Insatiable, inter-dimensional predator even more unnerving
(8) IT. Directed by: Andres Muschietti. Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor. Reviewed by: Tim Robey.
OF ALL the grimly iconic images Stephen King can be credited with thinking up – those slaughtered sisters in
The Shining, the pig’s-blood deluge in Carrie – there’s one that stands out as so evilly nightmarish, so plain wrong, it’s actively hard to watch. It’s the sight of an innocent young boy, Georgie, being dragged into a storm drain by a child-eating clown – the name’s Pennywise – and never seen, or at least not in living form, again.
Whatever warped part of King’s imagination poor Georgie’s fate in the 1986 novel It sprang from, the line-crossing horror of the idea is hideous enough to have powered two separate adaptations: first the
Warners mini-series in 1990, starring an unforgettable Tim Curry, and now a two-part film version.
The biggest change is what’s been done to the period, which has jumped forward three decades.
Instead of beginning with Georgie’s disappearance in 1960, we’re in the summer of 1988, which is roughly when the present-day, all-adults-now second half of King’s story originally took place.
This lets the new It buy into the current vogue for Eighties teen-flick nostalgia, previously established with the likes of Super 8 and Stranger Things. Expect a Molly Ringwald joke and much tootling around the fictional Maine village of Derry on bikes, as Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and six friends try to get to the bottom of the nameless evil afflicting their community, which has suffered a spate of unexplained child abductions ever since Georgie got sucked into that sewer.
Andy Muschietti’s film has a lot to whip through in just over two hours, even though this one is only tackling half the book – bear in mind that the whole thing clocked in at a grueling 1 138 pages.
Every one of the “Losers’ Club” – that’s Bill and his cohorts – is separately menaced by the thing they most fear, as well as being more straightforwardly persecuted by a group of older school bullies.
As a vision of violence and depravity in small-town America, King’s book hardly pulled its punches: there’s a subplot about domestic child abuse, letters being carved into a fat boy’s stomach, racial assaults against the lone black kid (Chosen Jacobs) and so on.
But this is very much a ring-thechanges update with ramped-up set pieces and state-of-the-art grisliness to match. Muschietti, who made his debut with the Guillermo del Toroproduced chiller Mama (2013), makes the most of every new apparition at his disposal, unleashing them all to do their bit with stadium-rock swagger.
Differing from the more 1950s-themed ghouls in either the book or mini-series, they lunge forward at their intended victims with deranged Modigliani faces, or rotting ones, or none at all.
Every one of them is just an alterego for the shape-shifting Pennywise, an insatiable, interdimensional predator whose practically motiveless evil remains every bit as unnerving as it was when Curry played him.
This time, the role falls to Bill Skarsgård – son of Stellan, brother of True Blood’s Alexander – speaking with a rogue Swedish accent that only adds to the skilful grotesquerie of his performance. He’s helped, it’s true, by a more extreme make-up job – childishly malign and goofy in the mouth, where Curry chilled the marrow with just a bland smile over razor-sharp yellow teeth.
Working with a far bigger budget, the effects team allow this Pennywise to contort himself impossibly as he unfurls his bulk from a disused fridge, or emerges from the body of a dead boy.
All round, he’s a very successful reinvention of a classic villain, not quite doing all the film’s work as commandingly as Curry, but absolutely stoking your dread of his next appearance. The gut-grabbing intensity of the film’s attack scenes, if anything, causes a problem: it creates a devil of a time building flow. These episodes are so individually frightening that the chirpier interstitial parts, with their stabs at comic relief, don’t gel – it’s as if these terrorised kids keep forgetting the nerve-shredding sights they’ve seen moments before.
Tying their adventures together into a potent whole, at this point, is slightly beyond Muschietti’s powers.
Perhaps Muschietti has more stored up for the sequel, once an audience has gained faith that the scary stuff – petrifying, when it peaks – is well and truly in hand.
CLASSIC REINVENTION: A more extreme make-up job adds to the skilful grotesquerie of Bill Skarsgård’s performance as Pennywise