I’ve never read the Stephen King novel It or watched the 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry, so the 2017 film adaptation (directed by Andy Muschietti) has nothing to live up to for me, good or bad. I was, though, a 1980s teenager and this version very much pays loving homage to that era.
Set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, It follows a motley crew of bullied kids in the summer of 1989 after they band together to take on a terrifying shapeshifting demon who they’ve come to realise is behind the unexplained disappearances of children in the town. The demon exploits the fears and phobias of its victims to disguise itself while hunting them down, usually appearing in the form of Pennywise the clown (Bill Skarsgard).
The tone of It is a somewhat bizarre mix of high jinks adventures for kids interspersed with outbursts of all-out horror. The Hollywood-exec elevator pitch would be “Imagine Goonies meets Nightmare on Elm Street, but we’ll replace Freddy Krueger with a horrific clown.”
Even stranger than the premise, though, is the fact it’s a formula that works surprisingly effectively. For grown men like myself it’s an opportunity to bask in 80s nostalgia, evoking memories of memorising a fake date of birth - in case I was asked at the ticket counter - and sneaking into the cinema to watch the likes of Elm Street or Poltergeist. For the current generation it’s perhaps their first opportunity to experience a ‘proper’ horror film - all wrapped up within the current mode for all things 80s being the height of cool (80s-set TV hit Stranger Things is a clear inspiration).
Another reference point in many respects is Stand by Me (a Stephen King adaption made in the 80s but set in the 50s, which King has described as his favourite adaptation of his work). As with that film, a key reason It works so well is down to the performances of its young cast. Loudmouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard, who also stars in Stranger Things) is a throwback to Corey Feldman’s Teddy Duchamp while the troubled, sensitive and stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), who has lost his younger brother to It, recalls Wil Wheaton’s Gordie Lachance. In addition to It, the group are pursued by a gang of bullies not entirely dissimilar to that led by Ace (Kiefer Sutherland) in Stand by Me.
Sophia Lillis puts is a notable performance as Bev, the only girl of the group who, as well as being pursued by It, is also being sexually abused by her father. At one point in the film she’s jokingly referred to as Molly Ringwald and it’s a valid comparison.
The kids-adventure style of the film has led to criticism in some quarters that it isn’t scary enough. I find that mystifying. I attended with my daughter and her fifteen-year-old friends and can vouch for the fact they were all genuinely shaken when they left the screening. Indeed, my daughter insisted on sleeping with her light on that night. It left me wondering if I’d done the right thing by letting her attend although, on reflection, I should probably be more concerned if she hadn’t been affected in some way by what she’d seen.
The sexual abuse suffered by Bev, not seen in any graphic detail but strongly alluded to, is upsetting and unsettling; Pennywise is a genuinely terrifying monster; and there are several scenes which wouldn’t look out of place in a more conventional hardcore horror movie - one blood-soaked scene involving Bev trapped inside a bathroom especially springs to mind.
The British Board of Film Classification’s description of the film includes the lines ‘There are intense sequences in which children are chased and murdered’ and ‘There is strong language, including uses of f**k and motherf**ker’. They granted the film a 15 certificate. Now don’t get me wrong - I’m liberal, open-minded and not easily offended - but it genuinely does make me wonder quite what does need to be included within a film for it to be granted an 18 certificate.
It is pacey, well directed and atmospheric, with strong performances from its cast. Despite what you may hear elsewhere, it’s also properly scary. You wouldn’t want a horror film not to be scary of course but, if you are more Stranger Things than Friday the 13th, don’t be fooled by the 15 certificate.