Stephen King began writing It in the latter half of 1981, finishing up the nearly 1100-page book four years later in 1985. The writing commenced just a few months after the publication of Danse Macabre, perhaps best described as a treatise on what makes scares work: a nonfiction examination of the literature and cinema of horror through the eyes of one of its great practitioners.
What's interesting is that, again and again, scenes and lines and tidbits and ideas in Danse Macabre show up in the novel about The Losers Club's generations-long war with the evil Pennywise the Clown.
Example: "At the end of [Donovan's Brain], the scientist attacks [a tank filled with a disembodied psychic brain] with an ax, resisting the endless undertow of Donovan's will by reciting a simple yet haunting mnemonic phrase—He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts." Readers of It will remember this exact phrase is uttered by "Stuttering" Bill Denbrough to help him resist the sinister spirit's spells.
Example: In a footnote detailing a short story called "The Clone," about a monster that lived in the sewer system of a city, King writes, "In one memorable scene, a little kid is yanked arm-first into the drain of the kitchen sink." Readers of It will recall King's book features a monster that lived in the sewer system of a city and opened with a memorable scene in which a little kid is yanked arm-first into a storm drain.
Example: In discussing the archetypes of monsters, King describes three basic categories: The Vampire (the monster that feeds off of humans); The Werewolf (chaos hiding within goodness, or order); and The Thing Without a Name (a rampaging, rage-filled monster). As it happens, Pennywise is all three: he feeds off of fear; he hides behind the visage of a clown and inhabits the very soul of the city he haunts, infecting its power structures and its politicians; and he is, quite literally, a raging monster generally referred to by our protagonists sans nom, a capitalized pronoun: It.
Given the amount of time he had spent noodling through just what scares us and why, perhaps it is unsurprising that It was, and is, King's most terrifying novel. King's imagery is simple yet grotesque, tapping into something deep-seated and primal—and yet, by telling a story that spans decades and reflects societal rot on a deeper level, It transcended its relatively simple idea and grew into something more profound, something with more to say about the uglier side of American life. It may not be The Great American Horror Novel, as I've claimed elsewhere, but nothing else I've read tops it.
It the movie is different from It the book in that we only get half of the story: the schoolhouse years, where the action has been moved up in time to the 1980s from the 1950s. The film opens, as does the book, with the sad story of Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), a little boy who chased his paper sailboat down a drain and was killed by Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) for his troubles. The boat was built by his brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), who will spend the rest of the film trying, with his friends, to track down the monster haunting their small Maine town and hunting its children.
Bill's friends are a motley crew of nerdy stereotypes: there's new kid on the block Ben Hascomb (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a chubby bookworm who delves into the history of Derry; Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), a wiseacre whose smart mouth inspires laughs and groans in equal measure; perpetually ill Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), whose mother's smothering has overwhelmed his immune system; Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), one of the few African-Americans in town; Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), one of the few Jews in town; and Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the redheaded tomboy whose bravery often puts the boys to shame. In addition to being chased by Pennywise, the self-described Losers Club must do battle with Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), local thug and budding psychopath.
Jettisoning the sweeping scope of the novel, the film has been reduced to a coming-of-age tale littered with horrifying imagery and larded up with jump scares. Alternately terrifying and laugh-out-loud funny, director Andy Muschietti has a way with kids that few other directors seem to manage. He teases fantastic performances out of his young stars: Wolfhard, already known to audiences from Stranger Things, gets a chance to shine as the foul-mouthed Richie, while Lillis exudes real star power as Beverly. If she isn't a Hollywood mainstay for years to come, I'll be shocked. Previously best known for his creepy tale of two sisters cared for by a vengeful woodland spirit, Mama, Muschietti nails the rhythms of pre-teen life: the patter of the kids' speech, the fear that accompanies never truly knowing if you're safe.
That gnawing fear is what makes It so scary. Pennywise is able to strike at any time (bright as noon; dark as midnight) and in any location (in the safety of one's home; in a side alley off a crowded street; in the basement of a bustling library; in the yard of a haunted house). The randomness of the clown's attacks and the different forms he assumes makes them all the more terrifying.
It's not just clowns with wicked grins and foreheads resembling overblown balloons that we have to fear. It's creepy paintings of distorted, distended women brought to life. It's headless children holding Easter baskets. It's lepers rotting away as they loom over you, fleshing falling off. Muschietti has a visceral understanding of how to make the eye recoil. He messes with body proportions in a way that instills terror on a subconscious level. A feeling of custom-made horror survived the transition from book to screen.
It isn't perfect. Muschietti is overly reliant on jump scares, the magical combination of soundtrack spikes and unexpected sights designed to make you involuntarily hop out of your seat with terror. And the film is shot so darkly that you may have trouble making out the action on theater screens, given the sloppiness of our nation's cinemas: I'm almost certain the projector showing It at the Regal Gallery Place either needed a new light bulb or had its 3D filter on. I'm entirely certain the chain needs to do something about the lights on the aisles, which were bright enough to cast a shadow of seat backs onto the screen we were trying to watch.*
Still, It is cute but never cloying—and, more importantly, it's scary, sometimes cheaply, but with real dread behind the jumps. You could do much worse at the multiplex this weekend.
*If studios are truly interested in finding out why ticket sales are down, they'll spend a little less time blaming Rotten Tomatoes for correctly noting that much of their product is crap and a little more time blaming the theater chains for destroying the movie-going experience.