No laughing matter

by Martin McNamara

CONTEMPORARY culture’s most infamous evil clown – Pennywise – was first introduced into the common lexicon with Stephen’s 1986 novel, It, arguably his best work.
Of course, there’s a younger generation who grew up suffering lost sleep thanks to the 1990 made-for-TV adaptation starring Tim Curry, a corny but creepy enough affair that has defined It in popular culture for more than two decades.
Now, more than 30 years since the publication of the original novel, yet another generation has been introduced to Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
Following a record-breaking opening weekend for the film – the highest grossing for a horror film in the UK and Ireland – it seems certain that director Andres Muschietti’s effort will become the definitive adaptation of King’s vision; indeed, the writer’s already given it his seal of approval.
Set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, IT (Cert 16, 134 mins) tells of seven young social outcasts who face off against an ancient evil – one that takes the form of their innermost fears, most often as a bloodthirsty clown.
Over the course of their summer vacation, the group must band together, face their fears and confront ‘It’.
Certainly, It is worthy of King’s praise. Perhaps the most ‘Stephen-Kingy’ of the legion of adaptations of his work that have proliferated mainstream media ever since Brian DePalma’s Carrie in 1976, It replicates the small town Americana of King’s novels and the darkness that lurks just beneath its surface with a visual language ripped straight from the writer’s pages.
It’s easy to see why a writer that despised the creative liberties taken by Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) would delight in the rigid adherence to his storytelling and style to be found here.
Still, what works on the page doesn’t always translate to the silver screen; while there’s plenty to delight and disturb in It, the lengthy film often feels overly-fragmented.
Following a genuinely disturbing introduction and a pitch-perfect setup in the era-defining style of Joe Dante or Richard Donner, in which we meet our heroes on the final day of school in 1989, the story in It plays out in a series of vignette-like segments. MaineStephen-Kingy
Here, each of the friends encounter the monster in their own waking nightmare. Certainly, these segments are bursting at the seams with disturbing imagery, distorted figures replicated wonderfully from paper to screen.
However, while this episodic structure works well on a chapter-by-chapter basis, in a two-hour and 15-minute movie, it leaves things a little narratively-disjointed. It lacks a certain fluidity; while never hard to follow, it often feels like things aren’t really going anywhere.
To its credit, it’s in these segments where It is most disturbing. We feel the fragility of our heroes, mere children facing off against an ancient evil in a world where adults are ineffectual and uncaring.
With a cast of young actors, including Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard (a TV series relied on heavily here, just as it relied on King’s work – the cycle continues), it’s quite an achievement that It tells its story with considered emotion and admirable performances.
Bill Skarsgard lays it on suitably heavy as Pennywise, though he rarely disturbs in his (un)natural form.
It becomes increasingly less prolific on scares as Pennywise’s presence becomes more dominant and the danger moves away from the town itself.
The most disturbing qualities of It exist in the layers of evil, anger, abuse and prejudice underlying small-town America; travesties that are touched on but rarely embraced for genuinely lingering scares.
There’s a high-quality horror movie here, though perhaps not the classic that King’s novel deserves – the scares are unlikely to follow you out of the cinema. Still, this is just chapter one. Perhaps, taken as a whole, It will do justice to King’s modern classic.
Verdict: 7/10

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