I remember when I first saw “Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone” in the cinema, it was one of the strangest cinema experiences of my life. I didn’t feel like I’d just watched a film of the boy wizard’s adventures, I just felt like I’d re-read the first book in two and half hours, so close was the vision on screen to how I’d pictured it when reading. I had a similar feeling after watching this new version of “It”. Not that it was just how I’d pictured the book while reading, more that it was every bit as good as I always think the 1990 version is before I re-watch it and have to admit to its flaws. It’s been 27 years since the miniseries was broadcast and we last heard from Pennywise, that sinister Derry sewer dweller, so of course he’s back, this time in cinemas, to feed on audience fear of clowns.
There’s something terribly wrong in Derry. Again. With disappearances of children running at six times the national average and a willfully blind eye being turned by the adult population, it’s down to Bill Benburgh and his ‘Loser’ pals to prove that his brother’s disappearance was the work of a malevolent and monstrous entity living beneath the cursed town.
Reboots generally have a bad name but this new adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel might just change all that. Respectful of the 1990 TV movie adaptation that precedes it the movie keeps scenes that worked so well, giving them a little polish on the way, while returning to the source material to bring a multitude of new scenes to the screen for the first time. It honours the 1990 original while surpassing it in almost every respect. “It” is fundamentally a novel of childhood fears and trauma which are finally exorcised later in life and by remaining more faithful to the novel, Andy Muschietti manages to bring much more of the book’s dark subtext to the screen, while layering in a joyfully authentic bond of camaraderie between the members of the Losers club.
As good as the cast of the 1990 Loser’s Club was, the class of 2017 is better. Jaeden Lieberher (Bill Denbrough), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben Hanscom) and Sophia Lillis (Beverly Marsh) are the clear standouts, with Beverly especially having more agency and development this time out. Chosen Jacobs (Mike Hanlon), Jack Dulan Grazer (Eddie Kaspbrak) and Wyatt Oleff (Stanley Uris) are good value too although they get less to do while Finn Wolfhard makes a fine Richie Tozier, his “Stranger Things” familiarity is a little distracting. Their earthly tormenter Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) is more vicious this time around too, a visceral and palpable threat to our heroes and often an opportune reminder to how inured the population of Derry has become to the darkness in which it dwells.
However, as before, the real star of the show is Pennywise the dancing clown, the shape-shifting monster’s preferred form. Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise is a revelation; new and different from what has been done before yet taking nothing away from Curry’s iconic performance. More overtly malevolent than before, there’s still a playfulness to him but it’s much crueller and darker mischievousness playing at the edges of Pennywise’s manifestations. Where Curry’s Pennywise lurked in the shadows much of the time, Skarsgård’s clown is often front and centre of his macabre machinations, making his desire to feed on the fear of his victims a more personal vendetta. Of course, the delicious irony of the story of “It” is the creature brings about its own demise by singling out the Losers and, by attempting to drive them apart, forging their bonds of friendship. Much like Voldemort and Potter, come to think of it.
The film looks fantastic, updating the action to 1989 and focussing solely on the young Losers, giving the characters more time to breathe and develop without the to and fro flashback structure of the TV movie. It successfully recreates that oddly timeless Stephen King style of Americana which was homage so adroitly in “Stranger Things” and while the film obviously has the benefit of modern CGI techniques, there’s an admirable commitment to practical effects wherever possible, strengthening the metatextual connective tissue between the two adaptations and ensuring that the illusions feel very real indeed.
While it plays with horror tropes and jump scares, “It” doesn’t set out to terrify in the way some of the horror audience has come to expect from the modern day gore-soaked, fetishized violence of the genre, instead it’s a masterfully atmospheric blend of adolescent anxieties and supernatural, vaguely Spielbergian adventure, tension and dread. This is exactly what the rebooted “Poltergeist” should have been like and shows how badly that misfired.
Andy Muschietti’s “It” is a playful, tense and creepy masterpiece, an instant classic and easily one of the very best Stephen King adaptations of all time.