Stephen King's bottomless well of horror tomes has thrown up some brilliant adaptations. The Shining, Carrie, Misery and The Mist stand out as exemplary tributes to a résumé that also regrettably provided the foundations for the likes of Dreamcatcher and Children of the Corn, turkeys barely worth a mention.
It is arguable, however, that the great writer's most iconic novel has yet to make its way to the cinema screen. It's live action debut came in 1990, of course, but this was restricted to television, the Tim Curry-starring two-part event playing out over the course of consecutive nights on ABC. The miniseries transfixed audiences and schooled a fresh generation in the twisted wonders of King's imagination.
Now, in 2017, a fully fledged filmic update is long overdue, a perfect antidote to another King reworking, the recent and execrable The Dark Tower.
Helmer Andrés Muschietti's debut feature was feral-child creeper Mama, a picture that was seen less than it deserved, and, once again, he succeeds admirably in deploying the chilling atmosphere that enlivened the latter project. In truth, It is an engaging and triumphant take on a signature work, one replete with equal parts terror, humour and ambition, and likely to amuse as often as it induces palpable discomfort.
King's tale still freezes the blood. In 1980s Derry, Maine, a band of friends is terrorised by a malevolent presence that has long stalked their town. Taking whichever form is most likely to terrify its victims, the spirit's go-to manifestation is that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), an undoubted leader in fanning the flames of global coulrophobia.
With his staring eyes, tufts of orange hair, twisted grin and Renaissance-era wardrobe, Skarsgård's portrayal is stunning, if not downright odd, a wicked, cruel, occasionally hilarious emissary of evil that will harry the rest of fitful sleepers everywhere. Muschietti empowers his villain with more than just the ill intent of a watchful demon. Pennywise stalks and roams, charges and mutilates, with wild abandon. The director, in a nod to the era of the source material's publication, even sends him scuttling manically towards the veering camera – features leering, claws snatching – as in the genre flicks of yesteryear.
Around Pennywise swirls the vivid visual palette conjured by Oldboy cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung. Arresting, heart-stopping images and settings abound against a bucolic small-town backdrop. From the murk of Derry's decrepit sewers, and the creaking manor house serving as the clown's base of operations, to the jets of blood streaming from a plug hole to drench a menstruating teenage girl, ambience is not in short supply. In an early scene, a chained warehouse door strains against the hopeless, screaming people burning within, their hands clawing at the blue sky beyond. Even the dull bowels of a public library (far removed from the Gothic glee of Ghostbusters) are laced with menace. And then, of course, there are the balloons, floating ruby calling cards to signal Pennywise's arrival.
This is powerful stuff, no doubt, and with an unnerving, gruesome opening sequence, It states its intentions without delay. Muschietti may not flinch from confronting the violence of King's creation but his film never attempts to coast by on scares alone. Instead, an affecting coming-of-age story it all together. That strand is perhaps the strongest on show.
In a town peopled by a seldom-seen adult population of bullies, idiots and grieving parents, the gang at the movie's core proves itself the only force capable of tackling the omnipotent corruption. Christening themselves the Losers' Club, the teens form a motley crew. Wisecracking Richie (Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard – magnificent) is joined by skittish Stan (Wyatt Oleff), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), flinty Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and the sensitive, perceptive Ben (an outstanding Jeremy Ray Taylor), the butt of some superb New Kids on the Block gags.
The group is rounded out by its notional leader, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), a stuttering but courageous soul grieving the disappearance of his kid brother, and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), whose dysfunction stems as much from her poverty as it does from the whiff of perversion emanating from her father's clammy attentions.
The rapid-fire, foul-mouthed interplay between them all is a delight, underpinned by loyalty and a noble sense of duty to their fraternity. They account for much of It's comedy, Wolfhard gobbling most of the best lines, though there exists significant elegance in their adolescent development, in a loss of innocence and the grim erosion of childhood certainties.
For every metal-scored rock fight with the local ruffians, a moment of tenderness between the Losers is never far away. They may squabble and belittle but when peril closes in and devil-jesters need tackling, they coalesce to counter the fear upon which Pennywise feasts. Their presence channels E.T. (easily flung bicycles are the only mode of transport worth anything), The Goonies and, obviously, another of King's great yarns, Stand By Me, without ever feeling derivative.
If criticisms are to be levelled at Muschietti, then they could probably centre on a lack of freshness in the crucial frights. Little new arrives to excite, with the usual tropes appearing in all the usual places. That said, given how much of the chunky running time is dedicated to referencing the late 80s (witness the passing allusions to Gremlins, Lethal Weapon 2 and Batman) the familiarity of execution may well be somewhat deliberate.
King's epic original took in the Club's adult moves to eradicate its powdered nemesis and those events are bound for a planned sequel. The bonds formed here will be tested, that much is certain. In the meantime, sweet dreams.