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It (2017) Stephen King adaptation directed by Andy Muschietti

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Smalltown Maine:

“It” is an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel which was also made into a TV miniseries in 1990. In the fictional town of Derry, Maine, young Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) makes a paper boat for his younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). When the latter goes out in the middle of a rain storm to sail it on the water rushing down the street, it soon ends up falling into a drain. When he tries to retrieve it he is greeted by the sinister clown-like figure of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), who peers out from the slot. He talks to the boy, lulling him into a false sense of security before handing his boat back. Too late: when Georgie sticks his arm out to retrieve the boat it is promptly bitten off and he is dragged underground, never to be seen again.

While the town is put on evening curfew, life goes on for Bill and his friends “The Loser’s Club” at school: they are bullied by the psychotic Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) and his buddies. However, their circle of friends soon expands as they are joined by the bookish loner Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a delinquent girl named Beverley Marsh (Sophia Lillis) who has her own issues with a rather creepy father, and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) who works in a rather unappealing job slaughtering animals to sell to the local butcher.

They band together, firstly to face off against the local bullies, secondly to investigate a large number of child disappearances in the town and thirdly to deal with the terrifying supernatural attacks that Pennywise inflicts upon them.

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Cult following

Although based on a Stephen King novel, It seems to have gained more of a following from the 1990 TV miniseries which ended up becoming a cult favourite right at the end of the horror video rental heyday. This was within the then-restrictive censorship standards and low-key production values that TV productions were invariably saddled with during these times, meaning that it had to rely on implication rather than gory prosthetics to convey horror. The general consensus was that the first half (depicting the characters as children) was considered to be better than the second (which leapt forward 27 years to show the characters facing Pennywise again as adults). It’s the former part that this film focuses on.

It 2017 poster

However, whereas the first section of the book was set in the late 1950s, this film is set during the late 1980s - resulting in some affectionate period detail, homages to the BMX-rides-through-suburbs nostalgia of adolescent fantasy adventure movies from the time and even one or two references to New Kids on the Block - a band who, quite frankly, aren’t the best one to bring back from the period. On the flip-side, the grislier aspects of the story have been brought to life with a good deal more gore and a much larger FX budget than the TV series - the young child getting his arm bitten off during the opening sequence being a classic example. The result is an entertaining but rather odd mix of Stand By Me-style coming-of-age story and A Nightmare on Elm Street-style horror ride.

Better at dramatics than horror

In general, the coming-of-age character dramatics work a lot better than the horror sections. The main characters are well-drawn and the cast of young adolescent actors does well to imbue them all with distinct personalities. In particular, Jaeden Lieberher is outstanding as the ever-stuttering yet indefatigably brave Bill, and Sophia Ellis as the plucky tomboy Beverley. While there’s some seriously dark subject matter here, there’s also a fair amount of humour, much of it courtesy of Finn Wolfhard, who regularly steals scenes as the hilariously off-hand and dirty-minded Richie. Andy Muschietti films it all with a genuine sense of flair, smoothly blending the various tonal shifts to tell a compelling story.

It’s a pity that I didn’t find the horror sequences particularly scary. Admittedly, when I was in the cinema with a mostly young adult crowd a number of them did jump out of their seats. Maybe it’s a matter of me being hardened by extensive exposure over the years, but it felt like the filmmakers forgot the old maxim “less is more”. The actors playing the supposedly terrifying villains of the story (Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise, Nicholas Hamilton as Henry and Stephen Bogaert as Beverley’s father) give such heavy-handed performances that they come across as more laughable than menacing. The terror sequences may be technically slick but they are such a relentless cacophony of noise, CGI-enhanced grotesqueries and flashy “jump” edits that any impact they might have had is nullified. Saying “boo” to someone once can cause them to jump, but saying it over and over in quick succession just defeats the element of it coming as a shock.

The odd effective jolt

There are three isolated moments where Muschietti tempers the mayhem and delivers genuine chills: firstly, a glimpse of a yellow-hooded little boy who darts unexpectedly in a dimly-lit corridor ahead; secondly, a bathroom that gets entirely drenched in deep crimson blood and thirdly, a knife kill goaded on by Pennywise in the guise of a TV presenter. All three scenes use carefully-controlled build-ups, harrowing gore and left-field surprises to function exactly how horror films should (but all-too-rarely do nowadays).

Not bad as King adaptations go

Stephen King adaptations have been a mixed bag over the years, ranging from classics like The Shining, Stand By Me, Misery and The Shawshank Redemption to disasters like Maximum Overdrive, Sleepwalkers and the TV miniseries Tommyknockers. “It” the movie, while an enjoyable effort, stands somewhere in between the two extremes. It’s worth a look, but it’s unlikely to give hardened horror fans sleepless nights.

Runtime: 135 mins

Dir: Andy Muschietti

Script: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman, from a novel by Stephen King

Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert

Rating: ☆☆☆

Where is it showing in Edinburgh and Glasgow?

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Showtimes in Cameo Edinburgh

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