Thanks to its length, imagination, and depictions of teen sex, Stephen King's 1000+ page novel It was always deemed an impossible movie to adapt. Well, forget that notion. Director Andy Muschetti, with the help of screenwriters Cary Fukunaga, Chase Palmer, and Gary Dauberman, has made a streamlined, intense adaptation worthy of its early box office success. It feeds off fear and it's about to have an entire country for dinner.
Like David Lynch (Blue Velvet), King has always had an affection for the macabre and the mundane. King grew up in a number of American small towns as his mother moved around, but most of his childhood was spent in Maine. Thus, King's stories are set there too. The fictional towns of Castle Rock, Derry, and others are well-known in the King universe. It takes place in Derry, and it's the small town sensibilities that color the horror of what occurs there.
It is a portrait of small town American life, and the darkness that many kids still face in these towns. Horrible parents, bullying, and self-loathing are inescapable no matter where you live. Small town or not, kids still get scared.
Fear is the delicious seasoning that makes children such tasty morsels for the eponymous evil entity known as "It." Children's fears are so real, almost tactile, that It cannot resist them. “All the chemicals of fear flooded the body and salted the meat.” He says. It's this hunger that explains why the evil has arrived in Derry once again. As the film explains later, It is an ageless being that seems to spring to life every 27 years to feed before retreating into hibernation once again. Manifesting in the forms of its potential victims' greatest fears, It appears primarily in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), who looks more like Satan (except with balloons).
We first meet Pennywise in the sewer where he entices a local boy to reach inside a drain. The clown then bites the boy's arm off and drags him inside. The disappearance of Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) is only the latest unexplained tragedy to hit Derry and it won't be the last.
Months later, we're introduced to the "Losers Club." Georgie's stuttering brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), and his friends Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) have their own problems: local bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang. We also meet Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), a little girl who's abused by her deadbeat father, Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a fat kid who has a crush on her, and also Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), a homeschooled kid who has his own run-in with Pennywise early in the story.
Each member of The Losers Club sees It as their worst fear. Ben sees a headless boy, Eddie sees a rotting leper, Beverly's sink explodes blood on her, and each of these events adheres the kids to one other. As in Stand By Me, based on another King story, the bonds of childhood friendships are a surface theme of It. When their parents are too selfish, grief-stricken, or clueless to care, the Derry kids find solace in one another and band together to defeat an ultimate evil.
While King's novel also explores the results of childhood trauma on the characters as adults, It, the movie, stays with the kids. (Reportedly, the sequel will tackle the adult years, as well as the origins of Pennywise.) The Losers Club wages war on two fronts: against It, and against Henry the bully. As a child, emotions can be paralyzing. Simple acts like going to school can seem like warfare. It knows this feeling and uses it expertly to add intensity to the bullying plot line. But, there's also the supernatural to deal with on top of that. In short, kids should probably steer clear of this movie.
While the final act degrades into garden variety action and there are few surprises, It still manages to horrify throughout. Any suburban kid who grew up in the '80s will recognize the pre-postmodern life depicted. (The film changes the book's setting from the '50s to the '80s). The New Kids on the Block references, among others, are par for the course. But the film doesn't revel in safety for long. It pivots on putting kids in insane situations and watching them get out. Eighties movies like E.T., The Goonies, Gremlins, and scores of others did the same, but those films all had a collective sense of fun about them. It does not. It is dead serious about giving us nightmares.