Back in 1990, Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), directed and co-wrote a 3-hour TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s gargantuan 1986 novel ‘It’. Over the course of its 900+ pages (in hardback form), ‘It’ chronicles the tale of a malevolent shape shifting alien entity lurking in the sewer drains of Derry, King’s fictional go-to small-town. Rising from its subterranean hellhole every 27 years, it terrorises the town’s children, feeding on their fears and dragging them down to the cavernous underground tunnels where they’ll float – just like one of the balloons it offers as bait whilst posing as a monstrous clown called ‘Pennywise’.
27 years after Wallace’s mini-series, mirroring the titular character itself, ‘It’ resurfaces again, this time in the guise of a big-budget cinematic remake split into two separate chapters. Unlike Wallace before him, current helmer Andy Muschietti (Mama) and his screenwriters appear to have been afforded the comparative luxury of more than 4 hours in which to condense the sprawling narrative of King’s literary doorstop - given that ‘Chapter One’ arrives in a massive (for horror) 2 ¼ hour package. Dropping the original structure which cut back and forth between events originally set in 1957 and the 80’s – 2017’s It Chapter One is focused solely on the events of 1957 (now retro-updated to the late 1980’s), where we get to spend the entire running time with the pre-teen versions of ‘The Losers’ Club’ - a misfit bunch of school kids who band together to fight the clown. (It Chapter Two will tackle events 27 years later when they will be forced to return to Derry to confront Pennywise’s evil as grown-ups).
It Chapter One plays like a cross between Stand by Me (itself based on King’s novella ‘The Body’) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors with Bill Skarsgård’s scarily re-imagined Pennywise as the Krueger-like ringmaster. Just like little Georgie Denbrough’s wax-coated paper boat, the terrific young cast are the wax that keeps the film afloat whenever it teeters and threatens to sink beneath its three-ring circus storm surges of CGI-enhanced Pennywise manifestations. Not that the filmmakers are clowning around, the level of onscreen violence and gore quota is surprisingly high, as evidenced right from the get-go with the graphic playing of the iconic storm drain encounter. (There’s also a brief but literally jolting slaughterhouse sequence which I wouldn’t expect in a ‘15’ rated major studio release). A geyser of blood erupts from a bathroom sink reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s deathbed splurge from the original Elm Street, whilst the symbolism it represents, given the character it explodes over, references King’s own ‘Carrie’.
Bill Skarsgård’s version of Pennywise is darker and less playful than Tim Curry’s much-loved impish 1990 incarnation. Inevitably some will argue Curry’s iconic (clown) boots are too big for Skarsgård to fill (hey, ask Jackie Earle Haley how that feels like after the Elm Street remake), but he stamps his own imprint on the character, particularly in eye-rolling close-ups, and sufferers of coulrophobia would still be well advised to give his interpretation a wide birth.
Resetting the first chapter in the late 80’s enables the makers to tap into the current hysteria for Stranger Things, even down to casting Finn Wolfhard from the show as wise-cracking Richie Tozier, alongside 80’s iconography such as the Gremlins bedroom poster and the local movie house’s coming attraction; A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (in keeping with the film’s whole Elm Street vibe). The late 80’s switch also allows for a great ‘New Kids on the Block’ running gag between the fat new kid on the block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and the object of his affection, Beverly (the excellent Sophia Lillis). Ben’s unrequited love for Bev is endearing and sweet, and young Taylor’s playing of the character yields dignified pathos a million miles away from the broad slapstick of say ‘Chunk’ in The Goonies.
Turning one’s attention away from the children’s performances, it must be conceded that IT is far from perfect. Muschietti over-cooks the numerous jump scares, which rarely land their punches (at least on this jaded reviewer), whilst the score over-bakes just about every beat. The finale confrontation is muddled and slightly underwhelming (although it does afford the arresting image of the ‘floating’ to which Pennywise keeps cracking on about). And despite agreeing they are safer together, the kids frequently wander off down the sewer tunnels / haunted house on their own (groan).
But these quibbles aside; this is still a far better initial stab at King’s magnum opus than one would dared have hoped for given recent King inspired misfires like The Dark Tower and The Cell. The stellar performances of the fantastic young cast that compose ‘The Losers’ Club’ ensure we care about them even before that horrid old clown pokes his grease painted red nose into their world. And as a result, I for one - for once - wasn’t siding with the monster.