Film Review: IT (USA, 2017) is exactly as scary and as fun as you hoped it would be

In the early part of a person’s life, there is always that one scary story, whether it takes the form of a book, a campfire tale or a film, that will inherently scar a person for life when experienced. In my case (and that of many others), that story is Stephen King‘s IT.

There’s just something demonic about the presence of a clown in the eyes of a child. Whether its the surrealism of the world the clown originated from or the twisted view of how a clown needs the presence of children to technically survive, King twisted that point of view and made it into a wonderfully demented horror story as well as an exploration of the fears of youth.

After the novel, we had the 1990’s mini-series, which met with incredible success or was a spectacular failure depending on who you ask (as is the case for most Stephen King film adaptations), but one thing is for certain — IT indelibly linked Tim Curry to the character of Pennywise the dancing clown. His performance, a combination of menace and sadistic humour still haunts people to this day.

So when I heard that Hollywood was planning to adapt the Stephen King novel, I was excited. Especially when Cary Fukanaga (director of Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, Beasts of No Nation and the first season of True Detective) was named as the director and Will Poulter (Son of Rambow and the upcoming Detroit) as Pennywise. But my expectations turned quite sour when the two left the project due to creative differences/scheduling conflicts.

And now we have Andy Muschietti, the director of Mama, with a cast of new young talent as the kids of The Losers Club and Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise. Will the film live up to the source material and scare the wits out of everyone? It had what it needed succeed. Will it fall flat like a low-budget practical effect of a giant spider? I wondered.

The film starts off with a kid playing with a paper boat in the rain. The boat is suddenly lost down a sewer drain. As the kid tries to retrieve the boat, we get our first glimpse of Pennywise, luring the boy with sadistically amusing chit-chat until he lays his jaws on him.

From there, we meet The Losers Club, a group of young social misfits who figure out what the clown is up to and decide to fight back to prevent other children from being abducted. The club consists of Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), the leader of the group who has a stutter and has never gotten over the fact that his younger brother had disappeared; Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a knowledgeable boy with an inkling for New Kids on the Block and is being bullied for being overweight; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the lone female member of the club who is struggling through poverty as well as harbouring a dark secret involving her father; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), the joker, bigmouth and attention seeker of the club; Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), the religious kid of the club, who has problems with being left alone; Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), the hypochondriac of the club who could have been kept hermetically sealed in his home if his mother had gotten her way and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), the last member to join the club, who is home-schooled and has problems with finding his place in the world.

The opening scene of the film is basically a litmus test of whether you’ll like the film or not. If violence towards young children on-screen puts you off in a big way, then stay away from this film because the predicaments that they go through are quite harrowing stuff, especially ones that do NOT involve Pennywise. Scenes of bullying, domestic abuse, potential rape are there and the film does not hold back on those elements.

Ironically enough, the scares involving the fantasy and Pennywise are sometimes incredibly overstated that they would scare one into laughter. Whether that is seen as a bad thing is entirely up to one’s perspective, but since Pennywise is a clown, it ends up being incredibly fitting.

If you can stomach the violence, then you will be able to experience the fun, nostalgic, bonkers experience that is IT, which most importantly captures the spirit of the novel. Director Andy Muschietti captures the 90’s setting really well, without resorting to excessive use of period music or fashion, but more on filmmaking techniques thanks to acclaimed Korean cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon and composer Benjamin Wallfisch, who both capture the nostalgia, the wholesomeness and the horrific feel of the story. Even the font of the opening credits feels like they would be used in films of the 90’s.

The film is quite faithful to the novel but it does tone down the rough edges as well as the controversial moments i.e. the sex scene involving minors in the climax. Characters are also changed slightly to positive effect i.e. Richie Tozier no longer makes jokes that involve racial epithets and caricatures.

But let’s get down to the real question that needs to be answered. Is the film scary? For the most part, yes. Muschietti executes the scares quite well, as he uses practical effects (including extensive make-up effects by Amalgamated Dynamics) to create some horrific imagery like the leper, the creature from the painting and of course, Pennywise himself. But the scares are sometimes hindered by wobbly CGI, but it can be easily overlooked, since the rest of the production values are ironclad.

The film does resort to jump scares but Muschietti never overuses that technique and the noises are always accompanied by something that would make such noises, unlike inferior horror films which would have scenes where loud noises were obviously put in place during post-production.

And like most great horror films, the scares only truly work if the audience cares about the characters and the young ensemble cast are all fantastic in their roles. So much so, that this may be the best ensemble cast of 2017. Everyone is just on point that the upcoming chapter would have a lot to live up to in order to cast the adult roles of these characters.

Bill Skarsgard lives up to the family name and provides a great performance as Pennywise, although he is sometimes overshadowed by the effects utilized to create the terrifying effect of the character. But when he makes his physical presence felt, he makes a positive impression. It certainly helps that he stands at 6’4!

Jaeden Lieberher (who resembles a young Ben Foster) is committed as Bill, as he portrays the guilt and determination of the character really well. Sophia Lillis (who resembles a young Amy Adams, *hint hint*) is fantastic as Beverly, as she portrays the allure, the suffering and the determination of the character convincingly. The scenes involving her character and her father are truly intense and she handles it like a pro.

Finn Wolfhard (famous for the Netflix show Stranger Things) is a hoot as Richie, as he handles the profanity, innuendos and quips with class and thankfully, great timing. The rest of the cast are all up to their level like Jack Dylan Grazer as the amusingly panicky Eddie and Jeremy Ray Taylor as the shy yet lovable Ben, who has fantastic interactions with Lillis. Special mention must go to Australian actor Nicholas Hamilton, who plays the bully Henry Bowers, as Hamilton portrays the role with such conviction that it becomes easy to see him as psychotic and not histrionic.

As much as good IT is, there are some problems and it is mainly due to the condensing of the source material. Some of the events of the novel are cut down and lose their effect in the process like the character development of Mike, which is quite rushed, as well as the character development of Bowers, who becomes increasingly terrifying a little bit too quick.

Also, the tone of the film does shift haphazardly, whether going for fantasy to reality or going for something lighthearted to sadistic. In one particular scene, there is a scene of bullying at first, then it changes to something more fun due to a certain choice of music and it ends up being quite jarring and off-putting. And at 135 minutes, the film does run a bit too long and it easily could’ve trimmed some scenes to make it an even 120 minute run-time.

But overall, IT succeeds as an incredibly fun film that provides ample scares, exemplary cinematography and music by Chung Chung-hoon and Benjamin Wallfisch, a genuine love for Stephen King‘s source material and of course, a fantastic cast of young talented performances that surely will go far in their careers. Don’t float! Run to see IT!

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

IT hits cinemas today.