2017 has been a crowded year for Stephen King adaptations, having already given us the mostly alright television adaptation of The Mist from Spike, along with the aggressively forgettable movie adaptation of The Dark Tower last month, with yet another adaptation, Gerald’s Game headed to Netflix later this month. It seems that the biggest and most anticipated of these adaptations nonetheless aimed to slip out somewhat quietly though, as the feature film remake of former novel-turned-miniseries, It has conspicuously dropped within the dismal September dumping ground. Despite how widely beloved both the source novel and original ABC miniseries are, with the miniseries especially being pegged as one of the biggest catalysts to frequent coulrophobia among society (in layman’s terms, fear of clowns), the cinematic remake of It suffered from several production troubles, complete with the entire movie having to be re-tooled from the ground up with a new director, writer and Pennywise actor at one point.
These production troubles might explain the September release date, as if Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema were bracing for It to be a spectacular failure, which might also explain why the movie’s initially planned sequel, meant to address the portion of the novel where the child protagonists become adults, was also barely acknowledged after the director switch. Fortunately however, it seems that the stars did end up lining up for It in the end, since this cinematic remake is not only one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever made to date, but also one of the best mainstream horror movies to come along in years! If you’re a fan of Stephen King, the original It novel and/or miniseries, or just appreciate superbly made scary movies in general, then It absolutely must be seen on the big screen, where it stands as one of 2017’s most terrifyingly memorable cinematic offerings!
It stars a group of child protagonists, around thirteen years of age, living in the fictional small town of Derry, Maine in 1989. The original novel and miniseries had this portion of the story take place in 1958, but this cinematic remake moves up the timeline, presumably so the second movie can be set in our present day.
This moving up of the child era for It naturally invites even more comparisons to Netflix’s suspense/horror series sensation, Stranger Things, which noticeably took some inspiration from the original It miniseries, but that’s not such a bad thing, since this It remake captures the same potent blend of 80’s nostalgia and uncompromising scares. One of the lead child actors, Finn Wolfhard, is even a lead actor on Stranger Things as well to boot! Much like Stranger Things too, the fact that the protagonists are all children definitely shouldn’t get your guard down! In terms of sheer grotesque horror and violence, It is much more faithful to its source novel than the miniseries that preceded it in 1990, meaning that it puts the former miniseries adaptation to shame in terms of being visceral and intense!
A lot of this heightened intensity is due to the cinematic R-rating that allows the producers, writers and director of It to go darker and more twisted with monstrous antagonist, Pennywise than ABC’s network restrictions would have allowed in the previous miniseries. It also must be stressed that Pennywise actor, Bill Skarsgard is fantastically creepy and sinister in the role, actually meeting and even sometimes exceeding the challenge of having to measure up to the iconic Pennywise performance of Tim Curry from the original miniseries. Skarsgard’s Pennywise is definitely darker and less playful, being more outwardly psychotic and demonic, and toying with the child protagonists in more harrowing and deadly ways. Some of the imagery in It is incredibly disturbing, and Skarsgard’s Pennywise will easily get under the skin of even this movie’s adult target audience, since everything about him being a horrific force of otherwordly nature is realized perfectly in this remake.
Even better however is that the child protagonists are actually well-developed and easy to root for, which is an extreme and unfortunate rarity in modern horror media. The protagonists should be familiar if you’ve read the book or seen the original miniseries, consisting of stuttering leader figure, Bill, overweight new kid, Ben, Jewish germaphobe, Stanley, rural-living history buff, Mike, Oedipus complex-ridden hypochondriac, Eddie, and tough lone female friend, Beverly. All of the kids’ scenes are carefully chosen, and all of them provide just the right amount of context and development to their backstories, without feeling superfluous or disturbing the pacing. The novel’s original themes of dealing with childhood trauma, which varies between the protagonists, and constantly provides different, unpredictable degrees of ‘bait’ for Pennywise, is more clearly pronounced in this movie than it was in the former miniseries, but wisely, It also understands that part of the movie’s horror and discomfort has to come from what you don’t see. This is why some of the true struggles of the protagonists’ frequently troubling home lives are intentionally and effectively left to the imagination.
Of course, this also means that familiar Stephen King tropes, from unrealistically over-the-top bullies to unrealistically over-the-top adult authority figures to unrealistically over-the-top indictments on religion and other such institutions, are still captured in full in It, for better or for worse. If you’ve come to embrace these tropes, that’s certainly well and good, and to be fair, It’s new movie adaptation does do a better job of justifying the town’s irregular behaviour in contrast to the previous miniseries. There are a few characters that feel a bit lost in the shuffle at times, most notably lead bully, Henry Bowers, but this is ultimately a very minor quibble, since It generally provides the perfect balance between developing the characters and their world, without over-developing them. This of course applies to Pennywise as well, who is given just enough explanation to feel credible and believable, but not so much that it takes away from the mystique and terror behind his presence.
It takes some structural inspiration from the previous miniseries adaptation, by splitting itself into two parts in a duology. The first part of the story, this particular movie, represents the portion of the original novel when the protagonists are children, growing up in Derry while attending junior high. This is considered to be the stronger part of the two perspectives in the original It novel, and this was definitely true in the previous miniseries as well, where even that miniseries’ director later admitted that he hated the second half of the miniseries, where the protagonists become adults. Whether that part of the story can be strengthened with this new feature film duology for It remains to be seen, but however that turns out, it nonetheless remains apparent that this first movie is a masterful adaptation of King’s original prose.
As I said, this cinematic remake of It is more openly faithful to the original source novel, now that it doesn’t have to worry about the FCC’s Standards & Practices limitations like the previous miniseries did. With that said, not every scene from the source novel makes it into this movie, most notably the especially controversial scene with the children before the child portion of the story ends in the book (if you’ve read the novel, you probably know exactly what I mean, but if not, I won’t spoil it), though most of the novel’s key moments, including virtually all of the highlight moments, seem to be relatively intact in this film adaptation, with some minor changes, and some inevitable omissions of story elements that wouldn’t translate well into a modern movie.
The story is definitely darker and more intense in this movie than it was in the previous miniseries as a result, even if it does follow some similar progression. This movie does remain a brisker, less abstract tale than the extensive source novel was however, providing more depth to the scares than the previous miniseries, but still making the scares and tension the focal point in this case. The story is still balanced out with a sense of character and perverse charm though, and there’s quite a few moments where It is even surprisingly humourous, capturing the mischievous, untainted spirit of youth quite effectively. There’s a likability to It that just isn’t present in many modern horror movies, and that not only makes it especially enjoyable and fulfilling to watch, but also makes it more effective and scary, since the audience will be more invested in the characters and what’s going on, which in turn makes everything more frightening and disconcerting.
Andy Muschietti directs It, after having to take over for originally planned director, Cary Fukunaga. Muschietti has few directing credits to his name, with the most notable being 2013’s surprisingly solid horror movie effort, Mama, in turn adapted from Muschietti’s own Argentine short film of the same name. Muschietti certainly knows his way around horror directing, despite his outward lack of experience, and this lends itself to a very strong It remake from a directing standpoint, with It having the spirit of an inspired indie horror film, yet also realized with mainstream Hollywood production values. Even considering some of the directing strengths behind Mama, it’s It that cements Muschietti as a directing talent to really keep an eye on for the future of the horror movie genre.
Everything about It and the way it’s shot is calculated to a tee, yet it all feels very natural in motion. The town of Derry itself feels like its own character at times, being rich with detail and an unsettling history that constantly bleeds into the way that everything is presented. There’s an outer layer of bright, if eccentric charm to the town and its citizens, but the constant threat of Pennywise always bubbles beneath the surface, especially when we see the darker side of the characters’ home life and struggles with Henry’s bullies. Muschietti is also great when it comes to not telegraphing scares too much on this note, which is helped further by the unpredictable nature of Pennywise, a character that can quite literally show up at any moment.
Where Muschietti’s direction shines most of all though is in beautifully capturing the crescendos of the source novel, which I won’t spoil if you’re not familiar with it, but trust me, you’ll know these beautifully gross and twisted scenes when you see them. The direction can very easily shift from light-hearted happiness to heart-stopping terror without missing a beat as well, which only sucks the audience into the experience further, and prevents It from ever feeling creatively stagnant. Put simply, this is some of the finest horror directing work in recent memory, and fans of the genre in particular will love being unnerved and terrified throughout the experience.
It’s score is composed by Benjamin Wallfisch, a lesser-known film composer who primarily seems to specialize in horror soundtracks, having most recently done the music for movies like Lights Out, A Cure for Wellness and Annabelle: Creation. Wallfisch definitely delivers one of his best soundtracks to date in It by a sizable margin however, combining a sense of child-like spirit with a potent feeling of terror and unrest. There are several especially memorable themes in the score, most notably that of Pennywise, who is constantly accompanied by the gradually twisting tune of child-like laughter. This is a soundtrack that’s as undeniably alien as it is strangely wholesome, and it perfectly blends with the contrast between innocence and trauma that It primarily builds itself around.
The rest of the audio work in It is similarly masterful, being used nigh on flawlessly to accentuate every scare. Like any truly exceptional horror movie, It places a lot of emphasis on its audio presentation, using audio cues to further immerse the audience in the unpredictable head games of Pennywise, while further building on the feeling of Derry having a sense of character in and of itself. The audio is best enjoyed in premium large formats like IMAX as well, where you get even more power in the sharp chords and disturbing tones, further adding to the presence and sheer power of Pennywise as a monster. This is a textbook example of an excellent audio suite in a horror movie, with It consistently demonstrating the best of modern sound mixing and composition throughout its runtime.
Another important element to the production when re-adapting and modernizing a novel that has already been turned into a widely beloved television miniseries is nailing the look and feel of the story. Fortunately, this new remake of It gets pretty much everything right in terms of the visual design, having both exceptional period detail, and a wonderfully suffocating sense of atmosphere throughout the horror-driven scenes in particular. This is a movie that’s constantly leaping to life with pristine attention to detail, even when it’s not directly trying to scare you. The biggest testament to this as well is, yet again, Pennywise himself, with Bill Skarsgard completely disappearing into the make-up and CGI to fully become this iconic Stephen King monster. As great as Tim Curry’s former miniseries incarnation of Pennywise was, Skarsgard’s take on the character is even scarier and more sinister, and is definitely going to haunt your nightmares with his extra disturbing and otherworldly appearance!
It is offered in an IMAX cut as well, along with other premium formats, and while the visuals don’t hugely benefit from the IMAX screen, other presentation elements like the audio definitely do. You’ll get just as much of an outstanding sense of immersion and dread from even a regular digital screening of It, but if you want the most out of the scares and atmosphere, then the IMAX cut is still worth the upgrade, even if it’s not a big visual leap. Either way though, the imagery of It is constantly outstanding and memorable, and is bound to haunt your nightmares even more than the original miniseries did. This is definitely a visual experience that demands to be seen on the big screen as well, so it definitely merits the trip to the theatre, especially if you savour a movie that’s quite skilled at scaring you.
Stephen King adaptations have frequently been hit-or-miss since their heyday in the 90’s, but there’s no denying that this modern feature film remake of It is easily one of the best of them. While this remake is not quite on the level of the all-time best Stephen King adaptations like The Shawshank Redemption and Misery, It is quite possibly the current best supernatural horror adaptation to come from King’s work. Amazingly, this big screen remake even manages to be easily superior to the previous It miniseries (especially when that miniseries is considerably dated by this point), being scarier, more faithful to the original novel, and generally a more raw, visceral and memorable take on King’s story.
If you, like many moviegoers, were disappointed in this year’s ill-fated cinematic adaptation of The Dark Tower, you’ll also find that It is the perfect antidote, single-handedly bringing Stephen King adaptations back to top-tier quality after many years of struggles and misfires. This movie frequently represents Stephen King storytelling at its best, providing an extra polished and terrifying new take on one of King’s most beloved horror stories. Considering how difficult this movie was to make, it definitely could have gone another way, but as it stands, this is everything that one could want in a Stephen King adaptation, as well as a fantastic horror movie on its own merits.
Half of the story, the adult half, still remains to be told, and given It’s enormous acclaim and massive box office success, we should be hearing before long when exactly moviegoers will be able to make their return trip to Derry. The specter of Pennywise may continue to linger, but that just means we can hopefully look forward to another outstanding horror experience in a couple of years, especially if it’s anything like this first half!
- Skarsgard's wonderfully terrifying Pennywise portrayal
- Masterful soundtrack that provides unyielding dread and suspense
- Outstanding direction that maximizes both charm and scares
- A few hurried character and plot elements