Without It, we wouldn’t have Stranger Things, but without Stranger Things we wouldn’t have It – at least not quite the version of the film that hits theatres today. The Duffer Brothers, creators of Stranger Things, have cited both the Stephen King novel and the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation of it as major influences on their hit Netflix show – “probably the biggest,” noted Ross Duffer in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Years ago, before It helmer Andy Muschietti took over from Cary Fukunaga in 2015, the Duffers approached Warner Brothers about mounting the remake but were turned down because they weren’t considered established enough to take on King’s epic tale of children banding together to take on the evil, sewer-dwelling, child-eating clown-entity Pennywise. So the siblings created Stranger Things instead, which also features a close-knit group of small town misfit kids (one of them played by Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard) facing an incredible supernatural evil.
But there’s also a polished retro aesthetic to It that makes it feel very much like Stranger Things. While the look of the world of the film is bang-on to the 1980s (it’s a not a 1950s childhood setting as in the book and miniseries), the elaborate sets, saturated colours and use of computer effects make it also recognizably modern. Most often that makes for the best of both worlds, particularly during the climax of the film, which features Pennywise’s visually elaborate lair ringed by floating children, where the entity morphs into different things that the children fear. The finale of the It miniseries is pretty lame thanks to special effects that are clunky even by 1990 network television standards, but here we’ve got set piece after horrifying set piece. Pennywise contorts, shape-shifts and attacks in ways the one in the TV version could not. This clown dishes out some serious eye candy.
Like any great creature feature, It is defined by its monster, and you can bet there will be Pennywises aplenty at Halloween this year. Bill Skarsgård plays an orange-eyed heavy who’s much more malevolent and predatory than the wisecracking, impish one that Tim Curry brought to the small screen. But when Curry’s version was scary, it was really scary, and this reviewer had to watch clips from the miniseries to be reminded that he actually joked around on occasion; only the memories of him barking out threats and staring with those piercing eyes remained. While the new Pennywise is terrifying, the CGI enhancements sometimes make him look more like a video game character. There’s an organic presence to Curry’s toothy clown (you can see the makeup lines, for example) that makes him feel more tangible. When it comes to the power of a monster to rattle you, these things matter.
Of course, the other part of the monster movie equation are the protagonists trying to avoid the beast’s toothy maw, and the collection of outcast kids here – the stutterer, the fat kid, the “slut,” etc. – are completely lovable. The usual problem of adapting King’s larger tales is that it’s impossible to give the characters the depth they have in the book in a feature-length film. Stranger Things had eight episodes to develop its characters and the It miniseries had four hours. That said, Muschietti and screenwriters Gary Dauberman, Chase Palmer and Fukunaga do an admirable job of letting us get to know his gang and wisely keeps the story in the ’80s. There are no flashbacks, so we don’t see the adult versions of our heroes; that’ll be the focus of Chapter 2, when, presumably, they have to return to the sewers of Derry to face Pennywise the next time he pops up in his 27-year cycle. You see, evil never dies, especially when it slays the box office…
And this new It deserves to be a hit. It has sharp claws, a big heart and a finger on the pulse of an audience that can’t get enough 1980s nostalgia.
Dave Alexander is the co-creator/co-producer/co-writer/host of Untold Horror. He is also the co-owner and former editor-in-chief of Rue Morgue – the world’s largest horror magazine. He is currently Rue Morgue‘s Special Projects Manager and a writer an editor for Rue Morgue Library line of supplements, which he also created.