2 hours, 15 minutes
I wonder if, when Francis Ford Coppola was casting his classic adaptation of “The Outsiders,” he realized he was looking at a group of young actors that would dominate the 1980s and 90s on the big screen and small. Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane, and Tom Cruise for goodness sakes, and that doesn’t even count the Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio or C. Thomas Howell who went on to … hmmm.
OK, Ponyboy was pretty much his highlight. Still, talk about an embarrassment of riches. That’s how I felt watching this week’s Stephen King horror extravaganza, “It.” The movie was pretty good, and the scares were certainly plentiful enough, but it was the cast of young actors that really sets this film apart.
Written back in 1986, when Stephen King was still kind of a phenomenon instead of the institution he’s become, “It” was an 1,100-page epic about a quaint little town in Maine being terrorized by a killer clown. Jumping back and forth between the 1950s and modern day, the dual narratives chronicle the battle between Pennywise and The Losers Club, both as children and later as adults.
Naturally, Pennywise is more than just a clown – no self-respecting King novel would miss a chance to go confusingly cosmic at the end, but for most of the novel he manifests as either the clown or as something to strike fear into his particular victim. Fear, it seems is It’s true sustenance.
There was, of course, a mini-series in the ‘90s which isn’t awful, but isn’t great either, Tim Curry’s iconic performance as the monster notwithstanding. Hollywood gets a lot of flack for just recycling the same material over and over, but it was high time this strange and frightening story got its big-screen due.
The current film doesn’t substantially change much from the novel, although quite a bit is left out. Where the book combines the narratives, director Andy Muschetti divides the tale in two, leaving more time to focus on his talented young cast, and also making room for a whole other film — one that can be populated by big name stars. He also moves the setting from the 50s to the 80s, which will place the next film in modern day.
The film opens with Bill Denbrough, played by Jaeden Lieberher, who you might remember from “The Book of Henry,” making a paper boat for his little brother Georgie. Georgie, you’ll remember from the trailers, is the unfortunate little boy in the yellow slicker who encounters Pennywise in the storm drain. Gradually the story introduces the rest of the gang and gives them each a sympathetic backstory.
Eddie Kasparak, played by Jack Dylan Grazer, is a hypochondriac with a disturbingly overbearing mother, Stan Uris is beset with anxiety over his Rabbi father’s expectations, and Mike Hanlon can’t bear the slaughterhouse that his family runs. Most sympathetic of the bunch, however, is Beverly Marsh, whose creepy father insinuates a whole other kind of horror at home. Young actress Sophia Lillis steals the show with her daring performance. I can see in her a young Amy Adams or Jessica Chastain, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of those two actresses didn’t play Beverly in Chapter 2 of this tale.
Last but not least is Richie Tozier, the wisecracking loudmouth of the bunch, here played by “Stranger Things’” Finn Wolfhard, a name that is destined to go above the marquee of some action movie of the future. Wolfhard is perfect as Richie, the film’s R-rating allowing him to really embody the foul-mouthed, yet hilarious character King envisioned.
“It” isn’t without it’s flaws. The clown costume they picked is problematic at times — a little too Victorian. Bill Skarsgard, as Pennywise, doesn’t do quite the job Tim Curry did, but the combination of practical and digital effects they employ make Pennywise a pretty scary character. There are moments when his eyes don’t line up that you realize its because the Pennywise shape is kind of a puppet, and not always operated expertly.
The film is meant to be fun, with lots of jump scares — and it is — but King’s novel is not a jump scare kind of story. It’s mean, and it’s complicated and, necessarily, the movie tends to be a little mean as well. It’s fine to laugh and scream when Pennywise thrusts himself out of a movie screen, but less fun when Beverly’s abusive father is sniffing her hair, or when cute little Georgie is crying while bleeding out on the street. It’s a hard balance, and the film does its best, but there are some obstacles you can’t overcome.
There is fun to be had, however, if a good scare is what you want. I felt for the girl who sat a few seats down from me who shrieked louder than I think I’ve ever heard during the aforementioned movie screen scene. Her friends found this so amusing that they goosed her during the next jump scare, causing the poor girl to get up and walk out. She eventually made it back, however, and I think had a good laugh along with the rest of us.
“It” is legitimately scary and, for most of it, pretty entertaining. I’ll admit, after the train wreck that was “The Dark Tower,” I didn’t have high hopes for this film. Call me pleasantly surprised. And pretty creeped out.
“It” is rated R for language and grisly violence involving children.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.