When figuring out how to word-hump all the “amazing details” from a five-bazillion-page Stephen King novel into a movie’s screenplay, maybe filmmakers can start next time by omitting whatever weird, sexually grotesque nonsense the “master of horror” has sleazed into that particular tome. The girl in the movie It — yes “the” girl, singular — is mocked for being “slutty,” protests that she’s actually super-duper virginal, semi-seduces a clerk who is quadruple her age and gets molested by her father. Although King fanatics will undoubtedly protest that all this garbage is deftly written and central to her character in the book, screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman could have ixnayed the inkykay from ingKay, and allowed the main characters to actually have personalities that extend beyond simplistic adjectives like “the new kid,” “the Jewish one” and “stutter boy.”
Both the beloved 1990 miniseries and the current adaptation from director Andy Muschietti reinforce that It is actually nowhere near as dense as everyone involved believes It to be. In this version, a group of bullied 13-year-olds in 1988 live in a small town where people get murdered a lot. Specifically, every 27 years, a whole bunch of kids in Derry, Maine, get super dead. This current crop of kids figure out that it has to do with an evil creature who lives in the sewer and torments them with significantly not-OK hellish nonsense. So they go to the creature’s underground nightmare-a-torium in order to stop it.
Here’s the thing: Aside from the wholly unneeded perverted bullshit (King’s fault), the overly simplistic narrative (King again) and the razor-thin characters (that’s a King trifecta), It is actually borderline great. Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), which is his full legal name, has been given a gleefully delirious makeover; Muschietti oversees a tone that awesomely embraces jarring shifts from silly to scary to adventurous; and the bigger visual moments are insanely well-constructed. In fact, there’s a moment toward the end where the scene is a perfect blend of horrifically vile and hauntingly pretty.
Skarsgård wisely ignores Tim Curry’s sacred performance from the TV version and crafts a menacing and awkward space all for himself. The kids are mostly fine, save for clunky moments that are almost certainly not their fault. And best of all, It doesn’t drown the audience in 1980s nostalgia; It does, however, admirably nail key authentic elements of childhood, like the stilted use of the F word among friends still practicing its use and the assumption that no adult would ever believe them about any of the supernatural shenanigans they discover.
Had the filmmakers felt free to condense characters (the six boys could easily have been reduced to three), eliminate elements (aka, ditched the pervy crap) or expanded on moments of youthful exuberance (as in, let “kids fight a demonic clown monster” be as much fun as that sounds), It would have probably cheesed off King (currently a vocal advocate) but become something transcendent. As It stands, It is a very fine, scary-adjacent endeavor that has earned its inevitable sequel. May they heed the above advice the next time around.
This review previously appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Nebraska.