Stephen King’s It Still Floats

It Stephen King

Warner Bros.

For some reason, many Stephen King fans look back way too fondly on the made-for-TV version of It that aired on ABC in 1990. Revisit the two-part miniseries now and you’ll be immediately disenchanted. While Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown was sufficiently intense for prime-time television—especially if you were eight years old, like me—nothing else about that film has aged well.

Like the killer clown that comes out to terrorize the town of Derry, Maine every 27 years, now we’re getting a proper R-rated movie exactly 27 years later that can do things that couldn’t be done the first time, which is both a blessing and a curse. As far as big screen King adaptations go, director Andy Muschietti’s (Mama) It update definitely floats—unlike, say, The Dark Tower—but not in the ways you would expect.

While the book and TV movie spend their first halves jumping between the self-proclaimed Losers’ Club as children in the 1950s and adults in the 1980s, this film focuses exclusively on the characters as 13-year-olds during the summer of 1989.

Comprised of seven outcasts, the club includes Ben, the new kid on the block (two great jokes about that, btw); Richie, the wise-cracking comedian; Eddie, the hypochondriac momma’s boy; Bev, the abused daughter; Mike, the homeschooled outsider; Stan, the cynic; and Bill, the stuttering loner searching for his missing little brother, Georgie, who we all know succumbs to Pennywise in the vicious opening minutes and pages of It.

Speaking of poor Georgie, this film doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to showing the child’s gruesome demise. It’s a smart move that puts the audience on edge right off the bat, knowing that this isn’t going to be the It we’ve seen on the small screen.

This opening sequence is by far the most harrowing in the film, and also the best demonstration of Bill Skarsgård’s impressive acting chops combined with Pennywise’s twisted new look. The creature’s drooling mouth, rabbit-like buckteeth, crooked glowing eyes, and lisp-y speech are legitimately disturbing.

As Pennywise’s reign of terror progresses, his Freddy Krueger-like antics become increasingly high-concept and, thus, more reliant on not-so-scary digital effects. They’re also far too dependent on quick scares and jittery jump-cuts that undermine everything that made the first sequence so compelling. Whenever Pennywise gets up-close and personal with his prey, Skarsgård’s performance continues to shine through. The less fussy the effects, the more threatening “it” becomes.

Thanks to frequent Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) collaborator Chung-hoon Chung’s exceptional cinematography, everything about the film looks gorgeous, from the quieter coming-of-age moments to even the James Wan-esque jump scares. The set pieces are equally inspired, as evinced in one lengthy showdown in a dilapidated house that Michael Meyers would feel at home in.

Aside from the hit-and-miss horror elements, the story really hits its stride in its equally tender and goofy exchanges between the kids. If you’re a fan of King’s Stand by Me, consider this its nightmarish counterpart. The film’s success owes a lot to its entire cast that totally hit it out of the park on all fronts, injecting the film with horror and humour at the right beats. Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard, who plays Richie, basically steals every scene he’s in with a raunchy dick or mom joke, and Sophia Lillis’ Bev nails her role with heartbreaking aplomb.

As a pure horror film, It isn’t the most effective King adaptation (it’s got nothing on The Shining or Carrie), but it does contain a handful of well-earned scares that are worth experiencing on the big screen in a dark room. If you’re not just interested in another creature feature—neither was the author—you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the film’s impressive ability to mix real and otherworldly frights with some very amusing banter and striking visuals.

Deemed as “Chapter 1” just before the end credits roll, the filmmakers are already hard at work on a sequel that will see the grown-up Losers’ Club battling Pennywise once again in modern times. Hopefully the sequel will be able to secure a cast half as endearing as this, and also dial back on the cheap scares in favour of slow-burning terror. Skarsgård’s chilling performance and Pennywise’s unsettling appearance can do the book justice all on their own.

It is in theatres tomorrow. Keep calm and float on with the trailer below.