There’s something freaky going around the town of Derry. People keep disappearing, far more than the average American town, and nobody seems to really care about it. They just keep going on about their business as if nothing’s really happening. One person that’s not standing by while these disappearances just keep on happening is Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), a kid suffering from a stutter whose younger brother Georgie went missing a few months prior and now Bill is determined to find out what exactly happened to his younger sibling and try his hardest during his 1989 summer vacation to make sure no one else has to go missing under such mysterious and nefarious circumstances.
Bill isn’t alone in his quest though, as his three best friends Richie Tozer (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), team up with Bill on his newfound mission, as do new kid Benjamin Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), forming The Loser’s Club in the process. All of these kids are soon plagued by terrifying visions uniquely refined to play on their individual fears, with the common link between them being the appearance of a malevolent clown by the name of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), a relentless killing machine who devours the local children and is now bent on traumatizing and stopping The Loser’s Club.
“It,” an adaptation of a classic Stephen King book that updates the stories time period from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, is the newest piece of pop culture, following in the footsteps of “Stranger Things” and “Super 8,” to evoke the feeling and tone of 1980’s cinema (which was heavily dominated by Stephen King and Steven Spielberg pop culture), specifically in channeling stuff like “The Goonies” by depicting a bunch of middle school aged kids going off on an adventure that is heavy on the horror and fantasy elements. Hollywood has always had a fixation with channeling atmospheres and styles of the past for as long as we’ve been making movies and it looks like channeling this epoch of filmmaking is the newest trend in nostalgia-based cinema.
In terms of overall quality, “It” does not reach the heights of past similar homages like “Super 8,” but it’s a really good horror movie on its own merits and provides plenty of qualities of its own to make it more than just a rehash of distinctive elements from a specific era of American filmmaking. Best of all, it’s actually really scary, which I’m sure should make horror movie devotees and casual moviegoers alike cackle with glee. Yep, Pennywise lives up to the hype and becomes an incredibly scary force to be reckoned with. What’s great about this creature is how he adjusts his personality slightly for each character he encounters in the movie for the shared purpose of luring these kids into his deadly jaws.
This means he’ll act more docile and inviting to a young kid like George for instance and then act more overtly sinister when he’s trying to freak out an already terrified child trying to nurse a broken arm. This lends a sense of unpredictability to any scene that Pennywise shows up in — you really never know what this sinister force masquerading as a clown will do next. Bill Skarsgard manifests this unpredictability into a terrific performance that has him going absolutely for broke on any kind of creepiness Pennywise puts out there. This guy can dance, move his eyes around in an unsettling manner or contort his body around to creepy levels and I’m a particular fan of the voice he has for Pennywise, which gives the character a slightly exaggerated infection common in normal clowns paired with more unorthodox and unnerving vocal tics.
Skarsgard’s great as the clown and the various young actors portraying the assorted kids Pennywise terrifies are also turning in strong work. Jaeden Lieberher, after putting in a strong performance in last year’s “Midnight Special,” was a mighty fine pick for the lead role, and the way he portrays the characters stuttering in a realistic manner is particularly impressive. The best of the younger actors has got to be Sophia Lillis as Beverly; she does a great job lending some layers of personality to her turmoil filled character while additional kudos should go to Finn Wolfhard who turns out to be a lot of fun as the humorously Chatty Cathy of the Losers Club.
The scenes depicting the various members of the Losers Clubs interacting together may be some of the best non-horror moments of “It.” There’s a real sense of authenticity in these interactions, particularly in the unpolished jokes shared by these guys, that ring true and make them feel like real human beings, which is helpful in instilling some real character drama into the more frightful sequences. That having been said, certain members do feel shortchanged in terms of personality, most notably Mike who doesn’t really have much to do at all in the plot proper, while other characters like Ben and Eddie don’t get as much to do in the third act after having a large amount of screentime in prior sections of the story.
Also problematic is director Andy Muschietti’s solid but occasionally lacking direction. He eschewed the grandiose visual stylings of his last film, “Mama,” for a slightly more realistic visual aesthetic. There’s actually some really inventive ways of capturing the more horror-filled moments of the movie, but the down-to-Earth scenes tend to have some unimaginative camerawork, and the editing tends to feel similarly pedestrian in these same grounded scenes depicting the members of the Loser’s Club in their normal home lives. But thankfully, the editing and directing do come through in the scary sequences of “It” which are well-realized on a visual level and do have some real directing and editing to speak of. Plus, there’s still that amazing performance by Bill Skarsgard that really does just fill you with fear — it’d be hard to screw up the scares when Skarsgard is around doing his take on Pennywise. Luckily, It gives him a memorably scary and entertaining movie to inhabit, one that delivers the chills and thrills that ensure that my own personal long-standing fear of clowns will very much still be around for the near future.