October 1988, and little Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is at home on a rainy day with his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), who was ill that day but had promised to make him a paper boat to sail down the gutter by the side of the road outside their house. He did need wax to ensure it would not become waterlogged, and Georgie had to go down to the cellar to fetch it, a place he hated because it scared him. Nevertheless, he succeeded, and Bill finished the boat, which his sibling went out in the rain to play with, but alas after about a minute the craft disappeared down a storm drain, much to his dismay. On trying to retrieve it, he was shocked to see someone in the drain already had it - what was a clown doing there?
It tapped into current fears in a modern folk tale kind of way that saw it succeed as the surprise hit of 2017, some thirty-one years after the Stephen King novel it was drawn from topped the bestseller lists as one of the crowning achievements of the boom in horror stories that lasted from the nineteen-seventies to around 1991, when the adaptation of Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs changed all those supernatural fears in fiction to a torrent of psychopaths and serial killers practically overnight. One of the casualties of that kind of shocker was Freddy Kreuger, who in spite of being a serial killer himself, looked very old hat all of a sudden after dominating eighties horror, to the extent that King’s killer clown character Pennywise could almost be regarded as a rip-off.
Or at least an homage, and for a while Kreuger was going to make an appearance here until he was dropped as too obvious, though he would have made sense as a bogeyman for eighties thirteen-year-olds in the way that the original novel had the monsters of King's moviegoing youth making an appearance to terrorise Pennywise's victims, from the Teenage Werewolf to The Creature from the Black Lagoon to The Crawling Eye. Wes Craven's template for a shapeshifting menace which owed a lot to the nightmares of kids was very much in evidence in director Andy Muschietti's stylings, an episodic design that reminded one of a monster of the week television series condensed into one two-hour movie.
Craven never thought of making his Elm Street that lengthy, but King was penning doorstep-sized novels in the eighties and It was the biggest of all of them, something of a monster itself and the perfect accompaniment to a summer holiday where you could be utterly immersed in his world. The benefits of his approach was there for all to see, a populist, never mind popular method, that for some reason the plentiful movie version struggled to be faithful to, not least in the success stakes. Yet It, which had been adapted before as a 1990 miniseries with lukewarm effect unless you had seen it as an impressionable nineties child, proved that common touch was not impossible to capture on the screen thanks to a mood that invited us to join the Losers' Club of outcasts from the city of Derry, a bunch of children becoming teenagers for whom life is unnecessarily tough.
Anyone who had seen a selection of high school movies from out of America since the seventies would be able to tell you what hell they could be for those who did not fit in, but for our Losers, things are not much better when they get home either, with parents either ignorant or downright abusive and nary a shoulder to cry on. No wonder they band together, seven of them, initially to combat the bullies but then, when they realise there are more dangerous bullies than those older teens who take out their frustrations on them, they must do their best to stop Pennywise in his tracks, so that he will never return to Derry and continue his murderous reign of terror every twenty-seven years. Adopting many disguises but always returning to his clown visage and costume, he was an ingeniously versatile villain.
For a film almost completely cast with unknowns, it was a genuine upheaval in the blockbuster landscape to have this make such an impression, be that the King brand or merely the zeitgeist settling on clowns for that year, but the camaraderie of the Losers was keenly depicted and superbly played, something anyone who had been a victim could relate to, and eliciting that protectiveness that King brought out in the reader with fine accomplishment. Some of the club were rather under-represented, ironic as they were intended to be championing the sort of character who did not secure time in the limelight in many other examples of horror fiction, and became a shade too tokenistic, though there's little that could be done about that without adding another hour to the movie, but the young actors committed to every scene and rendered their companionship enough to convince us of their worth - it was a downbeat moment when they split up. Bill Skarsgård, too, looked every inch the part as Pennywise, his glee in harvesting terror representing all the bullies in the world. Not every major horror success is as well put together as It, both as book and movie in symbiotic relationship, a tribute back and forth from one medium to another. Music by Benjamin Wallfisch.
[There are a whole bunch of deleted scenes on Warner's DVD.]