Renowned author Stephen King’s literary works have spawned a multitude of cinematic and television adaptations. From Stanley Kubrick’s marvelous “The Shining” to “Carrie,” and “Maximum Overdrive,” King’s works shine equally on the page and screen. 2017’s “It” arrives as a chilling adaptation of the 1986 novel, and a fresh horror flick.
One rainy day in October 1988, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) makes a paper sailboat for his younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). While racing down the street, the sailboat gets swept into the gutter. There, Georgie sees “Pennywise the Dancing Clown,” (Bill Skarsgard) who claims he was blown into the sewers along with the entire circus. Upon reaching into the sewer to retrieve his boat from Pennywise, the clown bites off his arm and pulls him into the sewer.
Flash forward to June 1989 and it’s the final day of classes for the semester at Derry Middle School. Bill and his pals Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), and Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) have a brief skirmish with town bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his cronies. Meanwhile, overweight but good-natured Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), runs into Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), a young girl in his social studies class.
Many of the Derry kids begin seeing strange visions, several of which center on the mysterious Pennywise. Homeschooled Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) sees Pennywise in a butcher shop before a skirmish with Henry. Ben is led into the library’s basement while reading up on the history of Derry. Stan witnesses a painting come to life and attack him, and Eddie gets attacked by a leper.
Over the course of the film, Bill, Stan, Richie, Mike, Eddie, Ben, and Beverly dub themselves the “Losers Club.” They realize that the same creature pursues each one of them. Through Ben’s research, the Losers Club determines that it’s awakened for a brief stint each 27 years. During this time, the entity feeds on the Derry kids, then proceeds back into hibernation. Thus, they set out to confront their fears and banish Pennywise back from whence he came.
Though the terrifying looks of demented clown Pennywise present the most outward horror aspect of the film, “It” succeeds in frightening with psychological elements than supernatural horror moments. Each of the kids suffers some intense emotional trauma: Bill the loss of Georgie, Beverly her sexually abusive father, Eddie his overbearing mother. King’s books, for all of their fantasy aspects, truly haunt with the grounded human suffering. True to the source text, “It” masterfully plays up the abuse and spends much of the first half offering insight into the main cast of characters.
Still, “It” is not without superb supernatural frights. The opening scene remains one of the most memorable, and haunting, in a film to date. Although Georgie’s death is rather choreographed regardless of familiarity with the book or previous 1990 “It” miniseries, it’s still a brutal subversion of the improbable infant immortality trope. “It” wastes no time in getting down to business. While kills are few and far between, they’re relentlessly chilling. Among the best scenes, there’s a moment when Pennywise erupts from a slide projector image in a garage in a massively successful jump scare.
Derry, Maine, plays a key role in King literature, and 2017’s
“It” does a good job maintaining this importance. From the beginning, signs read “Derry Public Works and Derry Police Department, plus there’s a neat history of Derry which unravels throughout the film. The attention to detail is exquisite. There’s a retro vibe which oozes forth from small touches like Eddie’s Casio calculator watch to cinema marquees advertising for such films as “A Nightmare On Elm Street 5” and “Lethal Weapon.” Bill’s room features prominent posters for “Beetlejuice” and “Gremlins.” This in part sets the era, but also pays tribute to the horror genre. A few scenes featuring the kids cruising on their bikes feel straight out of “The Goonies,” yet it’s impossible to not imagine the synth soundtrack to “Stranger Things.” It doesn’t help that “Stranger Things” star Finn Wolfhard plays Richie.
Whereas most of “It” glistens with a veneer of excellence, a few moments don’t deliver. Notably, the CG used for the living painting which haunts Stan is shoddily done. Thankfully, it’s sparsely used. Pennywise, however, is fantastic in both looks and personality. The character design is delightfully creepy, and Skarsgard transforms Pennywise from amiable to malevolent in an instant.
Ultimately, “It” offers a refreshing update on the classic King tale. While certain scenes are almost a shot for shot recreation of their incarnations as seen in the 1990 miniseries, the 2017 iteration is far less campy. With its concentration on the kids, heavy psychological aspects, and fantastic effects, 2017’s “It” is one of the top Stephen King big-screen adaptations.