Partway through Andy Muschietti’s big screen adaptation of (part of) Stephen King’s infamous novel It, there's a scene that gave me chills for the first time in a while. Beverly (Sophia Lillis) has just been inducted into the “Losers Club”, a group of misfit friends attempting to survive young adult life in the small town of Derry, Maine. “Survive” being the most appropriate term, given that kids and young adults have a tendency to go mysteriously missing (or turn up dead) every 27 years. What Bev and the other Losers don't yet know is that the entity behind the kidnappings and killings is a shape-shifting monster who generally goes by the name and visage of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard), and they only have a hope of stopping it when they're together. But for now, Bev is alone in her bathroom, and when she hears eerie voices speaking to her from far below the drain in the sink, she investigates, and a torrent of blood pours over her and the tile walls. Screaming hysterically, her creep of a father (Stephen Bogaert) rushes in, asking what the problem is. She indicates all the blood covering the walls and herself, trembling as she tries to recount the horror that just occurred. “You worry me, Bev” he says in dismissive concern, and Beverly realizes that he can't see the blood. Muschietti makes a brilliant choice here, one which other horror films would not and have not made in the past: he doesn't cut to a shot of a pristine bathroom, showing what the father sees, or even calling into question Bev’s point of view. The sequence is made that much more nightmarish when Bev and by extension the audience, realize that we’re not going to get such an easy reprieve. Mr. Marsh and the other adults in Derry either can't see or won't see what's really going on. The terror in town will not be dismissed as just a hallucination or a bad dream; it must be confronted and defeated. The blood stays.
It is a revelation, both as a top-tier Stephen King adaptation and as a big budget mainstream horror film in its own right. Horror, as all film genres in Hollywood, comes in waves, and for the last seven or so years it's been stuck in Paranormal Activity/The Conjuring mode. The work of James Wan and Oren Peli and their ilk have produced haunted house jump scare machines with pseudo-religious trappings that range from formally unpretentious found footage to more “based on true events” prestigious styles. After this many years with these types of films, with the only respite being the brave world of indie horror, their structure and tricks become more clear and more worn. The Conjuring cinematic universe is still going strong, but even last month's Annabelle: Creation struggled to be anything deeper than by-the-numbers (its gaggle of characters had about as much depth as its titular doll, who once again wasn't even the star antagonist of its own show). Just as the slasher era died out in the late 80’s (when this It is set—there's even a neat Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child poster in Derry), the paranormal possession era is nearing its time to leave, and It is a fantastic film to help forge a new path.
It’s ironic in how the film’s freshness arises out of a combination of existing and nostalgic elements. Director Muschietti and co-screenwriter Gary Dauberman both come from a history of paranormal movies, with Muschietti’s previous credit being 2013’s Mama (which despite its Guillermo Del Toro-lite-ness devolved into a metaphysical mush at its end) and Dauberman writing the scripts for both Annabelle movies. Dauberman is the real shock here, as nothing in the Annabelle films hinted at the deep characterization and mastery of tone that It’s screenplay has (granted, he's not the only writer, as Cary Fukunaga and Chase Palmer both have credits). Muschietti delivered the scare goods in Mama decently, but even he is working on another level here, judiciously using jump scares and oftentimes eschewing them for full throated terror, all canted angles and swinging camera moves. More than anything else, Muschietti and company nail the “Stephen King” tone, evoking equal parts unabashed horror and hazy coming-of-age nostalgia. The fact that this It perfectly captures the ’80’s (whereas King was writing about the ’50’s in his novel) adds a neat commentary, that the “flashback” portion of the story takes place in the era when the book was originally published. 80’s nostalgia is nothing new in 2017, and so the film isn't new in that respect. But none of the mood of the story is lost in translation, as the movie evokes all the hard luck misery and first love fondness of youth. It joins such films as E.T., The Goonies, The Monster Squad, and Super 8 (as well as, yes, Netflix’s Stranger Things) in presenting an authentic portrait of young adulthood.
As with those films and certainly with this one, the evocation of tween life wouldn't be nearly as good without a fantastic ensemble cast. In addition to Lillis’ Bev, the likes of Jaeden Liberher’s Bill, Jeremy Ray Taylor’s Ben, Chosen Jacobs’ Mike, Jack Dylan Grazer’s Eddie, Wyatt Oleff’s Stanley, and Finn Wolfhard’s Richie make up the Losers Club, and it can't be overstated how great they are. Each actor has an arc and a character to play, which means each are well defined and bring a unique quality to the table. At no point are you confused who is who, or feel that any of them are superfluous. In addition to making them delightful, charming characters (who provide a large amount of easy humor to the film-Wolfhard in particular is hilarious), they raise the stakes considerably. Intellectually, I knew going in that none of the (main) kids would die, yet each encounter they had with Pennywise had me nervous. And speaking of Pennywise, Skarsgard is phenomenal. Nothing could replace Tim Curry’s iconic take on the character from the 1990 miniseries, but Skarsgard’s Pennywise is just as iconic in a different way. There's nothing subtle about his performance, as it blends with Muschietti’s style excellently, going for the jugular (literally and figuratively) every time. His low, broken, sickly voice hinting disgustingly at the unholy monster lying just underneath, Skarsgard is utterly wrong in the best way. He’s also helped by the CG and makeup effects team, which consists of Stan Winston Studio pioneers Alec Gills and Tom Woodruff Jr, mixing gnarly practical creatures and effects with creepy CG visual effects like the unnatural movement of Pennywise’s eyes. It all adds up to a creature that feels disturbingly, unsettlingly non-defined. A creepy clown is this thing’s primary form, but it could and will become just about anything.
Perhaps It’s most surprising accomplishment is the fact that, despite being adapted from a 1,400 page novel, It feels like a whole film. Sure, it ends with a title card that promises a “Part Two”, when the 27 years older Losers Club confronts Pennywise again, but if that movie never happens it won't feel like It is a half of a missing whole. There are those who will lament that it lacks all the nuances of the book, but while that may be true, it never feels like it's lost anything (unlike other adaptations of famously long novels such as Dune). Everything from Benjamin Wallfisch’s aggressive score to the top notch spooky production design by Claude Pare combines to give It a real feeling substance, of danger, of authenticity, of horror. It tells a complete story of a group of young adults struggling to reconcile with coming of age, learning to deal with loss, raging against bullies and authority figures, battling with all the evils in the world (and the Evil in the world) without being able to turn to their parents for help. It's the perfect Fall horror movie to watch in a crowded theater, for just as the Losers Club discovers, It can be confronted best in the company of others. It's a fantastic film to turn to in terms of crisis as well, for that axiom of confronting fear with strength holds in the real world. No matter what you do, the blood stays. But for us horror fans, it's so great that it (and It) is back.