The Bock’s Office: ‘It’ — Fear, fun, friends … and did we mention fear?
Red nose, floppy shoes, row after row of razor-sharp fangs — if you didn’t suffer from coulrophobia before, you won’t have much of a choice after watching “It.”
The world is a scary place, but in summer 1989, terror is ever-present in Derry, Maine, as a string of child disappearances has residents on edge.
Among them is adolescent Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), whose younger brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), is presumed dead after vanishing months before, a tragedy for which Bill blames himself. He and his group of friends have more yet to worry about with the likes of bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) threatening to ruin their whole summer.
Yet, there’s something far more sinister lurking in Derry than a teenage sociopath, and when Bill and his buddies all begin to experience sightings of an eerie clown (Bill Skarsgård), it’s clear that evil is alive in their small town.
An entire generation’s selection of nightmares always had a spot for Pennywise the Dancing Clown, thanks to Tim Curry’s hypnotic portrayal in the fondly remembered 1990 TV miniseries. Even so, Skarsgård outdoes him in almost every respect, as an ancient creature of darkness that pops up every few decades to feast on fear, dine on dread and inspire a wave of bed-wetting.
Like Heath Ledger as another famed foul fellow in face paint, Skarsgård is 110-percent committed to this part, making for the kind of monster you almost admire, in a way, dwelling mostly in the sewers, shifting from shape to shape depending on his victim and zipping from merriment to malevolence in the blink of an eye.
Speaking of which, if his unblinking peepers are blue, you’re safe.
Yellow, be wary.
Red, you’re already a goner.
As the leader of the Losers Club — hey, you’ve gotta own your weaknesses — Lieberher commands attention as Bill, dealing with a slight stutter on top of crushing guilt over his sibling gone missing, as well as a boat-load of puberty. At least the pressure’s off for Finn Wolfhard as Bill’s sidekick, Richie Tozier, smart-ass extraordinaire, who’s essentially a bespectacled, mouthy version of the young actor’s character on “Stranger Things.”
Of course, any ’80s-set movie about kids will have some similarities, though the Losers are well-played in their respective traits that make them outcasts: Consider Jeremy Ray Taylor, as chubby Ben Hanscom, who’s less embarrassed by his weight than being a closet fan of New Kids on the Block, and Jack Dylan Grazer, as Eddie Kaspbrak, an easily cowed mama’s boy with the misfortune of being a hypochondriac in the middle of the AIDS hysteria.
Though they seem to be stuck on a lower tier, Wyatt Oleff and Chosen Jacobs perform well as level-headed, bar mitzvah boy, Stan Uris, and lonely farm kid, Mike Hanlon, respectively.
Hamilton also impresses as the Losers’ flesh and blood tormentor, who doesn’t need the supernatural abilities Pennywise uses to inflict panic — just give this amoral hood a switchblade and a few cronies, and see what happens.
It’s Sophia Lillis, who shines brighter than anyone in this cast, as the Losers’ only female member, Beverly Marsh, possessing the kind-hearted yet tough, girl-next-door charisma that endears her to a group of boys and leads the other young ladies in her class to spread rumors about her.
And, the gossip mill and a homicidal harlequin still aren’t that bad in comparison to a nightmarish home life with a father (Stephen Bogaert), who perverts the phrase “Daddy’s little girl”…
As with many coming-of-age stories, adults are rarely seen as positive influences, and this is especially true in this adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, one of the most massive from the king of horror. Of course, we saw earlier this year from “The Dark Tower” what happens when you try to compact so much into so little.
As with the original attempt to film the book — don’t forget the significance of 27 years — a lot of material is stripped, so there’s no pleasing everyone, yet King fans and newcomers, alike, have to be happy with how this project came together. It is decidedly closer to “The Goonies” and “Stand by Me” than any of the King-inspired movies of that era — though the latter was based on King’s “The Body” — thanks to the direction of Andy Muschietti, whose spectral work in “Mama” no doubt helped get him the job following Cary Fukunaga dropping out.
Besides the four-letter language and graphic violence, which were tamed for television the first time around, the move away from the original late 1950s timeframe to reflect the author’s own childhood better suits the audience of here-and-now, while allowing Muschietti more freedom to truly make it his own film.
Nowhere can that be better glimpsed than the tone — which embraces humor, as much as scary sensations — as some of the Losers’ fears highlight the irrational nature of kids, such as a creepy painting come to life that looks the poor man’s Picasso.
A geyser of blood from the bathroom sink, and your dead brother’s doppelganger don’t hurt either.
The enduring power of friendship is what makes this better than your average slasher, and though it doesn’t function flawlessly as an ensemble piece — attention split seven ways doesn’t even work in the novel — it’s altogether more rounded as a feature than most in the horror genre, while still respecting that ticketholders are there for shocks.
That, and the greatest rock fight of all time!
Standing right beside “Carrie” and “The Shining” as great examples of writing put on the screen, “It” not only succeeds as a remake that improves on what came before it, but also a thrill ride capable of bringing more into the fold of this world of shadows and nostalgia, those who might not otherwise give it a chance.
To doubters — come on, we’ve got a nice shiny balloon for you …
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