Great, iconic mainstream Horror is officially reborn. A joyous occasion indeed, but this isn’t so surprising when you consider the way filmmakers of late have retooled the genre to explore deeply psychological themes rather than simply churn out meager scare factories. Indie names like “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” and “It Comes At Night,” along with their mainstream contemporaries, including “Don’t Breathe,” “Get Out,” and “Annabelle: Creation,” all paved the way for the return of Horror; the kind that Stephen King’s writing popularized and would ultimately serve as inspiration for legions of directors and Hollywood studio heads. King’s shadow has loomed over horror cinema in one form or another, regardless of any deviation, and it makes total sense that this New Wave has brought us back to the famed author’s work. As the culmination of a decade’s worth of serious genre filmmaking, “It” is a triumph.
On a gray, rainy day in 1988 Derry, Maine, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) makes his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) a paper boat to sail down the street. Before long, Georgie accidentally sails it down the gutter, where he encounters an ominous clown who introduces himself as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). The clown eerily, and violently, abducts the poor boy, never to be seen again. After school ends a year later, Bill sets out to find his little brother, convinced that he’s still alive. Joined by his friends, trashmouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard), germaphobe Stan (Wyatt Oleff), and hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), they befriend overweight bookworm Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), homeschooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and the abused, sexually shamed Beverly (Sophia Lillis). Together, they form the Losers Club as they discover the town’s sinister history, all while facing their fears as Pennywise terrorizes them one by one.
“It” (or, as correctly titled above, “It: Chapter One”) arrives at a moment most opportune for Hollywood: an otherwise empty week of releases, when all the children have gone back to school, and, perhaps most significantly, the unofficial beginning of the Halloween craze. So as a horror flick featuring a well-rounded ensemble of idiosyncratic youngsters, it hits that sweet spot within the shifting atmosphere of summer’s end. What’s more is that the film’s greatest strength lies in its depiction of the Losers themselves. Archetypal they may be (though some feel more so than others), but director Andy Muschietti and the screenwriters devote just enough time to each character for us to invest in their plight. If anything, the weakest link in the chain is Mike, which is a shame considering his tragic backstory. (Jacobs is also not too good here.) The rest of the kids shine. Lieberher really gets to flex the dramatic muscles he introduced in last year’s “Midnight Special,” plus his stutter is impeccable. Wolfhard of “Stranger Things” fame is a natural with Richie’s comedic timing. Don’t be surprised if you hear a lot of “your mom” jokes in the near future. Taylor, Grazer and Oleff are charming in their own rights, while Lillis gives the most grounded performance of the bunch.
To say that the film devotes any time at all to these characters is refreshing in and of itself, since most Horror today cuts to the chase without such delicacy. Muschietti has some difficulty building momentum during the first two acts, but his attention to the kids and the straightforward realization of their camaraderie makes the stretched runtime easy to endure. The humor certainly helps too, and even though Wolfhard absolutely devours the scenery, Muschietti smartly averts the decision to fall in line with Hollywood’s penchant for silly comic relief. For a horror film, “It” is warmer than you might expect; the warmest spine-chiller of the year, you might say. The investment in the Losers is strong, but that strength also fuels the pervading unease regarding the presence of Pennywise. The more you care for the kids, the more unsettling it becomes when you realize that the dastardly clown could attack them at any moment. This is Muschietti’s greatest success: knowing that the bulk of the terror comes with the anticipation, not the arrival.
But when It does arrive, your heart will beat faster than it takes Richie to quip. This version Pennywise really is the stuff of nightmares, and an infinitely more effective take on the character than Tim Curry’s portrayal in the 1990 TV miniseries. Skarsgård brings a level of maniacal madness unseen in the genre, ranging from immense physical intimidation to the subtlest of twitches and gestures. Imagine in Heath Ledger’s Joker had abandoned his master plan for Gotham, settled down in suburbia, and joined the traveling circus straight from the deepest pit of Hell. The scares he participates in are a little rudimentary and often unoriginal, but his commitment to the part takes it all up a few notches. His first scene with little Georgie is one for the ages, a gleefully gut-wrenching opening that hinges on nothing more than those eyes and that wicked smile. It is an instantly iconic performance.
“It” is a cinematic event that brings Horror back full circle. The influence of King’s original work in recent genre fare feeds back into Muschietti’s exceptional adaptation. It knows where it came from, it knows where it wants to go, but more importantly, it knows what we have been longing to see from the genre. See this with a crowd, and be prepared for potentially sleepless nights.