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The 1990 miniseries version of Stephen King’s It might have aged into classic status but it was a patchy and uneven work. It was elevated by Tim Curry’s amazing performance as Pennywise; the timeless clown demon who traumatised a generation of kids and ruined the livelihoods of hardworking, not-at-all creepy clowns the world over. As with The Fly or The Thing, remakes work best when you’re tinkering with a flawed gem rather than attempting to re-tell a masterpiece. 2017’s It (technically titled It Chapter One) improves on the original adaptation in almost every way.
Ditching the framing device of adult characters remembering an assortment of childhood atrocities, this telling takes place exclusively in the small town of Derry (not that one) in 1989. From the opening scene involving a storm drain, a paper boat and an awkward meet cute between a killer clown and a small boy the film shows a willingness to ‘go there’. Seeking to either save or avenge his missing brother, one local tween (Billy, played by Jaeden Lieberher) assembles a motley group of outcasts and losers to find what’s luring the young into the sewers beneath their town.
The movie isn’t above pandering to nostalgia. Post Stranger Things Stephen King is, once more, so hot right now. We have kids on bikes and references to Gremlins, Beetlejuice and New Kids on The Block. However, these elements all stay in the background where they belong. The director, Andy Muschietti and the three writers (excluding King who gets a ‘based on’ credit but including Cary Fukanaga) all care about the characters. While they’re painted in broad strokes (the girl who’s called a slut, the fat kid who’s new in town, the hypochondriac) the screenplay takes time to find small moments of kindness amongst all the scares and blood. Even when being stalked by a monster, having someone sign your empty yearbook still feels like a big deal. The performances also help lift these above and beyond being stock archetypes. You’ll find yourself getting attached to these kids and really wanting them to make it out alive. This warmth, coupled with losing the tension killing framing device of having their adult selves recount the story makes for some very scary scenes. It’s both disconcerting and empowering to see their innocence fall away as they face their fears.
Those scary moments are the real draw here. They are almost uniformly excellent. For a modern horror film it’s fun to see a filmmaker get to use a fantasy palette. The inventive moments hearken back to Horror franchises of yore and would feel at home in the better instalments of the Nightmare on Elm Street or Hellraiser series. While some moments are violent, most lean instead on Pennywise being really God damn frightening. These set pieces have a dreamy logic and are likely to be making appearances in the nightmares of a new generation of kids that manage to circumvent the 16’s certificate. Bill Skarsgard’s take on Pennywise might be unlikely to lure any child without a death wish anywhere but the performance and costuming are effectively spooky enough that you’ll put that aside and enjoy letting him freak you out.
There are a few small issues throughout. The sole female character with any real screen time seems like an emotionally mature saint compared to the boys and doesn’t get to just be a kid, some background characters are a tad cartoonish and one climactic detail is confusingly left hanging. These are minor gripes rather than anything more debilitating. It is everything you could want going in. Its imaginative scares are fun. It’s oddly heartwarming to see these kids holding hands as the darkness of the world closes in. Most of all, It is really fucking scary.