By Kyle Osborne
The guy sitting next to me at the screening for ‘IT’, the big screen adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 novel, is about 40 years old. A professional film critic. By my count, he’s yelled out loud four separate times. “Waughh!!!,” followed by exhales heavy enough for high wind warnings to be posted.
And that was just in the opening credits.
King’s tale of early teenage kids in the town of Derry, Maine, who become aware of evil lurking, literally, beneath their idyllic New England town has its share of “jump scares,” so named for the physical reactions that my seatmate had. But what makes the film stronger than the sum of its shocks are the story’s heart and soul. These kids aren’t just faceless victims awaiting their fate in a slasher flick. They are multi-dimensional people with back stories and beating hearts. I was reminded almost immediately of 1987’s ‘Stand By Me’, also written by King, where we follow a pack of misfits, bullied by jerks in school and enduring even worse treatment by their parents at home.
And then there’s Pennywise the Clown. Were people as creeped out by clowns before Pennywise came into our collective consciousness? I don’t remember that being the case. Not to this extent.
Pennywise is, it seems, is the physical manifestation of each of our character’s deepest fears. I’ll only mention his first onscreen dirty deed, which happens early and is in the trailer: Charlie, a young boy has just been given a paper boat by his big brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher). When the lad goes outside in the rain to set sail his boat, it floats down the storm drain. As the kid approaches the gutter to look into the dark drain for his boat, Pennywise is inside the gutter, his evil eyes staring up at the child. With a violent flash, he drags the boy down into the sewer. Charlie is gone. Maybe for good.
As the years pass, brother Bill and his pals form an alliance of losers. There’s the foul-mouthed braggart, the asthmatic kid, the overweight kid and then there’s the only girl in the group, Beverly (Sophia Lillis subtly anchors the movie). As they learn of a pattern in the city’s history, the fact that kids have disappeared at an alarming rate every 27 years, they band together to overcome their fears and face down the clown.
Which brings me to my only quibble—as Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard is chilling. But we’re given only a skim of his history, and the most frightening thing about him—the thing that makes you jump or scream, are the out-of-nowhere “Boos.” It would have been so much scarier to have him talk more and “boo” less. Or at least mix those two elements more often. When he’s quietly talking is when you’ll get the shivers.
For that reason, and this isn’t a complaint from a fraidy cat critic like me, I wasn’t as terrified as I thought I’d be. The film has graphic moments, and certainly earns its “R” rating, but having nightmares might not be such a big issue after all.
Knowledgeable fans of the story will recall that ‘IT’ initially brings the characters together as adults, before flashing back to the children’s story told in this film. Here, the film ends with a “Chapter One” title card, meaning that the second part of the cinematic version will apparently bring in the grownup characters. The only adult characters in this first part are, in their own ways, even scarier than a horrible clown.
Still, I’m not leaving my closet doors open when I go to bed at night.
“IT” is rated R for violence and gore and runs about 2 hours and 15 minutes