Welcome to the Losers’ Club by Bev Vincent
There are a lot of monsters in Derry, Maine during the summer of 1989. These are in addition to the lurching leper, the toothy creature from the painting, a boy who lost his head during the Easter Explosion of 1908 and, of course, Pennywise the Dancing Clown.
The monsters to which I refer are the citizens of this long-troubled, perhaps cursed town. They include people who drive past without offering to help a boy being savagely beaten by bullies, the mother who lies to her son about his health to control and manipulate him, and the sexually abusive father. To the extent that there are adults in Derry (and in some ways, this reality resembles the world of Charlie Brown where grown-ups are seldom seen and hardly ever heard), they are abusive, neglectful or emotionally absent.
I’m going to be talking about the movie It at length. If you’ve never read the novel, some of this might be considered spoiler territory. Proceed with caution!
Anticipation for this new version of It, one of Stephen King’s most popular novels, has been high. The trailer set a record for the number of views in the first 24 hours, and box office projections indicate that it might have the biggest opening weekend by far of any movie based on King’s work ever. Its performance is important because, as you probably know, this movie is only half the story—the tale of the young losers. If the movie is successful, there will be a second chapter set 27 years in the future when these characters return to Derry to face its monsters one more time.
So, does the movie live up to the hype? It does indeed: it is a highly effective horror movie that also pays attention to the characters in a way that such films often don’t. The real issues these young people face before the supernatural kicks in are very well realized. Every last detail of the world they inhabit feels absolutely genuine. King has always seen adolescence as a turbulent time rather than an enjoyable one. It’s when the closest of friendships are forged, even though these relationships are doomed not to last. Kids are bound together against the adult world, an “us against them” conflict made all the more critical when the “them” includes a monster intent on consuming your fears, and the adults won’t believe you—won’t even hear you.
The performances are generally very strong. Seven kids is a big group to handle, though, and a couple of characters get lost in the shuffle. The standouts for me are Finn Wolfhard (from Stranger Things) as the always joking, irreverent, foul-mouthed Richie Tozier, and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, who is dealing with pervasive rumors about her supposedly loose nature and a father who worries about her a little too much. She is an equal with the boys when it comes to fighting the monsters, delivering some of the deadliest blows, and Lillis embraces some heavy scenes that deal with issues particular to an adolescent female. The perturbation Bev creates in the predominantly male group is handled well: Those who aren’t out-and-out smitten by her are at the very least fascinated with her. She’s an exotic creature in their midst, cool, collected and seemingly full of the self-confidence they lack. Beneath that calm exterior, though…
As the nominal leader of the Losers’ Club, Jaeden Lieberher’s Stutterin’ Bill is convincingly devoted to his quest to find out what happened to his brother, brow-beating his friends into helping. He has survivor guilt and his parents are shut down. Though he is somewhat timid, he finds it easier to barge into a haunted house than his home. The little boy who plays his younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is surprisingly effective in a demanding and terrifying role.
Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) is charming as the bookish, overweight newcomer to town who serves as the group’s historian, connecting the dots with the past to explain what’s going on in the present. Pint-sized hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is, quite frankly, annoying—his mouth runs even more than Richie’s, although he never says much of importance. We do get backstories for Mike (Chosen Jacobs), a black orphan who is home-schooled and thus an uber-outsider, and Stan (Wyatt Oleff), who is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah under the disapproving gaze of his rabbi father, but their roles feel slight and their characters underutilized compared with the others.
A lot of screen time in the first half of this 135-minute film is spent dealing with the experiences of the individual characters as their worst fears are exposed. One thing that binds them together, other than obvious growing mutual affection, is the fact that they are tormented by a group of older boys (or in Bev’s case, by her female peers), with Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) as the ringleader. This isn’t garden-variety bullying; Bowers is certifiable, and he is an equal opportunity hater, although I found him slightly less menacing than his counterpart in the novel.
Director Andy Muschietti and a trio of screenwriters moved the timeline forward three decades, to a year when Lethal Weapon 2, Batman and Nightmare on Elm Street 5 were in movie theaters, which will make the movie more relatable to a contemporary audience. The movie is nostalgic but not saccharine, and it is both terrifying and gripping. There were times during the press screening I attended when I became so captivated that I forgot to take notes. There are enough changes from the source material to keep things interesting—and these changes are made without sacrificing the heart and soul of the novel.
For people familiar with the book, the movie incorporates a lot of elements, although some of them only peripherally. Bill’s bike is called Silver, though the name is never uttered aloud. He mumbles “He thrusts his fists against the posts…” from time to time to get a handle on his stuttering. The Black Spot is mentioned, although it’s a more recent event than in the novel, and there’s no mention of Dick Halloran. The sealant Bill uses to coat the paper boat he makes for Georgie isn’t Turtle Wax, but a Lego turtle does show up at one point. Familiar geographic locations like Witcham Street and the Standpipe are seen and, to great effect, the house on Niebolt Street. The rock fight is epic. Some things from the book are lost—and not all of them are missed, particularly a controversial scene near the end.
I’m on the fence about Pennywise himself. Tim Curry is a hard act to follow. Bill Skarsgård’s depiction of the monster is charming and seductive, especially during his scene with Georgie, but at times he sounds like a cross between Grover from Sesame Street and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, and he has his Freddy Kreuger moments, too. He talks a lot, and he shows up a lot, which robs him of some his menace. There’s no denying that he is terrifying—his mouth has teeth upon teeth upon teeth and he moves in surreal, unnatural ways. But sometimes less is more, and I think I could have done with a little less of him on screen. I do like the emphasis placed on his efforts to divide and break up the group of seven, which underscores the fact that they need to come together to defeat him.
The opening scene with Georgie and his paper boat serves notice that the film has earned its R-rating. Only a few moments could be described as “jump” scares; most of the horror is earned through building tension. While the violence never feels gratuitous, it is relentless, and the special effects are terrific. A famous scene from the novel involving blood is particularly effective. This is Kubrick-level bloodflow—Carrie White got off easy—and the incident carries additional significance given the nature of what the character involved is experiencing in her personal life. The creepiness factor is elevated by television programs playing in the background in family homes where kids are encouraged to play in the sewers and, later, to do worse than that. Derry really is a perversely weird place.
There is also a lot of humor, most of it courtesy of Richie, who gets off a number of crudely hilarious good ones, although Eddie has a great moment when he shouts at his mother that the pills she has been feeding him are “gazebos.” A passing reference to Molly Ringwald and banter between Bev and Ben about his fondness for New Kids on the Block makes a good running joke, given that Ben is exactly that.
It’s hard to make a blanket statement about the film as an adaptation because it is only part of a whole, and we can only hope that the same creative team is given the chance to tackle the rest of the material in Chapter 2. This is a movie that is guaranteed to give people nightmares, one example of a “remake” that is vastly superior to the original adaptation. Muschietti’s film honors King’s novel while taking certain liberties with it, but it gets the heart of the story just right: the tale of seven misfits bound together by a common purpose against common enemies, who grow to love each other and do brave deeds to save each other from a fate worse than death.