Review Rating: 8 out of 10
Spoilers hide in the sewers too!
Before launching into diatribes about the old versus the new, it behooves us to have a review for the actual movie, so we’re doing that first. We’re all more or less familiar with the story by now – a group of kids in Derry, Maine, known collectively as the Losers Club due to a whole bunch of messed up reasons, battle a monster creature that lurks in their town, rising every 27 years to feed on the fears of the townsfolk, mostly the children. The Losers all have troubles in their personal lives and add to that a gang of racist asshole bullies intent on terrorizing them, so fighting yet another monster isn’t anything terribly new to them. How the kids band together, gird their loins (so to speak) to battle the supernatural creature and face their own worst nightmares, is the central point of the whole story.
Most of us who watched this new IT are major fans of, you guessed it, Stranger Things, the supernatural throwback nostalgia show that most of us really just loved to death. Done in the exact same style as Firestarter and Pet Cemetery and the like, Stranger Things and now this new IT gives us the 80’s all over again, when most of us were kids and began our love of all things Horror. The very fact that King wrote a story so compelling that it could be universally understood no matter what time period its set in, the childhood leading into adulthood ultimate test of facing ones fears, is what makes him still a Horror Icon today. The movie getting an update for today, making the kids children in the 80’s means the second film will be set in approximately 2018, 27 years later, and will for us fans be happening right now. It is an extra-smart move on the parts of the filmmakers.
Any of us who willingly read that straight-up weird-ass book, or yes and whatever you thought of it, did watch the miniseries with Tim Curry as the notorious Pennywise, have very likely experienced some manner of bullying in our lives. Oh yes. And needed to face some kind of fear personal to you, whether it be oh so familial, or perhaps actually murderous, it honestly doesn’t matter. Facing that fear and how you react to it opens a multitude of paths towards growth, and that is actually what this well-made update of a beloved story is all about. These are kids back when we were kids, and each one of them manages to face some kind of fear relatable to the audience, it’s great.
So, to Derry, Maine. Mike (Chosen Jacobs) is the pretty much the only black kid in town, a fact the asshole gang never lets him forget, unfortunately the rest of the town seems to mildly share this opinion, and he appears to be home-schooled because of it. His uncle owns an abbatoir (that’s a meat-slaughtering ranch for the uneducated), and Mike isn’t very down taking the killing gun to the heads of the bleating sheep. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is the new kid, my pudgy little truffle-shuffle muffin he is, smart and curious and creative, he’s the kind of guy the asshole gang eats for lunch. Or yknow, carve their names into his Buddha belly, whatever, f*ck you. (I already hate those guys.) Richie is everyone’s favorite typical loud-mouthed guy kid, he cheerfully curses and makes sexual remarks like he has any idea what they mean, he’s like your Porthos, or Jay if you must. Richie’s (Finn Wolfhard) mouth gets him into trouble fairly often, and that iconic inhaler of his doesn’t really help. (But we adore seeing the kiddo from Stranger Things as a foul-mouthed little asshole.) Dear little Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), oh you’re such a hypochondriac it kills me. And your momma, oh gods below, it’s like she’s a poster child for all the wrong ways to parent in the 80’s; it hurts so good. Stan (Wyatt Oleff) is our token Jewish boy, which of course doesn’t help with the rather anti-everything bully gang in the neighborhood either. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is their de-facto leader, despite his stutter he never lets it get in the way of his determination to find poor little Georgie. And the one who holds it all together, she of the winter-fire hair herself, is Bev, the tomboy cutie who, despite herself, manages to only make herself more flame-pixie-like when she cuts off her locks in frustration. Bev (Sophia Lillis) is a fighter, and it’s hard to actually scare her, so when she finds herself in need of crimson-wave gear and meets the scared-as-hell boys in the drugstore, we are talking destiny, people.
Some key elements of story have been shuffled about, especially the part about newcomer Ben being the one to research the murderous history of Derry and the thing that sometimes calls itself Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). Not everyone sees the clown initially, and this is also another point in the films favor, how it addresses more personal fears of each character first. In the original story, Mike was the one to know Derry’s history, but apparently that ties in to the mythology of the next chapter, so fine, we go on. Mike does see part of the towns history, when the burning of those of dark skin comes to haunt the hell out of him. Poor little Eddie, he sees toxic monster zombie dude, the embodiment of all his learned fear of disease, thanks Mom. Stan has the creepy painting bogie from his fathers study in Temple, understandable with all the crushing expectations weight of both family and religion. Bill does have his run-ins with that monstrous clown, but then Bill’s brother Georgie saw Pennywise first, so it makes sense to wear that form when IT dangles Georgie’s ghost in front of Bill. And naturally Bev experiences tenebrous fears of blood and body hair – it actually weirdly draws all the kids closer together when she asks the boys, who can see all that blood too, to help her clean the bathroom up.
We learn along with the kids, rapid-fire style, about the killing every 27 years, and the movie smartly plays up the Pennywise angle in the histories, so that the latter half of the movie mostly concentrates on that form and the astounding performance of Bill Skarsgard as this newer, razor-sharp and amazeballs version of Pennywise. This Pennywise has cheekbones and teeth to literally die for, and he runs the kids round-robin ragged while they try to rally themselves, the Losers Club Bill dubbed them after all, to fight the coalescence of fear terrorizing Derry!
The final confrontation scene once again has bits and pieces from the original story but has been kind of shuffled about, to leave some room open for further exploration in the second chapter. Most tellingly, the Ritual of CHUD (don’t ask, it’s in the book) that Bill discovered as a child and convinced the kids to perform for banishment, isn’t there in this first installation. The movie Gods have promised us, however, that there will be the Ritual in Chapter Two, so that’s fine. The performances pulled from every single youngling actor as the Losers Club is astounding, and completely relatable to most of us adoringly watching the film, it was a very smart move on the part of the filmmakers. All those wonderful kid flavors swirled around a core of the blackest tar one can imagine, the IT entity itself as embodied by Skarsgard as Pennywise that monstrous murderous clown, is the horror dessert from hell so many of us fans really needed right now.
I believe I’ve found the best way to explain this new version of Pennywise inside this shiny spanking new IT, one that offers accolades to both the new and the old with nary an insult in sight. If you, we the fans that is, think of Skarsgard’s Pennywise in the exact same vein as what Heath Ledger did to the Joker, it totally fracking works. Tim Curry’s original scaredy-clown was very much like Jack Nickolson’s Joker, bright and colorful and utterly goddamn insane, whereas Ledger’s Clown Prince of Crime and Skarsgard’s newfangled IT are more sleek and dynamic, still bugshit-crazy and delighting in it, but giving an already-beloved villain a whole different character depth unto himself. And like the Joker, who at this point has had tons of different incarnations and faces in the many DC worlds, since Pennywise is actually a glorified puppet that an otherworldly creature uses as a minute extension of itself into our world, that thing can wear whatever terrifying face and body it wants.
And therein lies the sheer brilliance of casting Skarsgard as this newer, we’ll say more condensed and monster-ified version of Pennywise. We already know him in a familiar Horror role from Hemlock Grove, and we admittedly aging Horror fans seem to need a villain we can relate to. This clown gives up jump scares in atmosphere rife with Ju-On-style, and attention to detail is everywhere, every last scene full of multiple potential meanings. Because we jaded Horror fans are scrutinizing every last shot presented to us, having gone back and re-read the book and watched the original miniseries when every last specialty channel had it on; we are prepared for battle with all the hype this new IT has thrown at us, it had just better be spectacular. I almost feel sorry for the kid from Stranger Things in the film, he has to be aware by now that he’s performing in what could be a Horror revolution, or a fan backlash the likes of which even Alien Covenant didn’t even suffer. That’s gotta be nerve-wracking.
They really went all-out for this new film – yes, they kind of had to, still – and it shows lovingly in every shot. Very long ago now, it seems, King wrote the original story Carrie like a fever dream, and that’s what this new film is like at times, a fevered dream, or nightmare, King’s own nightmares given the current Hollywood capabilities treatment to a freaking beloved Horror now-classic. Come on, that’s awesomesauce! Several big Japanese names brought real shadowy horror, the stuff crawling in our blackest nightmares, the Grudge treatment itself, to a Stephen King jaunt, y’all. Skarsgard himself got an upgraded version of Pennywise, the smart tones of white and staring red in his clown costume, and that face, oh that face, the crackling grey-white tones and single blood-lines of makeup and those screamingly burning eyes, my goodness. Close attention is paid to the score, it is part of the atmosphere of any good Horror movie after all, and the soundtrack makes all of us 30-somethings grin and roll our eyes simultaneously. When Chapter Two comes out in 2018, the Derry kids will be the exact same age as us watching, set in the freaking year 2018 even. And so we, the audience who can see great facets of ourselves in the Losers Club, will in spirit join the fight to take on an otherworldly cosmic demon made of fear itself, thereby facing our own fears in some way and securing a victory for the downtrodden and forgotten, the bullied and abused, the Losers Club of the whole world!
Offer to let that clown eat your soul and see IT Chapter 1, available on Amazon Prime Video now!