It – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by Andy Muschetti
Starring Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard
The long-delayed big-screen outing of Stephen King’s quintessential 80s shock-buster It works overtime to trump fond memories of its 1990 TV mini-series predecessor, a charmingly gimcrack contraption blessed by a memorable turn from the inimitable Tim Curry. Curry’s successor Bill Skarsgård certainly looks the part of King’s demonic child-hunting clown-monster, and the film around him has all the digital effects and twee 80s nostalgia money can buy, but it all adds up to an oddly tame cross-breeding of The Goonies and one of the lighter Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. Indeed, were it not for multiple ‘f-bombs’ and a smattering of grisly moments, the result would play best with an audience the same age as its youthful heroes. It’s a shame the prohibitive rating will rob them of their fun.
The story is the usual King mixture of syrup and splatter, centering on a group of winsomely dorky tweens who find themselves under threat from an entity that crops up in their idyllic middle American town once every 27 years to keep juvenile population levels down. In a pleasingly ghoulish opening sequence, the younger brother of adolescent everyman Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) is snatched away by something ghastly in the sewers. Before you can say ‘Stand By Me’, Bill has joined up with his merry band of socially awkward pals to get to the bottom of things.
Said pals each have one characteristic to play, and they play it loudly. Jaeden Lieberher, of Stranger Things fame, is downright insufferable as the joker of the group, whose various boob-related quips would probably be more charmingly goofy if even half of them were intelligible. Chosen Jacobs, a late-comer to the group, is a more subtle player, although the best performance comes from Sophia Lillis, who makes the most of the token female role (and whose startling resemblance to Kristen Wiig ought to make casting the inevitable 27-years-later sequel a cinch).
Clearly mindful of the recent boon for 80s nostalgia – and not just on Stranger Things – director Andy Muschetti slathers the film in a gooey John Williams-style score (actually by Benjamin Wallfisch) and peppers everything with cutesy references to various things (especially New Kids on the Block) that are assumedly hilarious simply for existing in that decade. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish what’s supposed to tickle us about the simple observation that the past was different to the present, but if lingering tracking shots past cinema marquees advertising Batman warm your heart, Muschetti has you covered.
Oddly, the film is rather thinner on scares than it is on warm glows. Part of the problem is the sheer volume of King’s tome. Compressed down to two-and-a-bit hours – covering only the first half of the book, at that – it still feels like a whistle-stop tour of things-people-find-scary, including but not limited to clowns, corpses, lepers and scary paintings. Everything feels a little plasticky and overcooked – the leper for instance being no ordinary embodiment of disease and hopelessness, but a seven-foot-tall leaping shouting CGI thingumabob with pulsing sores all over his face. (Also, the modelling of the scary painting after a Modigliani seems frankly philistine, given the Athena poster aesthetics of the rest of the film).
Of course, next to this year’s other long-awaited King adaptation – the misbegotten The Dark Tower – It feels like a marvel of clarity and elegance. Watching it is a little like taking a spin on a multi-million-dollar ghost train – lots of things pop out and say ‘boo’, but you’re never in any fear of them following you home.