Based on the best-selling 1986 book by Stephen King, which was made into a terrible TV movie in 1990. Some people have fond memories of it, but that’s mainly due to goodwill towards Tim Curry. When they decided to make it as a proper film, it was a smart choice because it really needed the remake.
This film is technically the first of two parts but it works as a standalone film. It’s about these kids in Derry, Maine (King is famously from Portland, Maine) which along with Castle Rock and Jerusalem Plot is one of his main Portland-like story locations. The kids are investigating the disappearance of Bill’s younger brother Georgie who went missing and soon they unravel that this town has a history of such occurrences. They soon become in conflict with Pennywise who is a monstrous shape-shifting clown.
The book was originally set in the 1950s, like Stand by Me, which it is most similar to within King’s body of work. The decision to set it in 1989 is probably sparked by shows like Stranger Things and the wave of ’80s nostalgia but also for logically reasons if part 2 is now, it would have to be ’80s.
Everything I like about this version is something that wasn’t in the original tv movie. First of all, the kids are good actors. Finn Wolfhard, who also plays Mike Wheeler on Stranger Things, plays Richie Tozier. There is an obvious connection with that series as well, which is heavily influenced by King. Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) is the only female member of ‘The Losers Club,’ a group the kids form for their search. Lillis turns in one of the best child performances I’ve seen in years—she has a Molly Ringwald vibe, which is even referenced in the dialogue at one point. I assume they rehearsed for quite awhile, something that’s rare in films these days, because they filmed the segments with the kids for about a month before moving onto the Pennywise sequences. As a result they have a real rapport and are believable as a group of friends not unlike the kids all those years ago in Stand By Me.
The clown feeds off the kids and can tell what their biggest fears are, which he uses to play with their minds. No adults can see the clown. The sequel will feature the same group 23 years later. One of the more radical departures in the film is that Pennywise is more of a childlike trickster, and is played by Bill Skarsgård. Initially, Ben Mendelsohn was attached as Pennywise and that would play into the paedophilic interpretation you can have of that character.
The film was made on a $30 million—big for a horror film but it looks like $70 million. There is a superb production design to make it look like it’s 1989 (the film theatre is showing Batman and Lethal Weapon 2). It was shot in Ontario but has the right look for Maine. While set in the 80s, it isn’t as over-the-top with the pop culture references as Stranger Things. The music is also well-chosen and reflects Beverly’s taste, who is a fan of the Replacements and the Cure.
Altogether it’s a great horror movie with some good creepy imagery and surreal moments. The part in the sewage tunnels at the end are sublime as you come up to the big reveal sequence. The child actors do a fantastic job—it cant hurt to have a 1000-page book full of detail to pull from. It’s a well-paced film despite being over two hours. The film also deals surprisingly frankly on issues such as childhood sexual abuse, racism, fat shaming and even the fear mongering by the media on Aids at the time.
The Blu-Ray has an interview with Skarsgård about his approach to Pennywise, and there is a making-of feature with the kids. A 15-minute interview with King about writing the book and how kids deal with fear, and 11 deleted or extended scenes round out the set. The DVD only contains the deleted scenes. Finally my choice for the grown Beverly Marsh is Jena Malone which is bound to be a more star heavy affair after the runaway success of thefirst film.