Did you ever wonder how far Stranger Things could go with an R-rating? The newest adaption of Stephen King’s classic horror novel It makes a hard attempt to answer that question for me. Alongside updating the first half of the story into the late 1980’s, it incorporates more graphic imagery, harsher language coming from the mouths of the Losers Club, and more jump scares from Pennywise the Clown than Tim Curry’s original portrayal. Given how strong of an influence King’s writing was for that series, the comparisons are difficult to shake.
In fact, Richie Tozier is played by Finn Wolfhard, best known as Stranger Things’ Mike Wheeler. He’s as motor-mouthed as ever and Wolfhard’s performance adds a good deal of comic relief, which certainly feels needed at many points given how intense the scares can get.
Fortunately, Andres Muschetti’s direction focuses on psychological scares, past traumas and childhood fears alongside the jump scaring and gore. Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) is still mourning the loss of his younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), and his curiosity is peaked during his summer vacation when him and his friends encounter differing visions in the town of Derry, Maine. The iconic scene where Georgie meets Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) in the storm drain is remarkably different from the 1990 miniseries, incorporating a more violent and otherworldly visual. It’s unsettling and very uncompromising, but it serves as a strong lead-in for the story that follows.
A shy new boy in town named Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) begins to research the history of Derry, uncovering a connection between the horrifying imagery and past tragedies that occurred a century ago. Alongside fellow Club members- the headstrong Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a germaphobe named Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), a young man named Mike (Chosen Jacobs) who’s still haunted by the loss of his parents in a fire, and a hypochondriac named Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) set out to solve the mystery of the children who have vanished mysteriously every twenty-seven years.
Bill’s desire to find Georgie and bring him home provides a strong emotional anchor to this latest It. When Pennywise isn’t on-screen, there’s also a good amount of time spent with the Losers Club bonding and getting to know each other over the course of the summer.
The scenes of the boys and Beverly going swimming wouldn’t look too out of place in Stand By Me, and there’s even a sense of childhood anxiety played up in moments such as Ben’s insecurity over his New Kids On The Block fandom. Like many films of the era it’s set in, we can’t forget the obligatory neighborhood bully, taking the form of the deranged Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton)- and it turns out he’s not safe from Pennywise’s wrath either.
Much of It tries to walk a tightrope between whimsical horror and a coming-of-age teen drama. The film puts heavy emphasis on the mad clown monster shapeshifting into gigantic forms and bearing a maw of alienesque teeth that fold inhumanly in and out of his mouth, and there’s also attention on things like Beverly’s nervousness as she buys feminine products. As the Losers get closer to the truth, Pennywise’s presence throughout the town begins to resemble a demented master of ceremonies.
Skarsgard’s performance is creepy in its own right, but the specific fears the protagonists have to deal with are often more haunting than even he is. The dynamic and character progression between the Losers is consistently entertaining, and the performances from the young cast are believable and humorous. Watching the gradually overcome their various problems is half of the fun of It– even though they generally adhere to some cliches, there’s enough weight behind them that they always remain sympathetic.
For me, this is as solid an update to the first It that I could have hoped for, and the climax was great enough to where I’m highly looking forward to the second chapter. While it’s often harsh and unforgiving, the film never descends into outright cruelty- there’s always a sense of warmth that helps keep all of the ensuing chaos grounded. Easily recommended.