Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

IT: Chapter One

Grade : A Year : 2017 Director : Andy Muschietti Running Time : 2hr 15min Genre : ,
Movie review score

Comparing Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It to the 1990 TV miniseries that preceded it is almost an act of futility- the miniseries had limitations in what it could do, and show, that the film does not. I am quite familiar with the miniseries, having seen it plenty of times over the years, and considering it as one of my very favorite horror “films,” but it would not surprise me if Muschietti’s film surpasses it, because while it only tells one half of King’s story, it tells it exceptionally well, and with a clear awareness of what made the best King films (“Carrie,” “The Shining,” “The Mist,” “The Dead Zone”) great in bringing the author’s work to the big screen.

The most important part of this story any adaptation needs to get right is the dynamic between the kids at the center of the story, The Loser’s Club. It’s a big reason why the miniseries is still hugely rewatchable 27 years later, and thankfully, it’s why Muschietti’s film is successful. He has cast the seven kids at the heart of the story to perfection, and the chemistry they have together is why this film works. This is, at heart, a rite of passage story in the same vein as “Stand By Me,” adapted from King’s novella, The Body, and the horror is almost secondary. That is the correct approach. While we get peaks into the lives of all of the members of The Loser’s Club, the ones we get the most glimpse at are Beverley Marsh (Sophia Lillis) and Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher). It’s Bill’s story that kicks the film off with the murder of his younger brother, Georgie, on a rainy day in Derry at the hands of Pennywise the Clown. What makes Bill’s narrative so powerful is his reluctance to accept Georgie’s death, and simply believe that he “disappeared,” as other kids have between 1988-1989, when the film is set. That emotional anchor was not present in the miniseries, and having it fleshed out here gives tremendous weight to his actions, and his obsession with It and his need for answers. Bill, as he was in the miniseries, is the heart of the group, and Lieberher does a great job in the role.

The other primary role in the Loser’s Club is that of Beverley. Sophia Lillis is fantastic as Bev, and it’s up there with Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, and Shelley Duvall’s Wendy as one of the best female performances in a King adaptation. A lot of that boils down to, like Bill, the way her arc is developed. She is bullied at school by other girls, who have spread rumors of her being promiscuous, and looked down upon, and she has a domineering father at home. Bev’s sexuality is a key point of the character, in a lot of ways, and it’s central to the relationship between her and her father. There are hints of sexual abuse happening at home that were not in the miniseries that adds a great deal to the character’s emotional arc in the film, and isn’t exploitative, as it could have been. King’s Carrie is a big influence on the way screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman come at the role, but it’s the way they handle things when she’s with The Loser’s Club where the film really scores. The first time the guys in the group hang out with her, she shows them up by diving into a quarry- the characters are all in their underwear, and while the way some of the boys look at her is through their perceptions based on the rumors they’ve heard, it’s not long before she is, simply, one of the guys, although a triangle, or sorts, forms between her, Bill (whom she kissed years ago in a school play) and Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the fat member of the club who discovers the pattern of Pennywise’s terror on the town of Derry. One of the important qualities of the story has always been that The Loser’s Club owns that name, but none of them feel like losers when they are together. In fact, they are stronger, and when they realize that, it makes them formidable against It. That means we see Pennywise, It’s most frequent visage, try to separate them when It can, and that means pushing individual buttons in Bill (with Georgie), Bev (with her father), Ben, Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) and Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), or enlisting the help of bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who likes to terrorize the group. Part of the reason “It” endures as a horror story is because it empowers the kids to face what frightens them in real life, and rise to the challenge.

Muschietti’s only previous feature was 2013’s “Mama,” which was a terrific little horror thriller he adapted from a short film he had made. It was a winding road that led him to adapting “It” (Fukunaga was attached to the film as director for a while before having to exit over “creative differences”), but he ends up being an inspired choice. He does a great job directing the kids, telling the story, getting down-and-dirty with the premise, developing the set pieces, and, most importantly, making Bill Skarsgård into a formidable Pennywise. Most people agree that Tim Curry’s Pennywise is a tough act to follow, along with the best part of the miniseries, but Skarsgård does the best thing by not trying to imitate that performance, and making the role his own. It starts with the makeup, which is inherently creepier than Curry’s, and goes down to the voice and mannerisms. This feels like a Pennywise right out of Kubrick’s “The Shining” if Kubrick had adapted “It,” as well, and it’s a smart choice, and one of many little moments Muschietti uses to pay tribute to King cinema of the past while also raising the bar for adaptations to come, as well as the second chapter of this story. I cannot wait to see how they follow this up.

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