Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It (the first part of it, anyway) comes to the screen carrying more baggage than a Jerry Lewis bellboy, so it probably deserves the benefit of our doubt. After all, it not only has to live up to the weirdly beloved 1990 mini-series adaptation and the could-have-been, “Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man”-ish suppositions about the version Cary Fukunaga came this close to making a couple years back, but it must somehow satisfy three-plus decades of rabid readers, who’ve already seen a perfect adaptation in their heads as they’ve read (and re-read, and re-read) King’s thousand-plus page, coked-up epic.
So it’s a touch anticlimactic to report that the new It is, for lack of a better word, fine – nothing more, nothing less. It’s well-executed, marvelously acted, and has a few scary sequences. It also has just as many that are not, as well as a wobbly command of tone and trouble sustaining its own momentum. It’s a pretty good movie, which puts it in an odd spot; I’d imagine a good many super-fans will superimpose their own hopes and desires to convince themselves it’s better than it is, while others will downplay what it does well out of frustration for what it does not.
The picture opens in 1988 – an update from the late-‘50s setting of the book’s first half, presumably to set the forthcoming second film in our present day – with a nightmare-fuel prologue in which little Georgie, brother of Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) takes a paper boat out for a Spielbergian frolic in a rainstorm, which quickly twists into a brutal attack, from inside a storm drain, by Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). We then jump to 1989, at the end of a school year marked by more child abductions; Bill is manifesting his grief by trying to figure out what happened to his little brother, formulating a theory involving the sewers of their hometown of Derry, Maine. He asks for help from his friends, who’ve been dubbed The Losers Club by the school bullies who use them as target practice, punching bags, and worse.
The genuine warmth and offhand humor of these group scenes are the picture’s surprising highlight – every performance is a winner, though Sophia Lillis (as Beverly, the sole girl and thus multi-crush recipient) is the breakout, and Finn Wolfhard’s Ritchie is the scene-stealer (he’s appearing in what amounts to the Feldman-in-Stand By Me role). One by one, they’re haunted by visions of terror provided by Pennywise, who pinpoints their fears and exploits them. What sounds like red meat for horror fans (and who knows, maybe it is) becomes easily the film’s weakest section, a series of monotonous vignettes whose music blares and jump scares fulfill the obligations of the text, but don’t go anywhere in particular – and, often, aren’t terribly scary. And the little Curly Shuffle that Pennywise keeps doing when he runs at these kids is just plain odd.
It finally starts to pick up some momentum around the halfway mark, with a gripping slideshow scene and a haunted house sequence that genuinely cooks. But even then, the horror and comedy elements co-exist uneasily; the tension of the haunted house is immediately punctured by the appearance of Eddie’s mom, a broad sitcom caricature in a muumuu. The jarring discombobulation of that moment pinpoints the film’s biggest flaw: Muschietti’s inability to determine what kind of a horror movie he wants to make. Does it want it to be genuinely unsettling and brutal? Or fun and giggly? The moods co-exist, but (to put it mildly) uneasily.
Frankly, the bullies and sicko fathers of It are far scarier than the any of the many forms of Pennywise; it’s a question of the natural vs. the supernatural, and this viewer was more unnerved by those scenes (and more drawn in by the spooky mood of the scary houses, town folklore, and weird history) than any of the music stings and cheap thrills. There’s a timelessness to that stuff, which puts it somewhat at odds with the identifiable specifics of a work that’s been replicated to death, even if it’s only been directly adapted once.
There’s no question that It has emotional resonance – in fact, the shifting of the time-frame is a savvy move to more directly connect the film to its first generation of young readers. The book was published in 1986, so late middle- and early high-schoolers like these, circa 1988-89, were among those who first clung to it. Watching the film now, they’ll feel not only the nostalgia of the book, but of the time its been moved into; it’s a double frame of reference, and those echoes are potent. (And it’s impossible to overstate the wisdom of only adapting the first half of the book, rather than trying to pack the whole doorstop work into one film.)
But the long lag between novel’s publication and this proper film version creates an issue of familiarity – not just with the elements that were in the air when King was writing (like the Goonies-ish byplay of the Losers) or that found King repeating himself (Stand by Me), but scenes and effects that have become commonplace, and even tired, horror standbys. And Muschietti does himself no favors by tacking on others that have similarly worn out their welcome (I mean, it literally opens with the sounds of creepy singing children). After my screening, I overheard someone comparing it unfavorably to Stranger Things – which even shares actor Finn Wolfhard – a comparison that seems patently unfair, considering the timeline of the source material. But it’s hard to blame them; ultimately, It (the novel) casts a very long shadow, and It (the film) has a fair amount of trouble stepping outside of it.
“It” is out Friday.