‘It’ faces an inherent dilemma: it is in danger of becoming a parody of itself. Set in a small town in Maine in the 1980s, where awkward adolescents cycle down wide streets, facing off against unknown evils, ‘It’ is immediately reminiscent of another recent drama: Netflix’s Stranger Things. Yet, while that series was an unabashed Spielberg homage filled with deliberately overt references to the era’s iconic pop culture, ‘It’ is both the originator of said tropes and taking advantage of their resurgence, seducing modern audiences by tapping into our collective nostalgia.
Based on Stephen King’s 1986 novel, the story of ‘It’ is better known by many from the 1990 TV adaptation. Now, 27 years after its last incarnation (in a nod to the lifecycle of Pennywise himself), ‘It’ is back.
The film follows a group of teenagers whose summer plans are interrupted by a string of disappearances, including that of Georgie Denbrough. Distraught, Georgie’s older brother, Bill, rounds up his misfit friends to track Georgie down – but in order to do so they will have to confront parents, bullies and something darker still…
Fear permeates every inch of the film; it is both the source of the horror and the key to unlocking the mystery. In order to overcome Pennywise’s gruesome villainy, the children must first confront their own dark sides.
Despite scares aplenty and a few gory moments, director Andy Muschietti has created a surprisingly endearing film, combining the visual vocabulary of classic horror with the youthful camaraderie of Stand By Me and The Goonies. The young actors embody their characters brilliantly, from Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie (whose rebellion against his hypochondriac mother leads to one of the film’s funniest lines) to the foul-mouthed Richie (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard, in a piece of meta-casting) whose endless stream of wisecracks culminates in a punch-the-air speech. It helps that the script is chockablock with endlessly-quotable one-liners and the dialogue between the ‘Losers’ bounces around like a pinball machine.
While it is difficult to imagine a Pennywise surpassing Tim Curry’s iconic performance, Bill Skarsgård is impressive in the role, his voice a babyish sing-song emerging from a (CGI-aided) face that’s downright terrifying.
By moving the film’s setting to the 1980s, Muschietti gives himself the scope for playful nods to key cinematic influences: A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Beetlejuice and The Gremlins all get a visual wink. Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography puts you viscerally in the ‘Losers” world, while Benjamin Wallfisch’s score creates an omnipresent sense of impending doom.
While hardcore horror fans may demand darker twists, this adaptation broadens ‘It”s appeal by letting the scares play second fiddle to the characters’ inner landscapes. The result is a film that refuses to torture its audience, instead encouraging reflection on the traumas suffered by the characters. With such troubled childhoods, you can’t help wondering what kind of adults the gang will turn out to be. With ‘Chapter 2’ already in development, however, you won’t have to wait another 27 years to find out.