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‘IT’ Review: The Latest Stephen King Adaptation Is Scary Good – And Surprisingly Funny

New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

Stephen King adaptations are a dime a dozen these days (almost literally; rights to his books are famously cheap), but a good Stephen King adaptation, like a properly cooked steak or a movie where Harrison Ford is actually awake, is exceedingly rare. Of the two adaptations of beloved King novels released this year, the idea that IT might be the superior of the pair seemed laughable a few months ago. But IT is better than The Dark Tower in every conceivable way. And beyond the inevitable comparison, it’s just really good. Scary good, even.

The new IT is narratively coherent, mythologically complex, and above all, fun. Yes, fun. It’s undoubtedly one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had in a theater all year, and that’s nothing short of astonishing for a film that opens with the brutal attack and partial devouring of a cute little boy. That boy is Georgie, whose 13-year-old brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) believes his little brother is still alive and waiting to be found. Bill and his friends, collectively known as the Losers’ Club, take up the search, and while spending the summer looking for a five-year-old voted Most Likely to Be Dead seems like a real bummer, it’s not as if these kids have much else going on.

There’s Richie (Finn Wolfhard), who wears his borderline-obnoxious sense of humor as armor; Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), an asthmatic kid with a wildly overprotective mother; and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), whose Jewish faith renders him inherently other in the woefully small town of Derry, Maine. As fate (or the local bully) would have it, the Losers quickly gain three new members: Beverly (Sophia Lillis), desperate to spend the summer outside to avoid her abusive father; Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the new outcast on the block who listens to New Kids on the Block; and Mike (Chosen Jacobs), the elusive black kid in a town that hasn’t reckoned with its racist past (like, oh, most towns in America). Derry is a place where bad things happen, especially to children, with alarming frequency — and adults tend to ignore it just as often. It’s a place where the nastiest parts of history repeat themselves, and where the local teen bully is your garden variety white male sociopath with access to guns, destined to wind up on a government watchlist. It’s the kind of town that makes you think there’s something in the water. Only in Derry, that’s literally the case.

Well, it’s in the sewer system, anyway. IT is an evil clown with a large appetite (and a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth to match) for children. Bill and his friends aren’t just connected through their shared outsider status, but through a series of inventively chilling encounters with Pennywise the clown, played to delirious, bizarre perfection by Bill Skarsgard. It’s impossible to best Tim Curry’s performance in the 1991 IT TV miniseries, and Skarsgard doesn’t even try. Instead, he delivers an almost self-aware version of the classic villain, leaning into the inherent silliness of an evil clown who hangs out in sewers and eats kids. Like Heath Ledger did with the Joker (but not that good), Skarsgard finds a new approach to playing a villain made iconic by another actor, and it works surprisingly well. (I’m still not entirely convinced that Pennywise isn’t Jake Gyllenhaal as Okja’s Dr. Johnny in greasepaint and a Victorian onesie — and that’s a compliment.)

Perhaps the success of the latest adaptation of IT can also be attributed to director Andres Muschietti’s decision to exclude King from the development process. The master of literary horror doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to killing his darlings; his disdain for Stanley Kubrick’s great adaptation of The Shining is fairly well-known. What works on the page doesn’t always work so well on screen, and there is plenty of material in King’s 1,100-plus page novel that can’t — and probably shouldn’t, in the case of one notorious sewer scene — make the transition.

But IT largely succeeds thanks to a cast of incredibly talented kids and their ridiculously entertaining — and supremely profane — banter. They bring levity (and heart) to the most nail-biting and skin-crawling moments in the film, making IT more of a coming-of-age dramedy with horrific elements than an outright horror film. And that’s the way it should be. Lieberher is the dramatic anchor of the bunch, while Wolfhard and Grazer steal almost every scene with their well-timed jokes. With so many kids on screen, it’d be easy for some of those voices and hilarious one-liners to get lost in all the crosstalk, but there’s something kind of masterful about the choreography of their dialogue.

IT was sort of the underdog of the fall, and certainly the scrappier of this year’s two Stephen King adaptations. There were several elements conspiring against it from the start: A remake of a classic horror story previously adapted with an indelible villain performance; the removal of director Cary Fukunaga, whose truly excellent script was mostly discarded (he still received screenwriting credit), and his replacement with a director whose first film (Mama) was underwhelming. IT isn’t even just good despite all of that, and it doesn’t merely exceed (admittedly low) expectations. Muschietti’s film is genuinely wonderful, and more fun than any film that features the brutal deaths of children has any right to be. (Though it certainly earns the hell out of that R rating.) Horror remakes are a dime a dozen. But thoroughly awesome horror remakes — well, those are sort of like good Stephen King adaptations.

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