The original miniseries Stephen King’s It from 1990 is a great, two-part endeavor that I like to call “the scariest movie no one has ever seen.” People have all seen the TV movie’s poster, the stills, and the memes featuring Tim Curry’s intensely memorable yet incredibly frightening clown-character, and the same clown has probably haunted their nightmares more than a handful of times. But how many have actually sat through all three hours of that film and seen the excellent set-up yet ho-hum payoff? At least, given the buzz and the pre-release tracking predictions for this new remake, maybe people will finally have something off which to go when they talk about just how scary It really is.
The long-awaited, heavily marketed film is finally upon us and my verdict is in: Andy Muschietti’s It is the best pure-horror film to get a mainstream release since The Conjuring in 2013. There are other great ones, mind you, but many of them mix in elements of thriller, action, and social commentary. It, even with its barrage of quips and tinges of comedy, manages to be more bone-chilling than its made-for-ABC counterpart and almost as character-centered and developed. Released following a barren month of new releases at the multiplex, the film emerges at the right time, at the dawn of the appropriate season, not only to spread fear, but to reinvigorate the moviegoing public as it should.
The film opens on a rainy day in Derry, Maine in the fall of 1988, where a seven-year-old boy name Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) goes outside in the rain to try out his new paper boat on his flooded suburban street. Georgie has an encounter with Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a demonic clown with a red and white painted face, after his boat sinks down into a sewer. After tempting Georgie with promises of circus treats as well as the retrieval of his homemade boat, Pennywise attacks Georgie and the young kid winds up missing like so many children in Derry do.
The following summer, his middle-school-aged brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is still distraught and upset, believing his brother is still alive and relying on the companionship of his foul-mouthed friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard) and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) to make him feel better. As strange events begin to occur, with all of them having their own encounters with Pennywise and his many forms, the group begins to realize they’re not alone. They meet the socially ousted harlot Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the anxious Stan (Wyatt Oleff), the much-abused Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and the equally tormented “new kid” Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and discover they too have experienced strange, nightmarish events in broad daylight, seeing and experiencing things that aren’t there.
The gang of misfits affectionately form “The Losers’ Club,” using Ben’s knowledge of the town of Derry, Bill’s optimism, Beverly’s toughness, Richie and Eddie’s loyalty, and the unique strengths of the others to combat their personified fears. However, despite their bravery, the kids all face their own setbacks in their personal lives, with Beverly dealing with her controlling father, Mike dealing with his tough-love family, and even Eddie’s manipulated and kept inside most of the time by his paranoid mother. It’s a bleak landscape for these children compounded by ongoing visions none of them can shake off easily.
It plays like The Goonies with a demonic twist, brilliantly so, granting each character an equitable amount of dialog in order to transcend being faces in a large group. One of the hallmarks of the miniseries was its commitment to character development, devoting the entire first part to learning about the kids from their own perspectives by way of flashbacks. The new film doesn’t skimp on allowing the plight of this group to carry as much weight as the scares, allowing a balance of thrills and human interest to prevail. Consider the scene in the garage where the Losers set up an old projector in order to trace the connectives points of Derry’s sewers, or when the group finally get the courage to enter an abandoned house where they believe Pennywise may take refuge. All of these moments are just as much about the young kids as they are about giving us the thrills we seek when we see a movie like this.
Written and performed without the obvious constraints of a television production, It does one thing massively different than its predecessor and that’s allow the boys to feel like real, middle-school boys. This means vulgar discussions, sometimes swearing with no clear purpose, and a plethora of acid-tongued insults and “your mom” quips tossed around for added authenticity. In the context of the characters, many of the lines carry that predictable prepubescent awkwardness as the kids are practically learning how to use dirty words. In the context of the performances, it fuels them with the kind of natural insults kids hurl at one another on a daily basis. Consider what Richie, the coarsest of the entire group, says upon drawing a small straw amongst the Losers, meaning he must go into the spooky house alongside Bill and Eddie. “If we were going by dick-size, I would’ve beaten all you.”
These moments of teenage hilarity do precisely what the trio of writers (Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman) want them to do; add a small dose of comic relief but not too much to minimize the stakes or the scariness of the central premise. The times that It treads on being too quippy and preoccupied with a punchline, it’s as if it visibly corrects itself and steers back on track.
Not a single child actor of the bunch feels out of place nor overwhelmed. They all add to the natural, ultra-cool chemistry like they should, handling the screenplay and even the more frightening sequences like gifted young kids. You might recognize Jaeden Lieberher if you were one of the twenty people to see the questionable and outrageous Book of Henry in theaters back in June, or perhaps you’ll recall Finn Wolfhard playing Mike in Stranger Things. Out of all the performances in the film, none are bound to be overlooked quite like Bill Skarsgård, buried under layers of makeup, face-paint, and hand-me-down circus clothes. Skarsgård is wicked here, not copying Tim Curry and one of the best performances of his career, but instead adding to the character of Pennywise by giving him a believably sweet edge in contrast to the demon that lies just an inch below his surface. It’s a tricky, conflicting performance that Skarsgård, at only 27, handles with veteran precision. Keep in mind Curry was 54 at the time he donned the clown outfit.
It is the shot-to-the-arm for mainstream horror the same way Baby Driver was for creative action cinema as a whole. It provides the same kind of whiplash-inducing entertainment a horror film should on top of scares, laughs, and a powerful emotional subtext that can’t be ignored. The film caters to everyone who is looking for something specific out of this film, and perhaps the more skeptical you go into it, the more content you’ll be. Let It tantalize and surprise you the way it does the young characters so passionately and you’ll emerge happy as a clown on opening day at the circus.
NOTE: Listen to my discussion of It on my radio show Sleepless with Steve:
NOTE II: As of this writing, It: Chapter One is streaming on HBO Max.
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Wyatt Oleff, and Chosen Jacobs. Directed by: Andy Muschietti.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!