Ready or not, here It comes. After weeks of industry analysts lamenting meager ticket sales, September has served up a bigger box office behemoth than most of this year’s summer films. It achieved over 50 million on Friday alone, and scared up a final weekend gross of an astonishing 123 million. Among the many records, including best September or October opening by double, It boasts the biggest opening weekend for a horror movie of all time.* But before we let the hype overwhelm us, let’s answer the question: was all this anticipation earned?
More or less. It is an admirable interpretation of Stephen King’s novel, though the movie is certainly in a class leagues below horror classics such as The Shining, Carrie or Misery. In his sophomore effort following 2013’s Mama, director Andy Muschietti impresses by not shying away from some of King’s more mature subject matter, but not without some bumps along the way. Similar to his first film, Muschietti’s horror approach tends to favor shocks over foreplay, but with the help of a well-curated cast and rich source material, It isn’t clowning around.
Released in 1986, Stephen King’s 1,138-page horror novel describes the encounters a group of seven middle-school aged children have with a shapeshifting malignant force from another dimension, as its preys on the lives of youths in the small town of Derry, Maine. The book alternates between two time periods: 1957 with the characters meeting “It” as children, and 1984, when the heroes return to Derry as adults. This technique facilitates a prime example of one of King’s hallmark literary themes, that of how childhood trauma manifests in adulthood.
First adapted into a two-part television miniseries in 1990, Warner Bros. Pictures has finally given one of King’s most revered works the big screen treatment it deserves. The producers decided to divvy the material up into two films, the first following the characters as children, and the sequel featuring the gang as adults. This approach serves King’s novel well, as it provides a natural break between installments, and it leaves enough material left over to support a potent sequel. Considering It’s box office blowout, the clown is sure to return with a vengeance.
Rather than beginning the story in the 1950s, Muschietti’s film starts things off in the late 80s, meaning the sequel is likely intended to take place in the modern day. This makes sense, and it reflects the perspective King intended for readers when the novel was written. The 80s setting inevitably evokes several releases of that era featuring children, such as E.T., The Goonies and Stand By Me. The film feels very much like a send-up to iconic Spielberg movies, and this element would elevate the film considerably, had not J.J. Abrams already done the same with Super 8.
Though Muschietti’s tribute to 80s fare is hardly unique, it is bound to resonate with audiences in the same fashion the decade’s sentiment contributed to Stranger Things’ success. Despite the nostalgic visual style, however, Muschietti’s direction is fairly choppy, and I doubt I would consider him the ideal choice for this project. Muschietti’s handling of the material is pretty much what you would expect if you’ve seen Mama, with better results stemming from action and phantasmagorical images rather than mood and atmospherics at eliciting scares.
Muschietti’s strengths should satisfy It’s target demographic, but seasoned horror viewers will be left hungry for something more substantial. His efforts are fine enough, but they pale in comparison to other King adaptations that have benefited from more sophisticated directors such as Kubrick and De Palma. It’s trio of screenwriters, Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman do a stand-up job attempting to compress the massive novel, but unfortunately much of the deeper characterization is lost for King’s wide cast of characters.
It’s greatest achievement is the pitch-perfect selection of its young stars. Bill Skarsgård is terrific as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, It’s go-to incarnation. Skarsgård is simply terrifying, not only with the clown’s deranged cackle, but his unnerving stares in silence. Jaeden Lieberher is compelling as lisped Bill Denbrough, and Sophia Lillis particularly impresses as Bev, the group’s only girl. Finn Wolfhard nails his one-liners as the foul-mouthed Richie Tozier (providing plenty much-needed comic relief), and Jeremy Ray Taylor is adorable as chubby Ben Hanscomb.
Though one can easily imagine a more successful result, It is a satisfactory adaptation of one of Stephen King’s best works. The film does hit some rough spots, but the writers do a fair enough job delivering the narrative rewards of a 1,000+ page novel in the first of two movies. However, It will never live up to the lofty standards of King-inspired classics such as Stand By Me, Carrie, and The Shining. This I would attribute to the hiring of Andy Muschietti, an untried director with moderate fortitude in horror, but whose abilities are lacking in terms of overall cohesion.