Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns and one of the biggest influences of this condition among children and adults over the last four decades must be Stephen King’s It. Stephen King’s bestselling horror novel has been described as a landmark in American literature. Published in the ’80s and clocking in at over 1000 pages, the novel was first adapted into a TV miniseries in 1990. When this eerie and disturbing miniseries played on M-NET in the ’90s, the TV guide age restriction increased progressively from 2-10 to 2-16 with each subsequent nightmare-inducing airing and wave of complaints. Now some 27 years later, much like the demon’s hiatus period, one of the scariest psychological horror stories ever committed to paper has been adapted into an emotionally complex, dark, elegant and unsettling film.
Set in the small city of Derry in Maine, “a place as hauntingly familiar as your own hometown”, we follow the misadventures of the self-proclaimed Loser’s Club. After Georgie’s mysterious disappearance and a growing number of children go missing, a pack of boys led by his brother Billy take it upon themselves to search the sewers for traces of evidence. While they continue their haunted investigation, they encounter allies and enemies, the deadliest of which is nameless shape-shifting demon that feeds on their deepest fears.
The film updates the period from the ’60s to the late ’80s and places the focus of the story on the kids during their nightmarish summer vacation. Split into Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, director Andy Muschietti has drawn fantastic performances from an unknown cast and composed a film with a similar finesse to the work of Steven Spielberg. While Spielberg has sidestepped the horror genre, venturing into sci-fi rather, this film gives you a good idea of what you could expect, much like JJ Abrams did in Super 8.
The new It is reminiscent of TV series Stranger Things and films like Stand by Me, The Goonies and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Taking a similar dramatic stance to Rob Reiner’s classic, another Stephen King adaptation, we follow a familiar group of characters on the trail of a grisly mystery. The band of intrepid explorers take to the tunnels and encounter hidden dangers on their quest using heart, humour, old maps and makeshift weapons much like Steven Spielberg’s The Goonies. Muschietti must have also been influenced by Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, employing a similar panache for hellish visuals, surreal horror and maniacal villainy.
“I’m always there, in the shadows, in your dreams… see you soon.”
Each child’s waking nightmare has been beautifully choreographed, delivering chilling and imaginative horror through well-balanced execution. The visual effects intentionally leave a shadow of a doubt thanks to their vivid and masterful presentation. The sound design is subtle enough to slink on by without drawing too much attention to itself, using lesser-known tracks to cue nostalgia and set the scene. The relentless pacing and fear of what lies around the corner keeps you fixated over the more than two hour running time. Much like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, this horror is epic by virtue of its free range, grand horror narrative and running time.
The production design is equally impressive, immersing us in the ’80s crossover into the ’90s with appropriate decor and iconic props. Through accurate detail and references, the filmmakers have been able to transport the audience to this nostalgic, if awkward, era. Muschietti takes some of the classic horror scenes a step further, embroidering with flair and at times whimsy. The twisted dramatic horror tone is consistent and the creepy atmosphere pervades, allowing the grotesque to reflect in the ordinary everyday horror of humanity as well as in It’s playground. King’s love for character has been maintained in the screenplay, pivoting on Bill, Ben and Beverly.
While buoyed by a relatively unknown cast, this star-making horror is sure to be a boon for Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis and Bill Skarsgård. Lieberher has a Daniel Radcliffe sensibility and maintains his composure as Bill. Jeremy Ray Taylor has a quiet confidence and charm, making him likable and empathetic. Sophia Lillis is the pick of the young cast, whose self-assured performance makes her seem like an established star, an equal blend of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Emma Stone. Skarsgård also deserves special recognition for his furiously insidious and twisted take on Pennywise. While the shiny eyes and ceaseless salivating will endure, it would’ve been better if he’d had a bit more dialogue.
Muschietti could have built more suspense and siphoned more terror, but It remains a beautifully realised, unsettling horror adaptation and masterful remake. While this magpie pecks at similar mystery and horror films, much like Super 8 did, it serves as a finely crafted tribute to the horror genre and its luminaries. This film sets a new standard, resurrects an infamous film villain in all its hellish pageantry and makes the inevitable arrival of Chapter 2 nothing short of a film event. While It has a patchwork “something old, something new, something borrowed, something black” quality, the chilling storytelling is gripping and festers in its own grim atmosphere. It’ll probably be the film that’s flashing over most kids faces after their mothers switch off the bedroom light.
The bottom line: Chilling