Whether you read Stephen King’s original 1986 novel, watched the 1990 miniseries through your fingers, or avoided the whole thing entirely, you know one thing about It: Pennywise the Clown.
The killer clown is what everyone thinks of when they think of It, thanks to an electric performance by Tim Curry, but the true nature of It is so much more than that. Yes, It is horror, and yes, Pennywise the Clown is terrifying no matter which way you slice (and dice) it, but the power of the original story stems from The Losers Club, a ragtag group of young misfits who band together to destroy the evil taking over their town. So while the demonic beast and its vicious circus clown form might be the most memorable images from IT, the newest iteration of Stephen King’s classic novel puts The Losers Club center stage for one of the best Stephen King adaptations to date.
This It, after losing True Detective’s Cary Fukunaga and gaining director Andy Muschetti, is an adaptation of Stephen King’s book, not the miniseries, set in the 1980s instead of the 1950s. It (It?) focuses entirely on the kids of Derry, Maine (the fictional setting for other Stephen King stories like Pet Sematary, Insomnia, The Dark Tower VII, and Under the Dome), who discover that something is amiss in their seemingly ideally small town. Children are going missing, disappearing from backyards and on rainy walks ‘round the neighborhood, and no one seems to notice or care. When sweet, stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) loses his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to such a fate, he and his friends begin to see horrifying creatures out of their worst nightmares everywhere they look. And while the so-called Losers Club bands together to fight the ancient evil consuming their town from within, they also have the cold realities of life to deal with: Beverly (Sophia Lillis) and her abusive father; Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), bullied for the way they look; hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) trapped at home with his cloying, clinging mother.
Though the film is satisfyingly scary (more on that and Pennywise later), it’s the kids who really steal the show here. Evoking childhood favorites like Stand By Me or Now and Then, the Losers Club is filled with characters who feel so real it makes your heart ache. They’re scrappy and raw, silly even while scared out of their minds. But mostly, they’re a joy to watch, and make the moments around IT’s terror something you wouldn’t expect from a big budget horror movie: a ton of fun. The whole troupe of young actors is primed for Stranger Things breakout success, including a second round for Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard. His hilarious performance as Richie, the attention-seeking class clown known as “Trashmouth Tozier,” is a complete 180 from the moody, determined Mike Wheeler of Stranger Things. Jaeden Lieberher plays Bill as the solemn, brave leader of the gang all on his own terms, and while all the boys play their parts with that rare honesty kids have, Jack Dylan Grazer’s flabbergasted, frustrated Eddie – who just wants to go HOME and get away from all this disgusting nonsense – was a clear favorite.
But it’s Beverly who I was most excited to see, Beverly who truly lives in fear all day every day, Beverly whose home is the nightmare. As the one girl in the group, Beverly could easily be lost on a pedestal (and no, THAT disturbing book scene is not in the movie – thank goodness). But while the boys of the Losers Club look on Beverly with awe and amazement, she is firmly her own character, brave despite having every reason not to be. Because at its core of dead lights and lost souls, IT is about the monster who feeds on fear, yes, but it’s also about the danger and debilitating loneliness of childhood. Derry seems like the perfect small town before Pennywise the Clown gets his polka dot mitts on it, but something even more insidious lives there. It’s the evil of human nature; of abuse and neglect; of parents ignoring their children’s pain or worse yet, causing it. There’s a reason the adults can’t see Pennywise the Clown or any of his cruel tricks, and it’s because the kids of Derry – the Losers Club especially – are all alone to fend for themselves, against the world and against the monster.
And what a monster It is. Casting the role of Pennywise the Clown seemed like an impossible feat; how could anyone live up to Tim Curry’s iconic performance? Thankfully, It is the best kind of adaptation – one that stays true to the themes of the source material but also creates something new. And Bill Skarsgard takes Pennywise and makes him his own – delightfully devious, at times truly terrifying, playing with his body language like he’s his own puppeteer. For those of you looking for the thrills of It, be assured that there are plenty of jump scares, spooky set pieces, and gore that absolutely earns that R rating. My only complaint, which is honestly just personal preference, is that the film shows quite a bit of Pennywise from the get-go, rather than teasing him out and building suspense. But thankfully, that does not take away from some of the scarier scenes at the film’s climax.
Horror films are always hit and miss… horror adaptations even more so. But It not only made me fall in love with The Losers Club all over again, it made me excited for a sequel! Who would play these kids as adults? Can we get another installment with the kids before their grown-up selves reunite in Derry? Yes, I crawled out of my skin and yes, Pennywise is still scary as all get-out, but the real strength of this film lies in The Losers Club and that incredible cast. If you’re looking for a ton of frightening fun after a long summer movie drought, just lean into the nightmare and go see IT.
4 OUT 5 HORRIFYING BURRITOS
Images: New Line
Rachel Heine is the Editor-in-Chief of Nerdist and lover of all things spooky. Chat with her on Twitter or join Alpha Book Club to hang out and talk about books!