by Ted Zep
(Rating: R – Genre: Horror – Director: Andy Muschietti – Writers: Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga – Stars: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Liberher, Finn Wolfhard – Runtime: 135 minutes)
In 1989, a group of disenfranchised children waged battle with a vicious monster, in the form of a horrifying clown, in the sleepy little town of Derry, Maine.
Based on the 1986 novel by Stephen King, and a remake of the 1990 television miniseries, It once again takes viewers back to the wistful but traumatic days of their youth.
“Pennywise the Dancing Clown” is masterfully brought to life by 27-year old Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard. Skarsgard, reprising the role made famous by Tim Curry, brings a snarling, drooling and pervy edge to the character. He tosses in a healthy dose of Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Chucky (Child’s Play) for good measure. Pennywise is the personification of the real-world troubles of the children, which range from bullying and loss to parental dominance and sexual abuse.
There are very few actors in Hollywood who create an iconic character during their careers. Tim Curry has done it twice: Frank N. Furter (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Pennywise. Therefore, Skarsgard had some big (clown) shoes to fill. If I was in his position, I’d have thought long and hard before accepting the part. One can severely damage their career by botching a major role like this. But make no mistake, Skarsgard dug deep and brought forth a filthy, disturbing performance that was respectful of his predecessor and the character.
Casting director Rich Delia crafted a talented juvenile cast flush with credible chemistry.
Sophia Lillis shines as “Beverly,” the lone female of the group, who is struggling with a tarnished reputation and a complicated relationship with love and sex.
Finn Wolfhard is a dynamo as the wisecracking “Richie.” Wolfhard is best-known as “Mike Wheeler” of Netflix’s Stranger Things. Richie’s one-liners are raunchy and funny and mindfully placed so as to provide relief during the tensest portions of the picture. (Though he is terrific in the role, it’s almost unfortunate that Wolfhard is part of both projects because they are so similar in tone and intention. Every time Wolfhard appears on screen, it reminds me of Stranger Things, a series which lovingly “borrows” from 80s properties like Stand By Me and It. To be fair, I did a rudimentary investigation and found that It began filming a full month before Stranger Things premiered, so it turns out Delia isn’t a grifter but he just simply has a helluva eye for talent.)
Owen Teague’s performance as school bully “Patrick” is, for lack of a better term, “trigger-inducing.” If you have ever been bullied, Teague’s performance will undoubtedly make you want to sock him.
Pairing Teague on screen with Jeremy Ray Taylor is gold. Taylor, who, as the chubby and bookish “Ben,” comes across as so thoroughly warm, sympathetic and relatable, that the two produce bona fide intensity as foes.
I will say that director Andy Muschietti could have easily shaved a good 15-minutes from the runtime with no ill-effects. At the top of the third act, the narrative barely crawls along as it attempts to juggle the stories of the seven children as they are locked in a figurative holding pattern. The film would only benefit from a reduction of this bloat.
Ultimately, It is a study about how one deals with a loss of control in their lives. It uses jump scares and a meticulously crafted sense of dread to convey a sensation of unmanageable distress to the audience. (And the audience, at least the one who attended my screening, responded in kind. Every time that Pennywise was on screen he got a major response. And that is no exaggeration.) There is something about this particular amalgam of unease and nostalgia to which people react. We have all felt powerless at one point or another in our lives. Be it at school, work or maybe in a relationship, we have each experienced that moment when we are no longer steering the ship. Something unanticipated or trepidatious or horrific has taken the control from us and steered our lives down a very different path. Experiencing this as an adult is difficult, but as a child, well, it can be devastating. Stephen King understood this when he wrote the book. And while this particular version of the story doesn’t quite have the moderated charm and frenzy that the made-for-television original has, it has been re-tooled and configured for a more dubious and savvy contemporary audience. The film isn’t perfect, but it will make you jump. It will make you squirm and suffer as it reminds you that the stuff of our nightmares is often all too real.