High-brow horror at its finest

Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers of the modern era (having penned over 50 novels and 200 short stories), is one of the touchstones of modern fiction. The mastermind behind some of the most successful and iconic stories of recent history (classics such as Carrie, The Shining, Misery, The Green Mile, and The Shawshank Redemption), many of King’s novels have made the successful leap into cinema, to critical and commercial acclaim. Such is the case with 2017’s ‘It’.

Despite his varied and versatile writings, King has remained a ‘horror writer’ in the eyes of many – a testament to how well he has mastered the medium. There are many icons from King’s work; whether pig’s blood at prom, an axe through a door, or standing, arms-outstretched, in the rain, but none have permeated the collective conscience of society quite like that of the murderous clown, Pennywise.

Although this year’s ‘It’ is the first cinematic adaptation, Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 TV miniseries, featuring Tim Curry’s memorable performance, remains prominent as a point of comparison. However, at its core, it is an adaptation of King’s novel. Here lies the strength of Andrés Muschietti’s elegantly executed thriller. It is a faithful adaptation that stands on its own; through clever alterations, stunning direction, and genuine scares.

It’ is a gorgeously grotesque thrill-ride that centres around ‘The loser’s club’; a scrappy group of lovable, yet damaged children, all affected in various ways by their home town of Derry. Derry is town plagued by disappearances at “six times the national average”, murders, and spates of disaster, all mysteriously spaced 27 years apart. At the centre of all this evil is a mysterious, shape-shifting, supernatural force who feasts on fear and corrupts the townsfolk. It is this force, one that takes the famous form of Pennywise the clown, that the children must destroy to be free from its evil.

Even during the title cards, ‘It’s’ presence can be felt, with a singular red balloon floating near the logo and Benjamin Wallfisch’s eerie, crawling score building the dread. It is not long before we see the titular ‘It’, and it is as affecting as promised. Much of the power of ‘It’s’ form is the unique blend of the absurd and the gruesome, a balance chillingly executed here. Muschietti uses this inherent power to great effect, challenging the horror convention that “less is more” when it comes to realising nightmares on screen.

“But Pennywise is different. With Pennywise, it’s like, ‘This is the monster, I’m showing it to you… and you’re going to shit a brick.’” – Muschetti to EMPIRE Magazine

This approach places a lot of faith in its monster, but it is a faith repaid in full by Bill Skarsgård’s thrilling performance. Skasgård’s Pennywise is so eccentric and unique that it blurs the line between fun and chilling – a balance that hits the root of the audience’s coulrophobia. Also worth credit is Emmy-winning costume designer Janie Bryant for her glorious clown outfit.

However, the heart of the film remains ‘the loser’s club’ – a group of children so perfectly cast they could’ve jumped straight from the pages of the book. The group comprises of Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Richie (Finn Wolfhard of ‘Stranger Things’), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stan (Wyatt Oleff); growing to include Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and Beverly (Sophia Lillis) throughout the film’s duration. ‘Stuttering’ Bill Denbrough is the leader of the group (the loss of his brother Georgie being the catalyst for their battle) and is a brilliant contrast to the hilarious Richie Tozier, played with comedic perfection by Wolfhard. Eddie (asthmatic son of a hypochondriac mother), Ben (an overweight victim of bullying), and Beverly (the centre of a sweet love triangle and daughter of an oppressive father) are brilliantly done, and get in some great lines of their own.

Unfortunately, in adapting the first half of King’s 1400-page tome to film, some concessions must be made. Many of these come from Stan (one of the only Jewish children in the community) and Mike (an African-American orphan) who mostly fall to the background in some respects. Stan’s bird-watching, and Mike’s family history and his encounter with a fearsome bird, are omitted. There are also several other omissions and alterations such as the removal of the possessed photograph, Richie’s Paul Bunyan statue, the werewolf, the dam, and the ‘ritual of Chüd’. Yet, ultimately, 2017’s ‘It’ is truly one of the most faithful and true adaptations I’ve ever seen. Andrés Muschietti’s direction, and Chase Palmer & Cary Fukunaga’s screenplay, craft the same characters, scares, and setting as Stephen King’s brilliant novel in such a way that it functions as a stunning piece of cinema in its own right. Muschietti’s seamless direction, with pitch-perfect transitions, pacing, and shots, in conjunction with Chung-hoon Chung’s (‘The Handmaiden’) gorgeous cinematography (excellent shadow-play, lighting, and setting), provides the perfect combination for clean and refined horror that doesn’t hold back on scares.

The film leaves us with a somewhat open ending and closing titles that read “It: Chapter One”. One hopes that it won’t be 27 years before we see ‘It’ again.

It’ opens Thursday 7th of September nation wide. 

After its first teaser became the most-viewed trailer is 24-hours ever, with more than 197 million views within its first day of release, ‘IT’ is projected to open with US$60 million in the United States, which would make it the greatest domestic opening weekend for a horror movie or a September release ever.