I’ve been a Stephen King fan ever since reading Salem’s Lot in the late 70s and watching the CBS television mini-series. I’ve also known for just about as long that adaptations of King’s works are hit and miss at best (thinking of you Dark Tower). So when I heard they were attempting a remake of It, I was reminded of a recent viewing of the original 1990 mini-series and how it hadn’t aged that well. And after watching the trailer, I immediately wondered if they were channeling Stranger Things, which could go well or be a horrific mistake. The end result was a well-received surprise.
First, you have to acknowledge that Stranger Things clearly channeled It and any number of other movies from the 80s where we had a group of underdog kids battling adults or monsters or aliens. Thankfully, everything that films like The Goonies or Monster Squad did right is repeated here. There are some differences in the initial time period the story is set in when compared to the original 1986 novel and mini-series. The film is presented in a linear manner rather than in a series of flashbacks. Our story also opens in the late 80s rather than the 1950s, which was a smart choice considering the incredible popularity of Stranger Things and everything else from the 80s. That said, we aren’t hit over the head with endless 80s references. In fact, besides showing what movies were playing at the local movie theater and a complete absence of computers and cell phones, the year is rarely mentioned. Okay, we did have the one music scene complete with a boom box and a series of jokes about New Kids on the Block but it was all in fun.One of the key strengths of It is in the superb and diverse cast of young misfits. Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special) heads up the group as Bill, older brother to Georgie, who we see encounter Pennywise in the graphic opening moments. It is quite the jarring sequence that sets the stage for a more intense telling of this now well-known story. However, it never crosses the line nor does it become too gratuitous. Bill’s friends include a hypochondriac, wise cracking Richie (played by Stranger Things’ own Finn Wolfhard), the overweight new kid in town, an outcast African American, and a young Jewish boy on the verge of his bar mitzvah. However, this merry band is made complete by the presence of Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), adding a little mix to the all-boys club. It was genuinely fun watching the kids interact with each other, reminding me of the camaraderie present in Stand by Me, another Stephen King classic. Everything about them works and is a highlight of the film.
The story is set in Derry, Maine where a string of disappearances has the town on edge. However, the gang soon discovers it’s the work of the evil Pennywise, a creature in the form of a clown who feeds on the fear of it’s’ victims. I was initially worried about Pennywise as I feared they would make him too graphic. I also wondered how Bill Skarsgard (Atomic Blonde) would compare to Tim Curry, whom I loved in the original. My fears were quickly put to rest as his performance is unique and different while never becoming too gross or intense. They do successfully amp up the fear factor in comparison to the original mini-series without crossing that imaginary line. If I had any complaints about Pennywise it would be that perhaps we saw too much of him. Maybe a little less screen time might have made him a little more mysterious or frightening whenever he would appear. But this is really only a minor complaint as he truly was horrifying.The film does falter slightly in a few areas, the first and foremost is in relying a little too much on the ever present horror film jump scares. That said, it never really becomes too much and, in fact, several were done quite effectively and legitimately surprised me. The film also drags a little after the first climax. Thankfully, this is relatively short as the story quickly gets back on track. Finally, there are some proverbial school bullies who come across as almost a little too cliché and almost comical at times. However, these points are all minor compared to the overall film.
It was admittedly a surprise for me as I’ve come to expect less in Stephen King movies. I thoroughly enjoyed It and want to see more of The Losers’ Club, which will apparently happen in the second film as it will be centered mostly on our merry band of losers in adulthood. I expect It will give the box office a much needed boost into fall after a very uneven and lackluster summer season.