To say that the 2017 take on Stephen King’s Magnum Clown Opus IT is better than the 1990 mini-series is an understatement. The mini-series was a punishing nearly four-hour mix of a pretty good kids’ story and a nearly impossible to watch adult story. Jettisoning the adult story in favor of focusing on the far superior kids’ story from King’s novel, the 2017 IT crafts a tightly wound, creepy horror flick that plays on some serious issues about grief and abuse while delivering the kind of machine tooled jump scares that modern audiences go to the movies for.
IT stars Jordan Lieberher as Bill, the ringleader of a group of friends who are often picked on and lean on each other for support. Bill’s friends include Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff). Along through, the story the core group adds Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a chubby kid who is new in town, Mikey (Chosen Jacobs), a home-schooled farm kid, and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a young beauty who has an unwarranted reputation around the small town of Derry, Maine.
The story kicks off in 1988 when Bill’s little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) goes outside to play in the rain and goes missing at the hands of the evil clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). In a scene that is actually quite shocking for modern horror film, Georgie’s disappearance sets a tone of fear and dread that director Andy Muschietti, a first-time feature director, does a tremendous job of maintaining over the course of the film’s two hour and fifteen-minute running time. The scene is legit frightening and Pennywise "The Dancing Clown” could not get a better or creepier introduction.
Naturally, the story from there is our group of young heroes battling Pennywise and trying to stay alive, but much like Stephen King’s book, director Muschietti and screenwriters Chase Palmer and Cary Fukunaga, who was going to direct the film before dropping out, do an exceptional job of introducing each of the kids’ obstacles and fears. While these scenes played like filler in the 1990 mini-series, because it’s TV and there are things you can’t do on TV, the movie is filled with genuine horrors and traumas these kids must overcome and that Pennywise uses to great advantage.
This group of young actors in IT are exceptional, with each garnering a memorable moment, though Finn Wolfhard steals his share of scenes as the comic relief character. Jordan Lieberher has a natural leadership quality and charisma that assures he will one day be a big deal in Hollywood. My favorite of the group, however, is young Jeremy Ray Taylor whose Ben pines for Bev and in a couple of terrific scenes, he captures exactly the excitement of hope, disappointment, and joy that comes from a first crush.
Indeed, these child characters are remarkably real. The interactions are so authentic that you feel like one of them. You feel like you’re in the movie next to Bill, Eddie, Ben, Bev, Mikey, Stan, and Richie. They feel like your friends with that same natural banter that you only have with people you’ve spent most of your time with, the kinds of friendships that you never forget, even if they may fall away as you get older and grow apart.
Then there is the incredible Bill Skarsgard. I have never and will never understand the attachment people of my generation, Gen-X, have to Tim Curry’s take on Pennywise. It always seemed so silly to me that people found that character frightening. This generation's Pennywise, on the other hand, is legit scary. This could be the iconic horror movie villain of the millennial generation, their Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. Skarsgard delivers an iconic performance in voice and manner that won’t just frighten kids; adults as well may want to check under the bed after seeing just how creepy this version of Pennywise truly is.
I had low expectations for IT, as the film had languished for years in development hell following the ludicrously bad TV adaptation. I’m glad the producers and the studio behind the film stuck it out, even after Cary Fukunaga dropped out and their first choice for Pennywise, Detroit star Will Poulter, was forced to drop out due to contractual obligations. These producers stuck with this movie and managed to turn the tide against the making of this movie and made something brilliant, one of the best horror movies of recent memory.