The competition to top a list of Stephen King adaptations is not terribly stiff. If you remove the dramas, e.g. The Shawshank Redemption, the list loses even more of its heavy hitters. Basically, you are left with The Shining, Misery and Carrie; I would also toss in Christine, if solely for its notes of John Carpenter. It easily floats nearly to the top. The film is scary, funny and heartfelt, populated by sympathetic characters that lost little of the depth endowed to them by King, an author who is as much a master of character as he is the master of horror.
King’s original novel took place in the late ’50s and the mid ’80s. Smartly, the cinematic adaptation moves the early scenes to the ’80s, allowing the film to capture that decade’s nostalgic zeitgeist and the Spielbergian view of childhood so well recreated by the Netflix hit “Stranger Things.” A Gremlins poster is prominently displayed on the back of the bedroom door of Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher, from previous ’80s nostalgia piece Midnight Special), the de facto leader of The Losers.
After Bill’s brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), becomes the latest child to go missing in the town of Derry, ME, he and his pals—wisecracking Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), sweet new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), pretty, redheaded outcast Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), constantly sick Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer, nephew of super-producer Brian), the rabbi’s kid Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) and homeschooled orphan Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs)—begin to suspect something evil is stalking the town’s streets.
Though the kids all meet their worst fear when they meet It, the one face they all meet is that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård, last seen in Atomic Blonde). Pennywise is the clown most responsible for society’s mass case of coulrophobia, thanks to Tim Curry’s iconic performance in the 1990 television miniseries (trust me; your memories of that “It” are better than “It” actually is). Skarsgard has the film’s toughest task, and he adequately conjures up a Pennywise that is both entertaining and truly terrifying (it’s all in the eyes and beaver chompers).
While Pennywise is what everyone remembers about It, the movie uses him sparingly. The movie belongs to the children, all of whom are brilliant young performers. The movie also relies heavily on its ’80s aura. Director Andy Muschietti (the OK Mama) channels a Spielberg coming-of-age tale as well as anyone save “Stranger Things” creators the Duffer Brothers. It lacks that moment of untruth or obvious infidelity to its source so capable of ripping the audience out of the cinematic world. I cannot wait for chapter two; yes, It’s not over yet.