By Jim Slotek
Nosferatu-like incisors punctuating his grimace-like grin, Bill Skarsgård brings a new level of unpredictable malice to the child-killing entity that haunts King’s benighted Derry, Maine. And he does it within a sensibly trimmed-down narrative that maximizes the horror.
As his books got longer and became sacred texts, King’s stories have become less of a fit with the big screen. The novel It was a double-barreled adult-child narrative, with tween-age heroes dispatching an ancient evil, then returning in their adulthood to do it again (bouncing between the two stories as it went). It took a four-hour mini-series in 1990 to tell that full story, and even it felt rushed.
The new movie version, directed by Andy Muschietti, performs surgery on the structure, electing to tell only the original kids’ story, at the turn of the ‘90s (cue the New Kids On The Block posters and gags). The movie is billed as Part 1, which suggests we will see our gang of bullied, baby-faced underdogs return as adults, ready to relive their childhood traumas.
(That’s if It is a hit. Which is pretty much a given. The trailer has already won a Golden Trailer for best horror teaser, which suggests a level of audience awareness that should easily power a weekend box office win.)
The result is a movie whose vibe is a mash-up of Strangers Things and The Goonies. The collection of misfits includes Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) whose little brother Georgie is the first in the latest wave of children to go missing after a clown encounter. Bill, a stutterer, attracts a collection of equally vulnerable friends who gradually have terrifying hallucinatory experiences themselves.
They include the jokester Richie (Finn Wolfhard), a sensitive, literary-minded overweight kid named Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the germophobe Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a home-schooled black kid named Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a bullied teenaged girl with an unearned “reputation.”
Their troubles are many, but besides the homicidal clown, their chief antagonist is a school bully and gang leader named Henry Bowers, played with sociopathic enthusiasm by Nicholas Hamilton.
At two hours and 15 minutes, this half-told version of It has room to breathe and create atmosphere, and even convincingly flesh out some of the human monsters that populate Derry - including Henry, and Beverly’s creepy father (Stephen Bogaert).
For those who’ve read the book and/or seen the classic mini-series, it’s strange to see “The Loser’s Club’s” story told as a stand-alone, knowing as we do what sort of remarkable people the kids grow up to be.
But in this incarnation, grown-ups would simply get in the way. Muschietti has a way with tension and mood, skillfully punctuated by laughs. The period is ripe for pop-culture references, and mercifully predates the Internet and cellphones (which scriptwriters will tell you is a story-killer, with every character always being a phonecall or text away from safety).
Ultimately, this version of It is among a couple of the best Stephen King adaptations to make its way to the big screen.
Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.