problem. Pennywise shows up so often, usually running at the camera while baring his mouthful of teeth, that the monster begins to lose its shock value. And it doesn't help that all these scares (remember, there are seven kids, and they each get their own Pennywise moment) are crammed into a movie that's just over two hours long.
It's also hard not to think of Stranger Things when watching It, not just because they share some actors, but because Stranger Things wouldn't exist if Stephen King and It didn't exist. That inevitable comparison also shines a spotlight on the film's limitations.
With its limited running time and so many characters to follow, there's no room for the film to build up any real tension. True, the length afforded a TV series or miniseries can lead to indulgences that may become tedious (::cough Twin Peaks the Return ::cough), but when used well it can also allow a story to breathe, real suspense to build, and viewers to become attached to its characters, so that losses and consequences have more weight. The 1990 miniseries wasn't good, but at least it had a format more suited to this kind of story.
It ends with the title Chapter One. It's supposedly the first part in a proposed two-part series, with the second film to focus on the "now" parts of the book. And perhaps a real assessment of the movie's success or failure can't really be made until the series is viewed as a whole. As it stands, It (Chapter One) is worth watching for its crackerjack opening and the strength of its young cast, but mainly because of its inherent promise of (possibly) better things to come.
For the full coulrophobia experience in San Francisco, you might want to check out the all-clown screening happening at the Alamo Drafthouse tonight.