Horror doesn’t tend to be my genre of choice, but it’s been experiencing a renaissance lately, or maybe it’s just more effectively speaking to my state of mind. Even so, I went into It (2017) with low expectations, since most adaptations of Stephen King’s work haven’t typically done much for me, and this one possesses a potentially toxic additive: 1980s nostalgia, a personal allergy. Ultimately, though, It is a pretty great horror film, conventional in many respects but also quite satisfying in the way it works a focus on characters and friendship into its standard genre tropes.
The film — first in a two-part sequence — takes place in Derry, Maine, a modest New England town with a dark, tragic secret. When his brother Georgie vanishes, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) isn’t convinced Georgie is dead. But the mystery of the disappearance doesn’t begin to unravel until the summer, when Billy and his friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) start having separate, terrifying visions that feed on their worst fears. As the summer unfolds, they compare notes with other Derry outsiders — the mercilessly slut-shamed Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a Black farm boy named Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and bookish, overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) — similarly plagued by horrifying supernatural encounters. Together they become the “Losers’ Club,” heartlessly bullied but united in their shared awareness of the evils of Derry — evils the abusive, controlling parents in their lives seem incapable of seeing, that all revolve around a sadistic, child-napping clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).
It doesn’t break much horror-movie ground, but it’s a professionally executed and engrossing tale that builds a winning found family, which makes it much easier to emotionally invest in its copious scare tactics. I was expecting to bounce off the 1980s small-town bicycling child heroes vibe, which is very reminiscent of Stranger Things, a show I found abrasive. But the mean-spirited peer banter of that show is gentler here, and mitigated by charismatic performances from the talented young cast — especially Lieberher, Lillis, and Taylor. There’s definitely a white, male conventionality to It, but the creepy atmosphere and shocking special effects are impressive, and they connect well with the themes of the beleaguered, ostracized friends trying to make their way in an unforgiving world. Evidently the film is just the first half of the story, which continues in It Chapter Two, which occurs twenty-seven years later, but I think it functions quite successfully as a standalone film.