“It” (2017) Movie Review

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     Try watching the final couple episodes of the Netflix original series “Stranger Things” on the same day you see director Andy Muschietti’s startling remake of Stephen King’s “It” as I did, and I’ll bet you start confusing the two that very same night.  Eighties nostalgia appears to be in full swing these days, as studios and filmmakers have begun mining the images credited mainly to Steven Spielberg and his films “E.T. The Extraterrestrial”, “Poltergeist”, and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” made back in the late 70s and early 80s and have seemingly made them cool again.  Cool enough that “Stranger Things” became an acclaimed and Emmy nominated series, while “It” has become a box office phenomenon, breaking countless records during its first three days in theaters.  And unlike Spielberg’s films, which were simply telling stories about kids and their life situations at the time, “It”, and to the exact same extent as “Stranger Things” does, brings audiences back in time, allowing for those of us who grew up in that era to reminisce about our childhood, while the kids of today roll their collective eyes at the lack of technology available to these characters as they go about their day finding someway to entertain themselves without an iPhone or Xbox.

    Make no mistake about it.  “It” is top notch entertainment, brought to life by an incredible director, an already well known writer, and anchored by an outstanding cast top to bottom.  If there’s anything not to like, it’s the fact you may still have the story told in the 1990 made for television version still in your mind, which means you’ll come to realize this version of “It” is merely the first half, focusing solely on the events centering around our middle school aged protagonists and the evil clown known as Pennywise, saving the second half in which the adults return to put an end to Pennywise for good for a pending 2019 sequel.  And while these events were portrayed as having occurred in 1960 in the television version, the update goes full on Spielberg, bringing the timeline forward to 1988-1989 and recreating many of the same iconic images he is famous for, such as kids riding their neighborhood streets in packs on bikes with banana seats, investigating the various evils lurking about. 

     “It” begins on a rainy afternoon in 1988 in which Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) seeks the assistance of his older brother, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher from “Midnight Special”), in order to finish a paper boat he intends on sailing along the currently river like gutters in their neighborhood.  Muschietti, who directed the very effective and underrated thriller “Mama”, immediately sets a dreary tone that will go on to occupy much of the film in which we come to expect some kind of shock or jumpy moment coming our way, but we don’t know exactly when.  In other words, the standard horror tropes done best most recently in “The Conjuring” are in full effect.  “It” is a straight up horror film that has no problem putting its child cast directly into harms way and in some cases following through with it in several mean spirited ways.  While sailing his paper boat, Georgie encounters a demonic clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) who is hiding in the sewer.  Georgie thinks he has lost his boat through a drain opening, but Pennywise appears, mischievously so, with the boat in hand and lures him closer.  Just as Georgie accepts the boat, Pennywise bites the child’s arm off and drags him beneath, never to be seen again.

     Now if there is one criticism of the film that is certainly warranted, it’s the fact that what I just described appears nearly in full in the film’s trailer.  And in fact, Pennywise is featured so often in the film’s trailers and marketing campaign, that by the time we see him in the first scene in the film, as well as countless times after, he just isn't scary anymore.  Perhaps while the filmmakers were taking notes from 1980’s films, they should've also utilized another strategy of the time in which the creatures and villains of horror and science fiction films were kept under wraps until the end with only minimal glimpses afforded the audience in the early going.  Think about Spielberg’s “Jaws” or Ridley Scott’s “Alien”.  Neither of those films allowed us to see the creature in full until the very end.  Imagine if Pennywise was kept in the shadows until the finale.  Might of been a whole lot scarier.  Of course this is a story where nearly every adult is either giving off a pedophile vibe or is an obese slob of a parent being overprotective on everything but what actually matters, so there really is plenty to be scared of anyway.

     That being said, “It” is atmospherically effective with its use of the character’s individual personalities to communicate the methods that Pennywise uses to stoke their fears and create sequences that are as intense as they are unsettling and scary.  This is what occupies the majority of the screen time, as we are introduced to what is eventually dubbed as the Losers Club, which at first is made up of a middle school aged quartet including Bill, who lost his brother a year earlier, Richie Tozier (“Stranger Things” Finn Wolfhard), Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer).  There is also Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), who has been given an unearned reputation from her classmates, Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), a home schooled loner, and Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new kid in school who ironically also has a closeted affection for the popular boy band of the time, the New Kids on the Block.  There are two primary causes that bring all of these kids together.  The first being the constant and despicable torment from the neighborhood bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who is evil enough to become the film’s primary horror villain if the story chose to go that direction, and the second being the fact that kids tend to disappear in a disproportionate amount in their fictional hometown of Derry, Maine.  And in true 80s fashion, these kids are not only willing to band together against the bullies, but also are intent on investigating the reasons behind the disappearance, as well as the fact each of them has been having similar visions of an evil clown.

     Muschietti is well backed by the screenplay, written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, & Gary Dauberman, which effectively paints the child characters with rich backstories, as well as providing them with a bounty of colorful and entertaining dialogue.  One of the best aspects of every scene is a well timed comedic line from one of the kids that breaks the ice during intense moments and almost allows the audience to breath easy while laughing at the latest penis joke.  That, of course, is exactly when Muschietti hits you with something shocking, as if to say “I gotcha!” and he gets away with this more times than I’m willing to admit.  Now there are several plot mechanisms that function solely as being there as a convenience to move the plot forward, with the house the kids find Pennywise’s well in being a prime example, but most are forgivable given the writing and character development far surpasses the normal expectations of a horror film.  Which goes to show the heights a film of any genre can achieve when the very fundamentals of filmmaking are embraced, rather than ignored.  GRADE: B+