Stephen King’s cornerstone text (large enough to form a literal cornerstone in a medium-sized building) is a coming of age story that manages to blend many of his favourite themes together: childhood innocence versus adult trauma, sinister suburbia’s and the handing down of misery from generation to generation.
This new update takes the action from the 50’s to the 1980’s, a move which suits the film’s tone down to a T. Bearing comparison with the best of 80’s adventure horror, IT feels like a hybrid mashup of The Goonies, Poltergeist, Stand By Me and Nightmare On Elm Street. Like those films, it mixes comedy, adventure, sentimentality and legitimate horror seamlessly. Although a horror-adventure rather than a full-blown horror, it delivers genuine scares, achieving a synthesis of fun and fear that Universal’s Mummy reboot can only dream of.
So how does Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise compare to Tim Curry’s iconic turn in the 1980’s TV movie? Where Curry’s Pennywise is malevolent, brimming with hatred for his victims, Skarsgard’s is alien and unnerving. With a bulbous head and 1930’s Disney cartoon features, taking childlike delight in tormenting the children of Derry, this clown is something otherworldly, laying the foundations for the exploration of his origins in the promised sequel.
Skarsgard’s is not the only notable performance in the film. Sophia Lillis gives a stellar performance as Beverley Marsh, for whom the horrors of Derry are nothing compared to life at home with her abusive father. Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard is back on a grifter as the smart-mouthed Ritchie, whose preteen “your mom” jokes are both hilarious and achingly familiar childhood staples. Perhaps the most interesting performance comes from Nicholas Hamilton, who manages to inspire a measure of pity while playing the quintessential 80’s high school bully, a character masking insecurity with mindless violence. Although some characters spend less time on screen than others, none of the performances lack quality, quite a feat when the principle cast are so young.
Each member of the ensemble is coping with their journey to adulthood in their own ways, negotiating the pitfalls of growing up in a small town, trying not to inherit the flaws of their parents and confronting their childhood fears. With each character facing their worst nightmares one by one, the volume of frights remains high throughout, with some sections of the film competing with the Evil Dead franchise in terms of relentless shocks. It also means that, even knocking on 2 hours long, the film feels lean, without a minute of wasted time.
Despite all this, the film commits a few modern horror sins. Score spikes punctuate every jump scare and the CG is sometimes unnecessary (Giant clown crawling out of projector screen? Fine, but couldn’t the props department have made you a real paper boat?) But even these usually cardinal sins are more than forgivable here. The score alternates between orchestral John Williams fare and lo-fi nursery rhyme chanting. When it needs to stir emotion it can, and when it needs to creep its audience out, that’s no problem either. Even the overabundance of CG shouldn’t deter committed horror enthusiasts. The computers are working overtime to bring us fantastic, imaginative situations which inspire awe and fear in equal measure. When it oversteps the mark, it does so to bring us back to the heightened world of childhood- where monsters lurk under every bed and in every dusty cellar.
With a record-breaking opening box office, IT could usher in a new era of big-budget studio horror. Certainly we can expect studio execs to be sitting up and taking notice now that IT has knocked Deadpool off the top spot. With a wealth of top quality horror literature floating around at the moment, not to mention many more King and classic horror paperbacks crying out for adaptation, let’s hope that IT is the start of new and long-lasting trend.