Andy Muschietti's "It" Proves A Stirring Stephen King Adaptation

September 15, 1986: Stephen King’s 1,100-page horror monolith It appears in bookstores. The sewer system beneath Derry, Maine forever becomes a part of the pop culture subconscious, its tangle of tunnels calling to mind the darkest recesses of Mother Earth. To the evil force within, though, the one that most often manifests itself as a demonic clown, the sewer is just home.

Thirty years on, King’s text remains an impressive deep dive into the anxieties of youth, childhood trauma, and adult repression, skillfully unwinding on two parallel tracks: the mid 1950s and the mid 1980s. The novel’s frequent time jumps between its characters’ childhoods and adult lives aren’t just essential to its themes; they’re essential to its scares, building up decades-spanning towers of terror that it then strikes down with frightening precision. Knowing adult William Denbrough, horror writer, is vital to knowing 11-year-old “Stuttering Bill” and vice versa, both halves of Bill’s story – and that of his friends – working in concert to form one magnificently unsettling whole. Who could make sense of half of it?

“Mama” director Andy Muschietti, it turns out.

Muschietti’s “It,” scripted by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, and the man once slated to direct the film, Cary Fukunaga (“Beasts Of No Nation”), is a wonder of an adaptation, infusing the ‘50s-set “Losers’ Club” half of King’s book with all 1,100 pages worth of thematic weight and stomach-clenching angst. The price is paid in occasionally wonky pacing that proves, in hindsight, an asset. It turns the film a merciless stream of elaborate horror setpieces, more determined than most to give viewers their money’s worth. And the narrative gaps leave our minds to run wild at the thought of an eventual five-hour supercut of the movie and its expected sequel; the cruel symmetry of King’s story finally realized on screen in a way that ABC’s well-intentioned but dopey 1990 miniseries couldn’t have dreamed of.

God bless Tim Curry, but network television was never the place for a child-eating clown.

Muschietti and his writers have transposed the Losers’ Club to the 1980s, affording the New Line-produced film both a loving nod to the series that essentially birthed the studio – Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare On Elm Street” – and pop music yardsticks with more contemporary appeal than those of the novel (e.g. “Come Softly To Me” by ’50s singing group The Fleetwoods). The result isn’t as homey as King’s text, but it works out just fine, allowing for an especially fun late-game send-up of ‘80s kids shows.

First, the reason for Derry’s bloody season: Pennywise. Bill Skarsgård lazy-eyed interpretation is held back only by a few instances of undercooked special effects. Otherwise, the eponymous clown is a perfect compromise between King and Curry’s vision for the character. Skarsgård’s curled lip and ethereal vocalizations (aided by post-production looping) strike a delicate balance between alluring and appalling. The innate absurdity of a clown hanging out in a storm drain waiting for little Georgie Denbrough’s paper sailboat is not lost on Muschietti or Skarsgård; from Georgie’s early, tragic encounter with Pennywise, director and actor reconcile the ridiculousness and unpleasantness of their antagonist, perfectly capturing the duality of a clown.

But “It” is not about a clown. It’s about Bill Denbrough (Jaden Lieberher), the shy, stuttering kid whose brother mysteriously vanished after taking his paper boat out one rainy afternoon. It’s about bespectacled loudmouth Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), the quiet rabbi’s son, and fat kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), new to Derry but sneakily whipsmart and deeply invested in the dark history of his new town.

There’s also the neurotic Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) and stone-faced Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), both with little choice but to to internalize their troubled home lives. And last but far from least, Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the misunderstood tomboy whose supersized heart is tested constantly by her abusive father.

Not only are all seven child actors impossibly endearing in their respective roles; they’re believable! Whether it’s ribbing each other on their bicycles, bravely standing up to school bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), or exchanging wordless, knowing glances concerning the evil creeping into their lives, their rapport is effortless. It doesn’t hurt that they’re written as real adolescents, cursing up a blue streak, cornering the market on dick jokes (Richie’s specialty). By the time Pennywise begins to stalk them individually, preying on their specific fears, their charisma pays off even further, making their terror our terror.

Unfortunately, these same scare sequences bear the film’s biggest blemish. The sound design is a minor tragedy, so interminably loud that, in the end, nothing is loud. The jump scares mostly flop because they’re all so punishing on the ears, leaving no room for auditory dynamism. That isn’t to say that the film isn’t scary – a couple of choice scares are sure to vault moviegoers out of their seats – but it becomes such an overwhelming sensory experience that the sound eventually amalgamates into one non-distinct, relentless whoosh.

Thank Chüd, then, that King’s text is about so much more than jump scares. Muschietti gets the inescapable dread of the novel just right, his imagery and cast making “It” sing.

This is a great looking movie with sweep and enough slickly hair-raising visuals to put nine of out ten modern day horror pics to shame. Even director James Wan (“The Conjuring” series) wouldn’t be so shrewd as to go all in on a relative newcomer like Skarsgård, who brings such a delicious physicality to the role that he ends up the most compelling clown this side of the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. He’s remarkable.

It’s hard to fathom a more confident, crowd-pleasing King adaptation; not because fans just suffered through “The Dark Tower,” but because “It” nearly has it all. Jokes, shrieks, lovable characters, and style to spare, adding up to one unusually competent blockbuster. (Its coincidental but inescapable political undertones – a wild-haired predator who feeds on fear – is a welcome bonus.) If a new age of big budget horror is upon us – and early box office returns for the movie indicate that it is – September 2017 is as exciting as time for genre enthusiasts as there’s been in thirty years. When a burnt, razor-gloved serial killer turned kids’ deepest fears against them – and just happened to make a name for New Line Cinema in the process.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: September 8, 2017
Studio: New Line Cinema (Warner Bros.)
Director: Andy Muschietti
Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, Cary Fukunaga
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Jackson Robert Scott, Nicholas Hamilton, Bill Skarsgård
MPAA Rating: R (for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language)