The first time It — Stephen King’s 1,000+ page doorstop of a novel — was adapted for the screen, it was as a made-for-ABC TV miniseries in 1990. That’s a medium wholly inappropriate for what many consider the author’s magnum opus, a lurid tome too epically weird and grotesque to fit the confines of broadcast television. Sure, the length allowed by a miniseries—four hours once you factored in commercial breaks—seemed sufficient to bring King’s mammoth tome to screen, but the version we got was too timid to really get into the horrific, child-killing meat of the story. The budget was too low to convincingly bring the novel’s cosmic horrors to life, but the real enemy was Standards and Practices: the film could be bloody and nasty and scary but a primetime bloody and nasty and scary. It had to be okay for kids to watch with their parents at 8 o’clock.
Despite that, It has endured in the pop cultural memory for the better part of three decades, almost entirely due to Tim Curry’s iconic performance as Pennywise, the evil clown that would be the story’s main incarnation of evil, a role that rivals Curry’s Frank-n-Furter as the most recognizable of his career. Curry played Pennywise like a guttural Brooklynese Bozo, a wink and nudge supernatural serial killer Henny Youngman gleefully toying with his quarry. He was Freddy Krueger in greasepaint and a Noo Yawk grunt, and he was easily the best thing about a movie that was itself more like a deflated balloon. Curry is great, and the It miniseries isn’t bad, per se, it’s just…. TV-movie mediocre; timid, cheap-looking, and not all that scary.
Fans have been waiting for 27 years—oddly enough, the same amount of time it takes for Pennywise to reappear on Derry, Maine’s doorstep each incarnation—for a proper, theatrical, R-rated version of King’s epic story. After many fits and starts, It is here — and it’s every bit as terrifying, grotesque and deeply, unnervingly nasty as fans could hope for.
The question defining It is, simply, how does one adapt King’s massive hunk of story into a feature-length runtime? This is a movie that tells the same story over two different time periods, manages to connect those time periods with a bridge of melancholy and nostalgic loss, stuffs the story full of psychedelic cosmology and still finds the time to explore the demonic history of the town it takes place in. There’s a reason King’s novel is such a hulking monster of a beast, and the question is: how do you fit all of that into one movie? The answer: you don’t. The brilliance of Andy Muschietti’s stylish new adaptation is that it only serves up half the story (a future sequel will tell the rest of it) but it also allows that half to breathe; it wraps us up in it’s nightmare universe instead of simply playing “highlight whackamole” with the original book.
The 1990 miniseries, at three hours long (once you took away all those momentum stopping commercial breaks), tried to tell the whole story in one go, but couldn’t; it felt more like a greatest hits package presented by Curry’s snarling carnival monster. The new movie, on the other hand, plays like Stand By Meby way of A Nightmare on Elm Street — a sun-dappled coming of age reverie invaded by shards of twisted, gnarled nightmare fuel images. And that’s why it works so well. Time will tell if the approach will pay off in the second half—or if the adult story will be less melancholically haunting—but, for one film at least, the It franchise feels like a rollercoaster ride through all your worst childhood fears.
The film opens with the death of young Georgie Denbrough — that’s not a spoiler, it drives the whole plot — and it plays like a mini-masterpiece of tension and release. Georgie, in his yellow slicker and rain boots, is gee-whiz cutesy as he chases a little paper sailboat — made by his older brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) — down the rain-soaked streets of his hometown of Derry. When the boat, driven by the current, gets sucked down a storm drain, he is confronted, unexpectedly by the face of clown leering up at him through the sewers. He introduces himself to Georgie as Pennywise, the Dancing Clown, but he’s really a manifestation of the rot and corruption at the town’s heart. He’s a being of ancient evil and Pennywise, the jolly good-time jokester who can barely conceal his ghastly nature, is just its most prominent corporeal form.
The scene climaxes in a brutal punchline that let’s you that Muschietti — the Argentinian director who made the serviceable Mama a few years ago — is playing for keeps. But it’s Bill Skarsgaard’s performance as Pennywise that really makes the character—and the film—so disturbingly haunting. Skarsgaard’s incarnation of the demon clown is a vastly different one from Curry’s, clad in the ruffled finery of a Victorian jester, his hair a plume of ginger that looks like flames erupting from his skull, his devilish grin of delight extended by two red curlicues.Whereas Curry sounded like a Queens factory worker playing dress up, Skarsgaard speaks with a eerie, high-pitched lilt, and he lets his thoughts drift off, like he’s just remembering how to speak. Skarsgaard gives Pennywise an animalistic, otherworldly feel, like he is genuinely an evil forces physical form, and it’s only enhanced by the sheer physicality of his performance — the actor uses his lanky, 6’4’’ frame, and his ability to force his eyes to wander off into separate directions, to unnerving effect. His Pennywise is a horror icon for the ages.
Muschietti doesn’t let Skarsgaard down. It throttles you with one horrific set piece after another. At times it can get exhausting, and Muschietti falls into a trap of larding too many of them together at once, which makes the film feel clunky and disjointed at times. But there’s no , and denying their individual’s power to terrify. There are a number of truly jolting jumpscares (one word: projector) and images, but Muschietti, working from a script by original director Cary Fukunaga, Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman, also knows how to work in a subtler vain, lacing the film with subtle, hidden frights, scenes that border so much on absurd they flip back around to creepy and, in the films most truly scary moments, demonstrations of the town’s adults scalding disregard and malevolence towards their own children.
But the true beating heart of the movie is its Losers Club, and Muschietti has found a gifted group of young actors to embody them. Finn Wolfhard, from the King-influenced Netflix hit Stranger Things and Jack Dylan Frazier are hilarious as the foul-mouthed, squabbling tag team of sarcastic Ritchie Tozier and asthmatic Eddie Kaspbrak, Lieberher makes Bill a believable leader and Sophia Lillis, all rebel-grrl presence, and Jeremy Ray Taylor, all sweetly pining awkwardness, stand out as Bev, the lone girl in the club, and Ben, the shy town newcomer. (Only Chosen Jacobs, as Mike Hanlon, seems to suffer from an underwritten role.)
There were many ways one could have screwed up an adaptation of King’s book, but It is a marvel of adaptation. It’s a genuinely disturbing nightmare of a film, a freakout rollercoaster ride. Muschietti has done the impossible and actually done justice to the legendary story. Now let’s hope it’s not another 27 years before we see Pennywise haunting our dreams again.