I haven't read Stephen King's IT since I was a child; I believe I was ten or eleven when I first waded through it.
Not my favourite King novel by any stretch; the product of an era that I'm not the biggest fan of, when it comes to the man's work.
I much prefer his lesser known, more experimental pieces, when he delves into some truly demented subjected matter (The Regulators, The Mist, the Dark Tower books, Talisman, Black House et al).
For my money, IT is far more successful in a visual format: there's something about the aesthetics and images of the story that lend themselves beautifuly to visual representation (the image of Pennywise himself -the eponymous “IT,” a supernatural, child-devuring entity that manifests in the form of a demonic clown- arguably sustains to this day not because of the book, but owing to Tim Curry's portrayal in the 1990s TV series).
Despite this lack of objective quality, it has sustained a particular reputation down the decades, largely owing to the cultural climate in which it originally occurred: most of us originally saw it as children, either on TV or VHS, at a time when not only were we more credulous and susceptible to such work, but the medium itself was evolving at a rate of knots, allowing more pervasive distribution and exposure.
As such, most of my generation (and many of those after) have some concept of “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” in their personal mythologies: he maintains a certain power and status in memory, even though the work in which he occurred does not sustain repeated viewing (in fact dissolving in the light of any critical application, what terrified and traumatised us as children now revealed as hokey, not terribly well written or directed, in many instances, laughably atrocious).
It isn't the horror film many perhaps expect; more akin to the extravaganza of Poltergeist than the slow burning subtlety of Kubrick's Shining... a ghost train ride, with all of the orchestra stings, jump scares and shocks that one would expect, married to a cast of characters who are extremely charming and delightful to be in the company of:
The film's child cast is its beating heart; they are, to a one, funny, endearing and brilliantly framed: archetypes that we all know from fiction, TV and cinema, particularly of the 1980s. This is E.T. and Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Flight of the Navigator, The Goonies and Nightmare on Elm Street (the latter being what it most closely resembles in terms of tone).
Also, it's rip-roaringly fun; it doesn't take itself too seriously, but runs with its own monumental absurdity and makes a virtue of it.
Bill Skarskard as Pennywise is sublime; every instant he's on screen, he's engaging and threatening and often bizarre to the point of surrealism.
One of the many factors that distinguishes him from Tim Curry's original portrayal is that this Pennywise is more wholly demonic yet also more clown-like, his character not a million miles away from the children he feasts on (especially when it speaks). Tim Curry's portrayal, being bounded by constraints of budget and technological restriction, doesn't have much in the way of physicality: the clown either appears or it doesn't, and is often static, whereas the updated version gambols and leaps and twists and slithers, sometimes resembling a circus acrobat or even various animals such as lizards or spiders. His framing, physicality and range of motion are part of what makes him so impressive; there's a genuine sense that the creature beneath the clown is alien to the Nth degree; a factor that is demonstrated towards the end of the film, when it goes full blown Lovecraftian.
A key concern regarding Pennywise (who is the fulcrum around which the story turns) was that its design is too overt; clearly not a clown, but some demonic parody thereof. However, owing to the situations in which the character occurs and the manner in which the film frames him, he is always genuinely unsettling, especially when in close proximity to the children and engaging in his characteristic, juddering, out-of-synch motion. The film portrays Pennywise as a reality-distorting entity, to the point that time slows or speeds up spasmodically around him, dimensions become elastic...rarely do the audience see the same “Pennywise” twice; in almost every scene, there is something subtly or profoundly different about him, from the standard clown form that appears in the iconic “storm drain” scene to a set piece involving projected photographs in which that same form occurs in a gigantic, bestial state.
Surprsingly, the creature also appears in a variety if lighting conditions, from the forgiving shadows and darkness of its lair in Derry's sewers, to full and glaring daylight; a factor that removes it from most horror film monsters of its ilk, in that there's no salvation outide of darkness: it genuinely feels as though Pennywise could occur anywhere, at any time (and he often does, in one state or another). In that, Stephen King's original intention of structuring a story around an entire town that's haunted certainly holds some sway here.
That said, a greater focus on that concept would have been most welcome. This is not a fault of the film, rather of its source material, and a matter of personal taste: it would have been fascinating and potentially elevating to see Pennywise's influence upon Derry and its people in more widespread fashion, rather than obliquely or as a result of commentary from the main cast. A few set pieces scattered here and there demonstrating the peculiar blindness and passivity that the creature evokes in the people around it, especially regarding the disappearance of children, would have helped to sell the concept and make it a little more concrete.
There is also, arguably, too great a reliance on jump scares, which are extremely pervasive throughout the film. In most instances, this would have been enough to dilute it significantly in my eyes. However, said jump scares are generally not only fantastically executed but serve a purpose regarding the story and mythology: whilst they are certainly intended to make the audience scream and spill their pop-corn, they are also deliberately designed by Pennywise to evoke fear in its victims; the abstract essence upon which it parasitically feeds. As such, the jump scares can be forgiven, to a certain degree; they are part and parcel of the creature's repertoire, and are most certainly not the most pervasive form of fright that the film relies on:
Slow burning atmosphere are essential to its set pieces, which the film orchestrates beautifully, marrying to a peculiar species of bizarre absurdity, the ostensible innocence of Pennywise's circus motif married to morbidity and monstrosity in a manner that is quite unsettling.
The film most certainly has more than a dollop of Stranger Things about it in terms of its style, structure and general ethos; a characteristic that becomes curious given that, like Stranger Things, IT is set in the 1980s and that Stranger Things deliberately evokes the styles and natures of both cinema and literature from that era (of which IT is a significant component). There's a peculiar phenomena of historical and cultural revolution in the almost incestuous relationship the two projects share: Stranger Things, a show that attempts to evoke the 1980s, which is informed by and ram packed with references to Stephen King's work, among others, is now evoked or reflected in a present day adaptation of one of those key works, which itself also attempts to evoke or refer to certain conventions in 1980s cinema and storytelling (the ensemble cast not only consists of archetypes you'll find in everything from Stand By Me to The Goonies, but dynamically derives from storytelling coventions of the era). It's an oddly incestuous family tree, that twists and twines upon and mates with itself, but also lends the film a certain patina reminiscent of similar, effects-driven extravaganzas that have long since enshrined themselves in cinema history (the aforementioned Poltergiest being the clearest example).
IT does not follow what might be considered standard horror film rhythms; in tone, in structure, in character, it more closely resembles a 1980s adventure film, married to some genuinely distressing and horrific imagery and set pieces. The characters, whilst all immediately recognisable and fairly narrow archetypes, all have place and function within the narrative, all of them have their moments to shine. The kids who comprise “The Losers Club” are unfailingly endearing, personal favourites consisting of the obscenity-spewing, razor-witted Richie Tozier, who has some of the most uproariously funny moments in the entire film (and the film is genuinely funny, for all of its horror stylings) and Beverly Marsh, whose quiet endurance in the face of atrocities both abstruse and domestic are endearing and powerful (though reducing her to “the damsel in distress” in the film's climax might well be considered a misstep).
Beyond any critical examination I can provide, this is the first purported “horror film” I've genuinely and unambiguously enjoyed at the cinema in over a decade (the last specimen being Neil Marshall's masterful The Descent). I experienced a visceral, bubbling joy throughout, that made its run time feel like nothing at all, and faintly melancholic when it was all over, the credits rolled and the lights went up.
IT is not going to redefine horror cinema; it is not a revolution. All of its beats are familiar, all of its scares and images and characters are well, well known.
But...it is keenly aware of this, and runs with it; a pleasant walk down a well trodden road, a breath of the sweetest, most sustaining air, given the decades worth of raw sewerage horror fans have been obliged to wade through.
Now comes the difficult part; the second half of the story and its conclusion; arguably the weakest elements of the book, and certainly the most laborious portions of the original TV adaptation (largely owing to a cast that lack all of the charm and wit of their child counterparts, but also to the story simply running out of steam). The second half of IT has its work cut out, requiring far more in the way of adaptation to make it viable, but also to pay off what has been established in this superb first half effectively.
Then there's the ending. That ending, which I sincerely hope the film does away with altogether (echoes of the muppet spider at the TV series climax still haunt me to this day, but for all the wrong reasons).
But, in the meantime, we can look foreard to all that IT spawns and opens the way, being one of the first commercially successful horror films in many, many years.