- RatedNC16GenreHorror, Thriller
Stephen King’s creation Pennywise the Dancing Clown is one of the best-known evil clowns in popular culture, and rears his grinning head again in this big screen adaptation of King’s 1986 novel It.
Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) is the default appearance of an evil entity known as It, that exploits and feeds on the specific fears of its victims. Pennywise is responsible for a spate of disappearing children in the town of Derry, Maine. Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is one such child, and his brother Billy (Jaeden Lieberher) has been investigating Georgie’s disappearance. Billy is the de facto leader of The Losers’ Club, a collection of outcast kids that includes Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley (Waytt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer). The group is tormented by a gang of bullies called the Bowers gang, led by the cruel, unhinged Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton). As the Losers’ Club goes about solving the mystery of the disappearing children, they uncover the dark history of Derry, with It/Pennywise seemingly at the centre of horrific events in the town’s past. This collection of misfits must band together to defeat an unimaginable evil and put a stop to its reign of terror.
This remake of It has long been anticipated, with a few bumps on the road on its way to the screen: director Cary Fukunaga was replaced by Mama helmer Andy Muschietti, and Will Poulter was originally cast as Pennywise, but was replaced by Skarsgård. The result shows no trace of any behind-the-scenes tumult. Muschietti establishes the period and place in which the story takes place, building the mythology without it feeling tedious and drawing the audience in. The characters are easy to care about and relate to, and there is intent in how each scene links to the next.
Muschietti pulls off quite the tonal balancing act: It is variously heart-warming, funny, even romantic, and yes – extremely scary. The humour derived from a bunch of kids hanging out and the friendly ribbing that arises from their friendship does not undercut or diminish the visceral, lingering horror that saturates the film. While there are the expected jump scares and the soundtrack is trying a little too hard to startle the audience, much of what makes this movie frightening is finely calibrated and well thought-out. There’s a whole bag of tricks here, such that the scares do not feel repetitive or stale. The set-piece involving a slide projector is an especially elegant, effective moment.
With Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise from the miniseries being as iconic as it is, it would be difficult for anyone to step into those oversized shoes. Skarsgård turns in a menacing performance that is minimally campy. The redesign, which highlights how Pennywise has been around since the earliest days of Derry’s formation, is unsettling and is more understated than the classic Pennywise look. There’s some creepy physicality, and the different manifestations of It have elements that make them as scary as It’s Pennywise mode in their own way.
The Losers’ Club is one of the great assemblies of kid heroes, not unlike the boys in King’s Stand By Me. The characters are brought to life by a talented cast, led by Lieberher of Midnight Special fame. His portrayal of the stuttering Billy is sincere and intense, and he’s far from the ‘boring hero’ type one would expect to be leading a team. Wolfhard, best known as Mike on Stranger Things, steals the show as the loudmouth Richie, who is always handy with an insult. The characters appear to be defined by superficial traits, but are mostly meaningfully developed as the film progresses.
Lillis is destined to be the breakout star of the bunch: the camera adores her, and she handles some of the film’s most challenging and emotional scenes with admirable confidence. All the boys are immediately smitten with Beverly, and the way she integrates herself into the Losers’ Club, becoming a driving force, is compelling. Most of the adults in the film are either creepy or downright evil, with Beverly’s abusive father Alvin (Stephen Bogaert) being the foremost example. This plot point is handled without being gratuitously exploitative.
Packed with potent imagery, a finely-honed mythology, terrific performances from young actors and flat-out terrifying creepy clown, It ranks as one of the finest film adaptations of King’s work. It evokes nostalgia without relying solely on it and those who grew up in the 80s will recognise certain references, but enjoyment of the film is not contingent on that. Regardless of one’s background or prior familiarity with the source material, It is an affecting, haunting work.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars