IT (2017) Review

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Vague spoilers ahead…

I’ll tell you this straight off the bat. I think the original TV mini-series of It (1990) gets away with murder thanks to nostalgia. We saw it at just the right time, and hit the TV airwaves at just the right moment, for it to somehow become iconic and deemed terrifying. Same goes with Salem’s Lot. But watch it now and you might have a different opinion.

So when it was announced that Pennywise would be returning for a new outing on the big screen I, for one, welcomed the idea. Having read the tome of a novel, which needs a damn good edit but is utterly enthralling and almost unbearably dark in parts, I thought that maybe the new film would honour it better than the TV version. I had high hopes. And for the most part I was not disappointed. I really hoped it wouldn’t be a shot-by-shot rehash of the ‘original’ as people call it. And evidently, the team behind ‘It’ (2017) felt the same way.

The movie goes out of its way not to look or sound or feel anything like the 1990 effort. From the very start, whilst Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) helps his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) build that paper boat, there’s a notable absence of ‘Fur Elise’ being played by mom on the piano, obviously an iconic moment from the mini series. The action is moved from the barrens to the sewers and the old house on Neibolt, with no mention of dam-building, and the updating of the action to the 80s are all obvious – and successful – attempts to distance the film from it’s 1990 counterpart. Whilst obvious similarities will be drawn when Georgie is chasing said boat down the street in torrential rain, all fears of a remake vibe are set aside when we’re introduced to Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise. Nobody is ever going to touch Tim Curry’s performance but what we have here is a whole different ballgame. As Pennywise toys with Georgie and offers him fun and frolics in a subterranean big-top, Skarsgård is clearly pulling out every trick in the book to separate himself from the shadow of Curry – and for the most part it works. It’s no massive spoiler to say Georgie meets his fate early on – but this is a more ferocious, fiendish death scene that doesn’t quite go where you’re expecting it to…

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Speaking of unexpected, in It we get that rare thing in a mainstream horror movie. The emotional gutpunch. Director Andrés Muschietti draws out performances from his young cast that are loaded with authenticity and heart. Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard makes Richie Tozier loveable, annoying and hilarious in equal measure. He does a roaring trade in ‘your mom’ insults and swears like a trucker – you know, like real kids do. Jack Dylan Grazer is old before his time and riddled with anxiety as hypochondriac Eddie, and poor Ben Hanscom, awkward secret poet and christened ‘tits’ because of his chunky frame, is sweetly played by Jeremy Ray Taylor. But the standouts here are Lieberher as Bill – throwing aside the shadow of tragic Jonathan Brandis to give us a new hero we totally believe, and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, who at fifteen looks about ten years older than some of the boys. Wasn’t that always the way in school? Whilst some of the boys seemed to actively recoil from puberty, the girls towered above them and strode into early adulthood ahead of the pack. And that’s Beverly, dealing with buying her first Tampax, taking on bullies at school, and absolutely flooring the boys with her sophistication and beauty… whilst dealing with the hideous reality of life at home with her abusive single father…

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And so comes the gutpunch. The reality of Beverly’s abuse, Bill’s grief at losing his little brother, not to mention Ben’s bullying and unrequited love, actually prevail over the horror of Pennywise. At its core the novel delved into the absolute trauma it can be to just grow up, make it into adolescence and come out the other side intact. And that is where this film flies high. The 80s nostalgia isn’t particularly overdone, but the truthful portrayal of the adventure – and the real life horror – of just being a kid, of that last summer you spent with your group of friends before everything changed, before shit got real – that’s what resonates in this movie.

So much so, the actual horror tropes suffer as a result. We get jump-scares, we get creaking floorboards and clowns hiding under dust sheets. The set-pieces evoke elements of Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, even more recent horror hits like The Conjuring and Insidious, and whilst some of the jumps are efficient and jolting, the horror element never quite matches the teen drama. With a lesser script, poor direction and a weaker cast, that could result in a muddled overblown mess of a film. But because you care so much for the characters and the overall package is so well done you forgive it. You go along for the ride – an epic one at two hours fifteen. But it never feels too long, nothing drags.

And yet in parts I felt like cuts had been made. After the George intro we’re introduced to Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), with a story tweaked from the novel where he lives with an overbearing Grampa (Steven Williams looking mighty fine in his old age). But after his opening scene he vanishes for over half an hour. Similarly Stan (Wyatt Olef) is given hints of a story that then vanish and he’s ignored for most of the film. Also Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) slices and dices his way on to the screen but feels underused. You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a three hour version out there somewhere, but given that I got through over two hours and could have watched more, I’d welcome that director’s cut.

Maybe it’ll have the darker elements only hinted at in this release? Pennywise offering Eddie a BJ, the real death of Patrick Hockstetter, the racially-motivated mass murder at the Black Spot? All were absent here. I also found it interesting that Henry Bowers was clearly an evil racist but never once used hate speech when attacking Mike – although ‘faggot’ was thrown around with (cough) gay abandon. So whilst I easily forgot the mini series I couldn’t quite let go of what was STILL missing from the novel…

So a flawed film but mainly brilliant. Go in with an open mind. Forget Tim Curry (I know, sacrilege), put your preconceptions to one side and revel in a film that for the most part is beautifully made and a luminous cast who will make you laugh and – if you’re a sap like me – cry too. Yes the frights are nothing we haven’t seen before, and it’s not quite as terrifying as it wants to be… but for a mainstream horror it delivers much more than you’d expect.

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That said, with a film that makes it through the gate mainly because of it’s young cast, I think for It, Chapter 2, they’ll have their work cut out to make anything as good as this. Bring it on, Pennywise…

JL

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