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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

It: Chapter One  (2017)
3½ Stars
Directed by Andy Muschietti.
Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Mollie Jane Atkinson, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jake Sim, Geoffrey Pounsett, Steven Williams, Megan Charpentier, Stuart Hughes, Ari Cohen, Tatum Lee, Kelly Van der Burg, Pip Dwyer, Sonia Gascón, Javier Botet.
2017 – 135 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, bloody images, and for language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, September 6, 2017.
If 1986's "Stand By Me" (based on Stephen King's novella "The Body" from his 1982 "Different Seasons" collection) had featured an evil supernatural entity who most frequently took the form of a demonic clown, it might have looked startlingly similar to "It: Chapter One," the first in a planned two-picture adaptation of King's epic, 1,138-page, 1986 best-selling novel. This acclaimed source material has been translated to film once before courtesy of an effective 1990 ABC miniseries, highlighted by Tim Curry's shiver-inducing performance as the monstrous Pennywise. Now, as a lavishly ghastly yet crucially heartfelt Warner Bros. feature directed by Andy Muschietti (2013's "Mama") and written by Gary Dauberman (2017's "Annabelle: Creation") and Chase Palmer & Cary Joji Fukunaga (2015's "Beasts of No Nation"), the author's tome has been gifted an exceedingly worthy cinematic rendering. To predict that, in time, it may well go down as a classic of the genre strikes as neither premature nor hyperbolic.

School's out for the kids of Derry, Maine, but in the summer of 1989 a dark shadow has cast itself over this quaint New England town. A rash of unsolved child disappearances has led to an after-dark curfew being set, and authorities are clueless as to who has taken the youngsters. For seven 13-year-old friends and classmates, the truth has gradually and terrifyingly revealed itself. Each one, in their own time, has narrowly escaped a horrific attack from a force that would seem otherworldly if not for how very real it is. The common denominator in their confrontations: a sharp-toothed clown (Bill Skarsgård) from which nightmares are made. Natural leader of the so-called "Losers' Club" is Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), who has already been personally affected by this malevolent menace; eight months ago, his beloved younger brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), left home during a rainstorm to sail his paper boat and never returned.

Simply put, "It: Chapter One" is the best big-screen Stephen King adaptation since at least 1995's "Dolores Claiborne," an assured, personal, deeply touching work that transcends its horror roots while playing beautifully on multiple levels. It is scary, indeed, a funhouse of thrills and chills which only intermittently lets up, and director Andy Muschietti is a dynamite craftsman of the macabre who tickles his audience with the equivalent power of a renowned pianist tickling the ivories. What lifts the picture to an altogether higher plane, however, is the underlying coming-of-age tale being told. By taking the time to develop and observe its newly adolescent characters, the viewer cannot help but fall in love with them as individuals and as pals joining together for the life-or-death fight of their young lives. In choosing to stop being victims and confront the shape-shifting creature preying on their greatest fears, they must also say good-bye to a fundamental stage in the very process of life. Standing on the precipice between childhood and the tough realities of growing up, they will never quite be the same again.

With the exception of the homeschooled Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), who crosses paths with the other six friends late in the proceedings and isn't given the time to significantly build the same bond with them that they have with one another, the core group of protagonists are exceptionally well-drawn, standing out as individuals with their own respective personalities, quirks, and personal dynamics. Jaeden Lieberher (2017's "The Book of Henry") is the steadfast beacon at the film's center as the stuttering Bill Denbrough, staying strong for his friends while grieving for his little brother—the sense of loss he feels bottled up for now but destined to eventually burst.

Reminding of a cross between a young Amy Adams and Jessica Chastain, newcomer Sophia Lillis is marvelous as the sole female of the group, the amber-haired Beverly Marsh. Lillis exudes a naturalism and complexity in her performance that makes it all the more impressive that this is her first lead role. She shares particularly endearing chemistry with Bill and with the lonely, overweight Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a history buff who discovers Derry has had its share of inexplicable tragedies for the better part of a century. Ben's crush on Beverly—he writes her an anonymous poem shortly after they share a sweet, clumsy moment together on the last day of school (she catches him listening to New Kids on the Block on his Walkman)—is winning and unforced, and Jeremy Ray Taylor (2013's "42") is perfect in the part, a bullied outsider who finds acceptance and a newfound confidence in the summertime friendships he forms.

Jack Dylan Grazer (2015's "Tales of Halloween") is another standout as the asthmatic, honest-to-a-fault Eddie Kaspbrak, unearthing a courage inside himself to stand up to his overbearing mother (Mollie Jane Atkinson), a lonely woman with arguable shades of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Grazer has a uniquely appealing quality about himself and the way he portrays Eddie; he makes his every moment an honest one. Rounding out the sterling young cast are Finn Wolfhard (Netflix's "Stranger Things") as Richie Tozier, the motor-mouthed jokester of the group, and Wyatt Oleff (2017's "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2") as the introverted Stanley Uris, his nervousness over a spooky portrait in his rabbi father's office threatening to shoot past 11 when the painting comes to life.

Hanging portentously over the film like a funereal corpse who won't stay dead is Bill Skarsgård (2016's "Allegiant"), as Pennywise the Clown. Tim Curry's smiling, energetic, intensely creepy portrayal of this role has become iconic, one of the great horror villains of the last thirty years; taking over the part must have been daunting, but Skarsgård makes it entirely his own, not once hitting an imitative or derivative note. Best of all, Pennywise is every bit as threatening here, a supernatural pall whose paint-faced circus visage superficially shields a monster.

The specificity of the movie's era ("A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child" is playing at the local theater during the August scenes) and location (Derry is fictional, but widely based on King's real-life stomping ground of Bangor, ME) only adds to the vividness of its plot, and it is a testament to the screenplay that the alterations made from the author's text (like updating the time period from the late-1950s to the late-'80s) are never needless, used to benefit the telling of this particular version of the story. Without a substantive, humanistic anchor, the fright-pieces which arrive every ten to fifteen minutes might have become repetitive, as effective as they are. Fortunately, there is so much going on around them—nuanced characters, slice-of-life humor and heartache, sly metaphors standing in for our heroes' fears—that the peril, the jump scares, and the waking nightmarish scenarios hold up extraordinarily well as more than gimmicks.

From the chilling prologue involving Georgie's ill-fated rainstorm excursion, to Eddie's run-in with a spindly, diseased leper (Javier Bott) at 29 Neibolt Street, to a room filled with clown figures and three doors leading to disparate terrors, to a jolting, emotionally resonating climax set in the bowels of Pennywise's lair, the film is a veritable parade of goosebumps. It is not oppressive, though, and that's going to be the key to its widespread success; there is plenty of levity in between the scares, a releasing of tension as well-earned as it sometimes is sharply short-lived. Additionally top-notch: the eloquent, jittery music score by Benjamin Wallfisch (2017's "A Cure for Wellness"); unshowy yet nonetheless dazzling cinematography by Chung-hoon Chung (2015's "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"), and a preference for practical effects and strategically seamless CG over a garish reliance on computer-generated imagery.

The closing title, "It: Chapter One," guarantees a follow-up is around the bend, and for good reason; King's novel weaves such an expansive saga that a companion film is needed to finish the narrative, focusing on the grown incarnations of the seven friends in present-day times as they reunite to stop It once and for all. It's a continuation that cannot come soon enough. By itself, this first installment is strong enough to stand alone, the troubling truths of suburban and domestic dysfunction running parallel to the unthinkable, fantastical horrors stalking the core seven to their doorsteps. First and foremost, it is the poignance of their relationship, right down to a final scene that both solidifies their bond and marks the unspoken closing of a chapter in their lives, which lingers most indelibly beyond the ending credits. "It: Chapter One" hits the ground running as a deliciously entertaining, legitimately shuddersome horror feature, but it excels as something altogether more profound, a cathartic fable constellating the twilight of childhood innocence.
© 2017 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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