In a small town in Maine, several children (Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jaeden Lieberher) come face to face with life problems, bullies, growing up - and a supernatural creature that takes the shape of a clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard).
Adaptations of Stephen King's work count among some of the finest films of a generation. The Shining, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Carrie, The Dead Zone - it's lofty company, but there's also been much poorer adaptations, such as The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, The Running Man and most recently The Dark Tower. What it often comes down to is how the director and cast approach the work, and whether they come at it in an evenhanded way. Brian DePalma's Carrie is a gory, near-grindhouse horror whereas David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone is played like a psychological thriller. It's the same source author and the stories are similarly bonkers, but the execution is totally different - meaning that King's work lends itself to directors with a strong vision - and that's why It works so well.
They say the best horrors are the ones that you don't want to turn into horrors, and this is something that It and its director, Andy Muscietti, clearly understands very well. From the very get go, It feels like it's Rob Reiner's Stand By Me interspersed with flashes from some over-the-top horror like Nightmare On Elm Street. The opening scene sets the tone perfectly, heart-warming and almost twee one second, gleefully scary and violent moments later. We're then introduced to the Losers; a group of nerdy pre-teens who are viciously bullied and/or marginalised by their guardians or parents living in a sleepy town, who each see frightening visions and some sort of clown figure (Skarsgard) nearby. Though they're all playing archetypes - one's bookish one, one's an over-compensating loudmouth, one's a love interest, etc. - they're all distinct enough to make an impact and the performances are so natural, particularly for actors so young, that it keeps us in line with the story and grounds the more outlandish moments. Of course, the film can have the best child actors out there - and it really does - but it all rests on the shoulders of the villain to make it real. Bill Skarsgard's performance as Pennywise is particularly impressive, as he manages to make it a truly physical performance that he utterly disappears into - and completely outshines Tim Curry's version of the character. Here, he plays with ferocity and giddy playfulness with ease - but it's so otherworldly that it gets truly disturbing in parts. He doesn't seem human and is merely pretending, which makes it all the more unnerving.
Director Andy Muscietti's previous film, Mama, played more like a supernatural drama than a conventional horror and displayed a subtlety and grace that's been lacking in mainstream horror for quite some time. Here, it's a little less noticeable, but that's only because the source material demands it. After all, it's a creepy clown and you can't not play with that convention. Yet, what Muscietti does so well is bed that horror in a comforting, familiar place. The scenes outside of Pennywise's appearance look like a charming throwback piece of idealised '80s Americana, and the music evokes that same kind of carefree innocence. This, in turn, makes the terror all the more potent. Chung-hoon Chung's cinematography (also seen in The Handmaiden, Stoker and the original Oldboy) has a radiance to it and captures the contrast between these two without making it seem chaotic.
If there's a complaint against It, it's that it does use familiarity and nostalgia to gather up an audience rather than being wholly original and breaking new ground - much like Netflix's Stranger Things, but not nearly as overtly. That said, It is fiendishly effective at what it does and makes for a hugely entertaining example of horror.