It’s certainly a good weekend to be a horror fan. After a few weeks of dismal box office returns that made us wonder if anyone was filling seats at the local multiplex, a little clown named Pennywise and a little film called It exploded onto the scene and broke several records in its wake. While a projected $60 million opening would’ve put a smile on anyone’s face, it was clear after the opening day that the film would break out well beyond that. When it was all said and done the film grossed $123.1 million over the weekend (up from the initial estimate of $117.1 million) and not only became the biggest September opening ever but it also took the crown as the biggest opening for a horror film (the previous record holder was Paranormal Activity 3 with an opening that was north of $52 million).
The biggest horror opening is significant because you want a good horror film to break that record and let me just say that It is not only a good horror film but it’s a great horror film. Perhaps what sets it apart is that it isn’t only relying on horror to hook the audience. There are creepy moments and enough gore to satisfy viewers are into that kind of thing but the film is more than the genre it inhabits. It’s also a solid coming of age story with characters that you care about. There isn’t one member of The Losers Club who doesn’t earn your approval and even if you know the ins and outs of the story (whether from Stephen King’s novel or the 1990 miniseries) you find yourself rooting for their survival and you up they ultimately face their fears and vanquish the enemy. This may sound cheesy on paper but its this simple and fundamental narrative that drives the film and makes it much more than a piece of frightening entertainment.
The movie relates the events presented in the book’s “early” timeline – the one in which the protagonists are 11 years old – and time-shifts things from the late 1950s to the summer of 1989. The action centers around a group of outcasts who call themselves The Losers: Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and the only girl, Beverly (Sophia Lillis). Following the death of Bill’s younger brother, Georgie, at the hands of the sewer-dwelling Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), all seven of The Losers begin experiencing visions of the clown and/or physical embodiments of things they fear. Pennywise, they learn, emerges every 27 years in the town of Derry, Maine to kill children and feed on their terror. This group, however, is determined to fight back – something easier said than done in these circumstances.
The biggest compliment I can give director Andy Muschietti and writers Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga & Gary Dauberman is that they don’t rely on typical horror tropes to generate scares. The “jump scare” is very prevalent in horror films today and while there are some present here, they don’t dominate the proceedings. It is more about building tension than cheap gimmicks. The film also offers more than traditional horror. There’s a strong element of childhood friendship – the hallmark of Stand by Me – and a statement about how not all monsters are inhuman. The film’s bullies – older kids like Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and adults like Henry and Beverly’s abusive fathers – are as terrifying in their own ways as Pennywise. In fact, one might argue that they’re even more so because their brand of horror is grounded in real life. A lot of the scenes involving the older characters being violent or inappropriate with the kids, are downright unsettling and do what they’re intended to do.
Speaking of unsettling, the film doesn’t shy away from putting the kids through a physical and emotional roller coaster. This begins with the opening scene which had most of the audience at my screening definitely reacting in a very shocked way. It goes all in and this opening sets to the tone of what to expect. It earns its R-rating but it’s not an excessively hard R that will turn the casual moviegoer away. It’s more about the tension that gets to you rather than some of the actions (although some of them are pretty intense as well).
For the cast, the filmmakers went with a group of lesser-known actors. This is true not only of the children but the adults as well. This ends up being a wise choice because we aren’t distracted by “names” in the cast. The more unknown they are, the more realistic they come off and that is especially true of the actors (and actress) that comprise the younger members of the cast. Jaeden Lieberher, who plays the stuttering Bill, was recently seen (although not by many) as the title character in The Book of Henry. Finn Wolfhard is probably best known for his role as Mike in Stranger Things, a TV series inspired in part by King’s writings that incorporate the same kind of childhood bonding that occurs among The Losers. That’s as close as you’ll get to recognize any of them but you don’t need a full blown filmography to respect them. They’re all very good and handle the drama, comedy, and horror like pros. I never once viewed them as performers. They came off as real kids and that’s a testament to their talent.
Pennywise is played with uncommon spookiness by Bill Skarsgard (the brother of Alexander and son of Stellan). Emerging from the long shadow of Tim Curry, whose interpretation of the clown was a highlight of the TV mini-series, Skarsgard makes Pennywise his own from the shocking first scene. He’s used just enough in the film to not be overwhelming. The best thing you can do with the monster is hidden him a bit until absolutely necessary and the film manages to not turn him into a caricature. He’s creepy throughout and never misses a beat. Needless to say, his performance will make those who are afraid of clowns, probably still fear them.
Plans are in place for a Chapter 2 of It, although that will likely take three years to reach screens since it’s only in the earliest stages of pre-production. However, the screenwriters have parsed the source material in such a way that this installment of It can stand on its own, eliminating the frustration that could result from Chapter 2 never being produced (after the weekend box office numbers, it certainly will). Although the story is mostly faithful to the novel, the screenwriters have made some deviations in the adaptation process. Aspects of the ending have been reworked to be more cinematically coherent and several controversial elements have been removed. The result is a strong narrative that doesn’t fragment at the end. For a film that’s tackling a 1100+ page book (with even more story to tell), that’s quite the achievement. The film clocks in at over 2 hours and manages to break the horror movie rule that no scary should be over 90 minutes (a lot of them lose steam beyond that point but this did not).
I don’t want to say praise is universal for the film (I’m sure there are SOME naysayers out there) but for me, this is everything I wanted and more. Horror doesn’t get the respect from the masses because it is viewed as an inferior product by a lot of moviegoers but every now and then a film like this comes along and makes sure it earns the respect. It gives genre fans hope that horror is very much alive in 2017 and it’s a film like this that makes you proud to be a fan.
Reel Talk gives It 4 Reels