It’s a funny time to be Stephen King – but some would say it always is.
The cadaver of the Dark Tower – it was butchered upon release by both fans and critics – is still warm. Mr Mercedes, another adaptation of one of his books – this one for TV – has begun promisingly. Gerald’s Game, yet another adaptation, is coming soon – this month, in fact. Donald Trump has, with predictable childishness, blocked him on Twitter. But we’re not here to talk about any of that.
What we’re here to talk about is – and this is remarkable, considering the sheer number of legitimately great films King’s writing has inspired – a movie that could perhaps be among the best adaptations of his work. Certainly, there is a scene that comes maybe halfway through It that plunges you so gleefully into unexpected gore that it’s almost impossible to not be jolted by memories of The Shining or Carrie – still, even after four decades, the best King adaptations.
It, the novel, is a brick of a book that at 1,300 pages long would be just as useful a murder weapon as it is a source of thrills. It’s a story, like most King stories, about the innocence of childhood, and the painful loss of it; about the memories of the past, and the trauma of growing up.
It begins with a paper boat, floating along one of those dirty streams that collect on the sides of streets during heavy rain. A young boy – Georgie – chases after it, always three steps too far behind. The boat gives Georgie the slip — picking up speed just when he expects it to slow down, and gets sucked into the sewer, a subterranean labyrinth where among the rubbish and the sewage, there lives a murderous entity. Having been gone for 27 years, the entity has chosen this day to return, and young Georgie, who’s reaching into the sewers in a flailing attempt to find his boat, doesn’t realise he’s staring death in the face.
And what a face it is. There are tufts of bright orange hair standing at attention at odd spots on It’s head; a head that appears to be cracked and peeling, almost like a forgotten boiled egg. There are streaks of red running down either side of Its face like bloody gashes, uniting in a grotesque smile that splits open to reveal disgusting yellow buck-teeth. And It’s eyes… Oh, It’s eyes; bright, hypnotic, even when the rest of Its face is obscured in shadows.
It calls itself Pennywise the Dancing Clown, and with an ear-splitting growl, It pulls young Georgie into the sewer. “We all float down here,” It says, delivering the book’s – and now, film’s – classic line. “You’ll float too.”
Six months later, fate brings seven kids together. They call themselves the Losers, owing to their less-than-impressive reputation at school, and with the almost foolish bravery only idealistic kids in movies can have, they decide that only they can get to the bottom of the strange events that have been happening in their hometown – Derry – since Georgie’s murder. Other kids have disappeared, dozens of them – and a terrifying clown has been spotted. The two, they conclude, must be connected.
And so begins our tale.
King’s writing is propulsive. It always has been. There’s a blue-collar simplicity to it, which is perhaps what makes it so roguishly attractive. But the movie is different, despite being as devoted to the source material as a King fan at one of his live readings.
There’s a glossy, Spielbergian sheen to the visuals of Chung-hoon Chung – DP of choice for genius South Korean director, Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker). Like its close cousins, JJ Abrams’ Super 8, Netflix’s Stranger Things, and any number of Steven Spielberg films – mind you, It is the real deal, having essentially created the genre that we now associate with an entire decade – this film is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a horror movie. Perhaps even more.
It’s at its best – ironically, for a scary movie – not when it is tormenting the kids with fresh evil every 15 minutes, but when it’s laying in the fields with them, gazing lazily at the endlessness of the summer holidays; when it’s splashing around in the river, wondering if the only girl in the group can notice them staring; and when it is irresponsibly riding on bikes, standing on the pedals to appear taller.
Despite how truly frightening Pennywise is – every time he appeared on screen, and it’s just the right amount of time, the audience at my screening grew visibly uncomfortable – It, the movie, lives and dies with the Losers; their carefully fleshed out stories, the bullying they endure, and the firm friendship that helps them survive. Unlike most horror films, It is a drama first. And boy, that’s refreshing.
Most remarkably, all this is the doing of Andy Muschietti, a director with only one feature credit to his name prior to this – the supernatural horror, Mama, in which Jessica Chastain played an edgelord – and that too, not a particularly good one.
With It, Muschietti has made one of the best horror movies of the year. It’s funny and warm and touching and frightening and profane and profound. It’s a terrific set-up to what is going to be a restlessly-anticipated Chapter 2.
It floats. You’ll float too.