No matter how this thing turned out, the bar to be the best Stephen King adaptation of 2017 was set very low by “The Dark Tower” last month.
“It” is based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Stephen King, and is the second reincarnation of the book after the 1990 miniseries. The plot follows a group of middle schoolers in 1989 Maine who are terrorized by a shapeshifting entity. Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs and Jack Dylan Grazer all star as the kids while Bill Skarsgård plays the titular creature and Andy Muschietti directs.
The backstory behind the making of “It” is interesting, and like many Hollywood films (and especially King adaptations) it went through different stages and directors. Initially, “True Detective” director Cary Fukunaga was set to helm the project, with Will Poulter (phenomenal in this year’s “Detroit” but at the time only really known for his comedic role in “We’re the Millers”) to play Pennywise the Dancing Clown aka It. However “creative differences” led to Fukunaga dropping out, taking Poulter with him, although he retained screenwriting credit. I would have loved to see Fukunaga’s vision and Poulter in the white makeup and clown wig, but Muschietti (known for “Mama”) and Skarsgård make for a solid pairing in what is a sometimes creepy, sometimes funny, but never fully-realized fall flick.
I never read King’s original novel and I saw the miniseries forever ago, so I cannot attest as to how accurate and loyal this film is to those respective works. From what I remember, the miniseries is very campy (with the brilliant Tim Curry in the lead role) and has some effects that hold up by 1990 standards and others that very much do not, and one of the things I respected about this latest rendition is their apparent dedication to practical effects when possible.
The best thing this film has going for it are its musical score and cinematography by Benjamin Wallfisch and Chung-hoon Chung, respectively. The film has a warm summer glow about it, with just a slight tint to give you that 1990s feel, and the background score, while overused at points, is eerie.
The design of Pennywise the Dancing Clown is creepy in it of itself, with Skarsgård unrecognizable under all that makeup. It is a dedicated performance from a man I’m sure we’ll see more of, and there are points where he is intimidating and others amusing. But never at the same time, which is a repeating problem the film has (I’ll get back to that).
The cast as a whole is wonderful, in fact, with the standouts being Finn Wolfhard (the only actor from Fukunaga’s initial casting to be kept) and Jack Dylan Grazer (in his feature debut). These two young men are hilarious and deliver some one-liners with pitch-perfect tone and timing, and I see bright futures ahead of them. Jaeden Lieberher, great in “St. Vincent” and underappreciated in this year’s guilty pleasure masterpiece “The Book of Henry,” is as timid yet loyal as he’s ever been. You really get a “Stand by Me” feel from the lovable group of losers, and for anyone who was a kid in the late-80s this will a nostalgic trip. But, just like with Pennywise, the film never is able to blend the group’s fun moments with their terror.
There are points in the film that are supposed to be scary or sad but come off as unintentionally funny, like the face Pennywise makes when he bites off a character’s arm or right as he revs up to charge at one of his victims. And it clearly was not the filmmaker’s intentions to have those moments be comical, because there are other parts that are clearly funny, like Pennywise chewing on an arm before looking up using the severed arm to wave at someone. It creates an uneven flow, which isn’t helped by the film having a “and then this happened” feel about each scene, instead of a logical narrative.
The film also can’t escape scary movie clichés, like relying on heightening soundtracks and jump scares, as well as dumb characters doing inexplicable things. What’s even more damning this time around is the kids know they are being hunted by the creature, yet they will still wander off alone or approach a funny-looking object; it is almost insulting in certain scenes how the filmmakers have to go out of their way to set things up in order to work.
“It” really isn’t all that scary—it’s more tense if anything—but it will please fans of King or horror films. And unlike “Annabelle: Creation,” I was never bored watching the build-up scenes, because these are characters we know and care about. I am looking forward to Part II of this duology, to see the adults these kids become (and what actors play them) and watch them face off against Pennywise and their fears all grown up. As it stands, “It” is not the groundbreaking phenomenon the internet or box office will hype it up to be, it’s just a competently made, slightly inconsistent film that you can have fun laughing with or at, depending on how much clowns freak you out.
Critics Rating: 6/10