We all float down here...
I read Stephen King's It in my twenties - a great big thousand-page wallow that I completed in a matter of weeks, so pure was its entertainment value. The TV mini-series of 1990 had its joys, but ultimately failed to capture the book's epic physical and emotional scope. There was room for a new, definitive version, and this could be - well - it.
King's mega-novel switched back and forth between the adult and childhood experiences of a group of friends, who first encountered the IT of the title in their early teens. This new film makes the smart move of telling only the childhood portion of the story, giving its teenage actors space to flesh out their world in all its adolescent turmoil. It also updates these scenes three decades, depositing the characters to clever effect in the cine-literate 1980s.
Our protagonists, seven of them, live in the New England town of Derry, a place plagued by child disappearances. They discern what the adults could never comprehend - that the children of Derry are being terrorised by an entity that manifests itself to each as his or her deepest fear. If you're freaked out by zombie movies or an image from a painting or a trauma from your past, that's the form in which IT will come after you. IT has a default identity too - a malevolent clown called Pennywise, who first appears in an iconic scene from the novel involving a paper boat and a storm drain. Everyone, we soon learn, floats down there...
There are many ways in which a retelling of a story this huge could trip up, and the new IT avoids them all. This is chiefly due to a well-crafted, intelligent and funny script provided for a great bunch of kid actors. 'The Losers Club', as our group of teen misfits knowingly term themselves, have a wonderful, infectious chemistry from the off, and you thoroughly enjoy being a part of their beleaguered gang. These youngsters represents a catalogue of adolescent problems - abuse, neglect, bullying, hypochondria, illness, body issues... In short they're a great banquet of fear and insecurity, which sets IT's mouth watering. But they also have humour, spirit and loyalty, and therefore a shot, however slim, at coming out as more than victims.
Grown-ups in this movie are peripheral figures - ineffectual at best, and at their worst downright sinister. The result is that we're immersed in the kids' world, as they struggle to survive multiple terrifying encounters with IT with no recourse to adult aid.
Then of course there's Pennywise. Originally played by Tim Curry, he was most people's favourite part of the TV adaptation, a vicious face-painted child catcher with a line in gleefully wicked humour. Here he's less the joker and more a gurgling baby-faced horror - a twisted relic from a olde-worlde carnival. It's a different, and no less chilling source of fun, played masterfully by Bill Skarsgard. Those who suffer from coulrophobia (yes, fear of clowns has a name) will have a tricky time here. The rest of us will thoroughly enjoy Pennywise, along with all the other deliciously Gothic visuals on display.
As for my personal fear factor, there were shocks and sustained tension. However this experience is more akin to a thrilling, beautifully executed ghost-train ride than an exercise in real dread. Think the camaraderie of Stand By Me and the excitement of The Goonies, with sharper teeth and much more blood. Every visual and audio trick in the horror book is used here, but used well. This movie is thumping good entertainment, as funny as it is macabre. You'll love the Losers, feel their fear and pain and root for them to the last.
Now - if the film-makers can do the adult sections of King's novel with similar imagination and psychological insight, our definitive screen IT will be complete. Here's hoping.
Gut Reaction: Lost my chocolate bar due to jumping in the film's early stages. The rest was tension broken up with bursts of laughter.
Ed's Verdict: At the funhouse end of the horror spectrum, this film still has genuinely creepy moments. It's also a terrific coming-of-age story, full of humour and heart.