Never mind the 1990 miniseries with its cardboard cut-out performances and wobbly spider seemingly fashioned from the BFG’s pipe cleaners. It’s taken 31 years for Stephen King’s doorstep magnum opus to reach the big screen, making It, good or bad, the horror event of the year. Well, the great news is – not least given there was a waft of the sewers during pre-production as True Detective director Cary Fukunaga walked to be replaced by Mama’s Andres Muschietti – It is worth the wait.
Wisely opting to adapt just the half of the novel that focuses on the seven protagonists as kids – a planned second instalment will revisit them 27 years later – this sees Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) band together to form The Losers’ Club.
The name fits: variously plagued by abusive or ill-caring parents, poverty, illness, ethnicity, a stutter, grief, obesity and chronic short-sightedness, their misfit-status attracts the vicious attentions of a trio of bullies led by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). But now a more urgent terror has invaded their lives: It, a nameless, formless, ageless evil that rises from the sewers and storm drains every 30 years or so to feast on the kids of the township of Derry, Maine.
All of the big decisions made by Muschietti and screenwriter Gary Dauberman work, from the aforementioned choice to split the book, to updating the kids’ timeline from 1958 to 1989 (both holdovers from the script by Fukunaga and Chase Palmer), to returning It to the shape-shifter of the book. The miniseries, of course, simply locked in on It’s go-to get-up of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, with Tim Curry capably filling the big shoes (and baggy trousers) of King’s monster.
Here, played by Bill Skarsgard, Pennywise once more plays a vital part, with the Swedish actor’s crackpot, cracked-paint turn reinterpreting the role as thoroughly as Heath Ledger roughed-up Jack Nicholson’s iconic Joker. But there’s more, with some judiciously applied CGI allowing Pennywise to morph into each of The Losers’ greatest fears – which are not, thankfully, a cavalcade of ’80s screen monsters to offer a first-base update of the Universal monsters in the book.
That said, there is something of Freddy Krueger (who built It’s studio, New Line) to the way It reconfigures and adapts his environment to mess with the kids’ heads. The house on Niebolt Street – a pause while fans of the book shudder – is to It what the subterranean boiler room is to Freddy, and when the Losers enter this lair, all rules of time and space are flushed down the toilet. And while we’re peering down the porcelain, let it also be said that It contains an icky set-piece that makes for the best bathroom scene in King-based cinema since the rotting woman lurched from the tub in Kubrick’s The Shining.
But the real reason IT works is because it takes time with the kids, revelling in their colourful lingo and comradeship as much as their fears. The young cast is excellent, with special call-outs for Lillis and Lieberher, and praise can’t get any higher than to say their chemistry recalls not just Stranger Things, a show indebted to the novel IT, but the kids’ banter and heartache in the daddy of all King adaptations, Stand By Me. Terrific.