Do you remember that feeling of sitting around a fire with your friends as you take turns telling ghost stories? Well, no, me neither, but that’s the feeling that Director Andy Muschietti is trying to make you think of for the duration of the movie. Thankfully, it’s a blistering success. A combination of excellent performances from the main (young) actors and a convincing monster in the form of Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise brings the story together and delivers a stellar movie which is easily capable of holding its own against the 1990 original.
I went in to IT expecting a drawn out, rehashing of a story I’ve ever already seen. What I got was a horror-cum-adolescent coming of age story that resonated with me and left me wanting more. The decision to split the movie into two parts, the first showing the protagonists childhood experience with IT and the second (to come) showing what acted as the ‘present day’ in the original movie was a brace choice. Hollywood is often accused of unnecessarily elongating movies into multiple parts for cash these days, however here it feels justified. The middle of the movie does feel ever so slightly bloated, but by no more than 10/15 minutes. A small price to pay in exchange for such a great movie.
Obviously, this split means the story divulges ever so slightly from the original. The children do not feature as adults at all here. In effect, this allows a story to be told around childhood fears and making friends. The ‘Losers’, as the group take to calling themselves, are finding their way in a word in which they’re deemed outcasts by their peers. Almost everyone can identify with this feeling on some level. Alongside this, it’s a story of loss and fear. For those that haven’t seen either the original or this version of IT. Spoilers on the first ten minutes of the movie follow.
Bill, the main character, loses his brother to IT in the movies opening sequence. While playing outside in the rain, little Georgie is tricked by the monster and goes missing. As the movie progresses we start to learn that Derry, Maine has a history of children (and indeed adults) going missing. Throughout the movie, Bill is coming to terms with the loss of Georgie. We see him move from getting caught by his father re-enacting how Georgie must have gone missing and where he could now be, to accepting that Georgie is lost and grieving for him. All the grief around losing Georgie is shown through the eyes of Bill. His father is shown briefly losing control over Bill’s obsession with finding his brother, but otherwise this is grief through a child’s eyes – equal parts reluctant sadness and false hope. It’s a testament to both the cast and the director that this was pulled off smoothly.
One of the most endearing things about IT was the camaraderie between the Losers. At times, I felt like I was watching Stand by Me, such was the energy, commitment and conviction of the actors. Every single one had a part to play in bringing that to life and I believe it’s what made the movie so special. Over the first 30 minutes of IT each of these actors sees the terrifying clown in some nightmarish sequence. Usually couple with the child’s worst fear come to life, it makes for edge of your seat viewing and is a clever way of getting us to understand and sympathise with the characters very early on. It builds the foundations that allow you to see them as a cohesive friendship group rather than just a rag tag bunch of children pushed together by circumstance.
The horror element of the movie is very strong too. I was genuinely scared throughout. There was almost always a slow build to a big reveal, followed by a frantic sequence with close and fast shots to encourage audience fear, finished with a slow lingering shot of something threatening. The formula is repeated throughout but never feels staid. In fact, in places it forces fear into the audience before there’s anything to fear because you know what’s coming next. It’s effective in creating a villain out of Pennywise, who for many who don’t fear clowns is not a scary villain. It also shows how it’s possible to make a monster movie work. For, above all else, IT is a monster movie. There’s no man behind the mask, no spirit lingering after his time, this is simply a monster with a hunger for children’s’ fear. It’s a rarity in today’s blood soaked, knife wielding, demonic spirit saturated horror movie scene to see a monster movie – even rarer to see one do the genre justice like IT does.
The casting director deserves major recognition for the success of IT too. The actors playing the children make it such a joy to watch. Jaeden Lieberher (Bill) and Sophia Lillis (Beverly) completely steal the show. They both show a maturity far beyond their years throughout. In places the chemistry between the two of them, and their own individual performances in their set pieces elevate the whole movie to instant classic status. Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike in Stranger Things also delivers a knock out performance as the mouthy, inappropriately sexual youth of the group and in doing so shows that he has a promising career beyond the series that made him famous. But overall, all the child actors deserve credit for contributing to the feeling of friendship that exists between them.
While we’re talking about the actors, Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise is nothing short of perfection. He brings a strange, youthful innocence to Pennywise that makes you feel like he’s only killing because it’s his nature. His violence and anger at the children could just be because he knows nothing better, right? Absolutely not. Yes, this is just his nature, but that makes him no less terrifying and sadistic. His skilful portrayal of an absolute monster brings fear incarnate to life. There’s a special place in my heart for the original Pennywise, Tim Curry, but Skarsgard does a better job than anyone I could think of at playing the role.
There will be more of IT. Those that have seen the original know that a good portion of it takes place in these children’s future. The second chapter will address that and the end of the first makes it clear with its slightly ominous ending.