This big-screen version of Stephen King’s 1,200-page doorstopper is not great, but solid enough, and considering the overall woeful track record of King film adaptations, it can be counted as a success.
I haven’t read the book or watched the popular 80s mini-series with Tim Curry, but knowing King’s propensity to write and write and write and write some more, I gather that the screenwriters pruned away the verbiage and streamlined the novel to its basic story about a bunch of kids in a small American town who are terrorised by a creepy, cackling clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). Actually, make it half of the story, as the filmmakers split the novel into two cinematic chapters, with the follow-up a certainty now that this movie has made a mountain of cash.
The first appearance by Pennywise is his most effective and unsettling. A little boy named Georgie is playing outside in the rain sailing a paper boat, which disappears down a drain. When Georgie looks down, he sees a nightmarish painted face with terrifying glowing eyes looking up at him out of the darkness. Would he like to have his boat back? Just lean in and take it! Georgie does as the evil creature beckons… and it doesn’t end well for him.
Unfortunately, this simple macabre scene is an anomaly in the movie that relies mostly on loud obnoxious jump scares and throws everything but the kitchen sink at the viewer. To the film’s credit, its horror set pieces never became repetitive, and had enough visual interest and striking surreal imagery to hold my interest. But they are too loud and over-the-top to be truly scary, and nothing kills suspense and dread like the obvious CGI. The movie never manages to build up a mood of a small town with a haunted history, and Pennywise has less and less impact the longer he’s onscreen. That first remarkable appearance is mostly memorable for his stillness – when Pennywise instead turns into a blurry fast-moving shape lunging repeatedly at the screen, he is not anywhere near as effective. Also, not to sound bloodthirsty or anything, but his failure to ensnare any of our heroes for so long makes him feel less of a credible threat.
It however works much better as a coming-of-age story, and its talented and likeable young cast carry the film when the scares dry up. After Georgie’s disappearance, his guilt-wracked brother Bill and the rest of his friends all encounter Pennywise in various ways tailored to their personal fears, and eventually realise that they must take on this demonic force. Dubbing themselves The Losers’ Club, the young protagonists are all nerds and outsiders who suffer at the hands of local bullies and find comfort in each other. Because of time restrictions, some of them are better fleshed out than others – a couple of kids’ entire characterisation comes down to “a Jewish kid” and “a black kid with dead parents”. Beverly, the only girl in the club, is one of the better developed characters; slut-shamed at school, at home she endures her creepy and abusive father, and her bloody encounter with Pennywise gives the film one of its most memorable and primal scenes that has shades of Carrie and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Beverly also sets hearts and hormones aflutter among the boys, most notably Ben, a sensitive, shy overweight kid whose interest in history clues the Losers onto their town’s sinister past.
Stephen King always had a knack for writing kids, and it’s refreshing to watch pre-adolescent boys who are not air-brushed Hollywood children: they cuss like sailors and drop nonchalant sex-related insults right, left and centre, particularly Ritchie (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard), the resident smartass who all but steals the movie. I wish the film did more with the idea that the town’s grown-ups – which include a pervy pharmacist and a grotesque overprotective mother – are the real monsters in the kids’ lives, but again it just doesn’t get enough time to breathe. Despite the rushed execution and lack of real scares, It is strongly acted and has enough heart and visual panache to entertain for a couple of hours.