Review: New ‘It’ adaptation delivers nightmarish terror

3 out of 4 stars

Composed by
Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman
Directed by
Andy Muschietti
Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis and Bill Skarsgard

There are worse things to be fearful of than killer clowns from outer space. As an example, the inevitable forthcoming flood of testimonials and click-bait items complaining that Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It is only riffing on Netflix’s Stranger Things.

Call it a matter of bad or terrific timing for Muschietti. Similarities between the two jobs are certainly present — both involve a group of prepubescent boys fighting evil with the support of a strange new woman in their midst, both transaction on eighties nostalgia, both even feature celebrity Finn Wolfhard — but it’ll be interesting, and possibly depressing, to see that audiences don’t realize that vision came first, and that is much superior to another.

Stranger Things, from its title credits {}, is designed as a direct homage to Stephen King, if we are putting it politely. A rip-off, if we are past niceties. A vital part of the series’ DNA belongs to his 1981 book It, but also The Mist, Firestarter, Needful Things, Carrie, Cujo and Your Body. (as well as a multitude of direct lifts — oh, “homages,” right? — by the works of John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hopper.) The Netflix series only had the great luck of creating its way to your tv screen {}, while Warner Bros.’ big-screen adaptation of It has been bouncing in and out of Movie Hell (much worse than regular hell, or whatever hell spat out It‘s title character).

Stranger Things is Stephen King for the Netflix age — impatient, easy-to-please and made by algorithm. Andy Muschietti’s It is Stephen King distilled in its purest form — namely, frightening.

So, let us do away with any Stranger Things-related allegations right now — seriously, place that cursor down, Uproxx author — and focus on what Muschietti accomplishes his (mostly) original vision. “Mostly,” since Muschietti isn’t fully starting from scratch, either. There is the 1990 It miniseries to take into account, where Tim Curry traumatized an entire generation of kids with his portrayal of Pennywise, the demon-clown of Derry, Me. But {}, putting social niceties behind us that Tommy Lee Wallace adaptation is completely benign, pedestrian in its aesthetics and neutered in its horror. At least, in comparison with what Muschietti delivers here.

From its haunting opening in Derry’s gently flooded streets to its nightmarish finale from the forsaken sewers beneath, this new model of It stands as a good implementation of King’s modus operandi. Mix one part vulgar innocence (these children swear up a storm, even if they don’t understand what exactly they are talking about), add a breezy layer of cultural benchmarks (Gremlins and A Nightmare on Elm Street posters adorn the scenery’s fringes) and blend everything in a rusty blender on top in the center of an abandoned corn area. Creepy but comfortable, in the best sense.

That is the thrust of Muschietti’s style, and it works more often than not. His version of Derry, King’s favoured town of terror, is simply idyllic enough to make you wonder exactly what it’s possibly hiding. And by the time you get around to exploring its secrets — boom! You have been swallowed whole by that damn ol’ Pennywise, played twisted glee here by Bill Skarsgard. It is a delightfully horrifying balance of heart and gore, the twin taos of King himself.

Apart from upgrading the setting in the fifties into the 1980s, Muschietti’s biggest plot diversion from King’s work is born from modern-moviemaking necessity, instead of anything narratively sinister. King’s original book is a monster, 1,090 pages of back story and diversions and meditations on cat-killings. (If you have not read it in a while, pick it up and keep the light on — it is a truly disturbing read.) Stuffed in there are two stories: one chronicling the children who fought back against an interdimensional boogeyman, and another fast-forwarding 30 years to maturity, when Derry’s now-grown defenders are attracted back to town.

Wallace’s network-TV variant covered the whole damn affair over the course of four hours, and it looks like Muschietti will do the same — if this first chapter of It does enough business at the box office, which is. However, in a strange, rather than Stranger, way, there’s a hope that It leaves not quite enough money to justify a sequel. Muschetti — working from a script by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga, the latter attached to direct until he awakened with the studio over creative differences — shuts off the youth end of this story so delicately, and with these optimistic finality, that returning to the narrative would feel redundant.

There’s also doubt that lots of adult actors could do justice to the tender performances Muschietti assembles here, especially Jaeden Lieberher as “Losers Club” leader Bill, Sophia Lillis as the young rebel Beverley and Wolfhard as the motor-mouth Richie. (At least Skargard could return, if he is not busy drifting small-town U.S.A., scaring half the nation to death.)

But like the film’s titular wicked, which surfaces every 27 years to feast on the fears and anxieties of American childhood, Hollywood has never met a franchise it might leave well enough alone. It will certainly surface again. Better make room on your Netflix queue.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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