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IT (2017): Eerie, faithfully poignant adaptation of Stephen King's novel

Revering the accumulated weight of dread and love to present a chilling and faithful adaptation of King’s novel, IT is a little more than the exact sum of its parts.

2017 seems like Stephen King’s year in movies. Even before The Dark Tower floundered, anticipation for the new IT movie had been staggering. The famous source material for IT is King’s long novel about friendship, existential dread, and the mental gulf between childhood and adolescence. In 1990, it was made into a two-part mini-series that condensed the book into 3 hours of marginal acting and campy scares. The most memorable element was Tim Curry’s Pennywise the Dancing Clown—the most common form of It, a monster feeding on Derry townspeople before retreating to its slumber of 27 years.

Aptly 27 years after the series, It wakes up again—this time played by Bill Skarsgård at the helm of Andrés Muschietti (Mama). Since the novel’s narrative is removed, Muschietti downplays the comparison between childhood and adulthood. He compensates this drawback with a creative transition where the movie cuts from a sheep prepared for the bolt pistol to the main characters getting out of class. Growing up is a trap, kids!

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It's the end of a school year. After dumping books to enjoy their upcoming summer, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Stan (Wyatt Oleff), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) run into the bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton, pumping up violent miens from his role in Captain Fantastic to a point of thuggish sadism). IT has updated the novel’s context from the 50s to the 80s; AIDS is in the conversation, and Batman and Lethal Weapon are showing at a local theater. The screenplay by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman (two parts of Annabelle), Cary Fukunaga (Sin nombre, Beast of No Nation) also skips a large part about the kids making friends with one another. More than half of them are already buddies. Only Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and Mike (Chose Jacobs) join in later to form the Losers Club.

Still gaining momentum, IT directs our eyes on the stuttering, plucky Bill Denbrough and his personal issues. As the opening scene shows us, Bill has a sweet relationship with his innocent brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). During a rainy week of late October, the bored little boy goes outside to play with his paper boat made by Bill, and that’s the last time anyone sees the real Georgie. This missing case, together with those of many other kids, becomes Bill’s obsession, but instead of mourning in silence and denial like his parents, he deals with the matter.

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Adulthood isn’t scary per se, but in this context, it is. Adults in the movies either disappoint, ignore, or terrorize kids. So whereas they neglect the problem, each member of the Losers Club finds him- or herself in a brief but horrid confrontation with a creepy monster that transforms into its victims' worst fears. They find more information about this entity through Mike, an African-American outcast who lost his parents in a fire, and Ben, a chubby kid who moves into Derry and spends his lonely time in the library. There have always been many mysterious deaths in this town every 27 years, pointing to the same culprit, Pennywise the Dancing Clown. From this point on, each of their encounters with Pennywise either sets up the Well House (where the third act occurs), digs deeper into Derry's nasty history, or affirms their determination to deal with that spooky eyesore of a child-eating monster.

Exposition is dealt fast, mostly about the kids' domestic lives and personalities. Ben and Mike are the lonely ones with valuable information. Richie’s specialty is to throw harmless blusters at his friends and more harmful ones at the bullies: “Go blow your dad, you mullet-wearing asshole.” Stan is a reluctant Jewish kid nearing his Bar Mitzvah, and the twitchy Eddie tries to evade his hypochondriac mother. We know enough background knowledge about these characters—most importantly, what scares each of them. The ensemble cast of kid characters, in which we can find a full piece of our pre-teen self, all impress with recognizable traits despite Muschietti's special attention to Bill and Beverly. The latter is a blooming girl snubbed by her peers as rumors about her flirtation spread. As the boys are approaching their puberty, Lilis’ Molly-Ringwald look makes Beverly the center of attention.

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They are comfortable amongst others, even in underwear. Levity is the most realistic aspect of their friendship, portrayed with snappy cursing and R-rated insults aimed at parents—of course when the supervising adults are not around. One can't ask for more banter about TV shows and cigarettes like in Stand By Me because overblowing anything that isn't related to their fear and solidarity in the macabre face of danger will produce only fillers and irrelevancies. In addition, IT thrives on the success of last year’s Stranger Things, which warmed us up for a story about 80s kids on bikes exploring the mystical disturbance around them. The script calls back to a time when kids didn’t own the convenient inhibition of modern technology. Instead, they spent time outdoors on bikes, along streams, and around haunted houses.

Human characters are well-composed, but that doesn’t mean the eldritch It is forgettable. It’s famous form, Pennywise the Dancing Clown in a feudal jester’s attire, gets a fitting introduction at the beginning when Georgie encounters him. The conversation shows how the clown entertains himself by manipulating children into his snagging, ravenous mouth. The mature rating opens for a lot of severed limbs and blood, and how Georgie meets his regrettable demise promises us grittiness. All of those horrors would be futile if not for the performance of Skarsgård, whose father and older brother already played a sea ghoul and a vampire, respectively. The young Swedish actor’s "Kubrick stare" and wide smile prepare us for moments of throwaway humor; for instance, he charges at a terrified Bill and misses this easy target on purpose. Always drooling his lower lips with hunger and enthusiastic assholeness, Pennywise takes extreme pleasure in inflicting vicious damage on the humans, but not before teasing potential victims or creeping at an unexpected corner when the situation is already stressful.

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After relentless inspection, the kids get a taste of what they are fighting. This is where Muschietti drops an effectively suspenseful scene in the Well House. He should have omitted several scares to tighten the intense foreboding because they diminish the effect, but at least characters aren't split by that stupid wandering-alone-in-the-dark trope. Thankfully, askew feelings strike at the right moments of Dutch angles by Chung-hoon Chung, Chan-wook Park’s frequent cinematographer. Chung's biting atmosphere touches up most of the adequately staged but insignificant set pieces, as of Claude Paré's mise-en-scène don’t impress as much as the players occupying them, including the monstrous figures It transforms into. In critical scenes, editor Jason Ballantine (The Great Gatsby) holds the shots long enough to make viewers suffused in the same dread as the Losers Club.

Contrary to the visuals, sound is where IT flourishes less than it could have. As I expected, shop-worn and startling noise effects going with jumpscares are often annoying and vulgar. The score by Benjamin Wallfisch (Lights Out, A Cure for Wellness) feels ham-fisted when It chases the kids under sunlight. That aural quality almost belongs to an epic adventure on magnificent backdrops rather than thrilling moments of life and death. However, string instruments amplify many frightening confrontations, and the movie accomplishes a heavy task of balancing tones during and between scenes.

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Unlike Dark Tower, IT pays actual respect with homage. It’s nemesis, Maturin the Turtle, appears two scenes with meaningful purposes, winking to the appearance (and disappearance?) of this ancient, wise creator. Another Easter Egg belongs to It's true form, hinted through the orange light glowing from inside the facade of Pennywise.

Though the linear structure creates a less poignant impact and a taut, if numb, flow on the book’s themes about forgotten memories and the bleakness of growing up, the cast cogently furnish loopy humor and heartfelt unity. Revering the accumulated weight of dread and love to present a chilling and faithful adaptation of King’s novel, IT is a little more than the exact sum of its parts.