Tim Curry’s haunting portrayal of the metamorphic dancing clown, Pennywise, set an impossibly high bar in Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s cult horror novel It. Even now, Curry’s Pennywise is still highly revered in the horror canon so when confirmation of a new adaptation added yet another classic to the endless list of reboots and rehashes currently plaguing contemporary cinema, many had their doubts as to whether this latest version could even come close to matching Wallace’s classic mini-series.
However, the crew provided initially high promise; Argentinean director Andy Muschietti of Mama fame was tasked with bringing Pennywise to the silver screen, backed by a script written by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga, the latter now well established due to direction and production credits on True Detective and Beasts Of No Nation. In production there are trusted figures too; Roy Lee and Dan Lin produced cult horror flicks The Grudge and The Ring but have also worked together on The Lego Movie and its many sequels and spinoffs. Shades of each crew members’ previous works are noticeable here – the artistic, sepia-tinged nostalgia of Mama‘s flashbacks, True Detective‘s starkness and surprisingly, the playfulness of The Lego Movie.
“And interestingly with It, the most affecting horrors are the most accessible ones.”
The film is set for the most part during summer vacation in Derry, Maine, the kind of dusty American towns where apparitions thrive. It plays off of that nostalgic mischief and the kind of teenage exploration that occurs during the summer months. As a result, the seven members of the Losers’ Club’s hopes and fears are fleshed out with supreme depth. Hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) is haunted by a highly infected, zombie-like ghoul that resembles a leper and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) struggles with his studies for his bar mitzvah and fears the figure in a warped portrait in his rabbi father’s office. Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the only girl in the group and arguably its bravest member, suffers abuse at the hands of her father and worries about the inevitability of her menstrual cycle starting.
The unspooling of the back-story of each ‘Loser’ makes the film feel more episodic and instantly far more layered than the litany of mediocre horror films that bloat blockbuster season. And interestingly with It, the most affecting horrors are the most accessible ones. The sadists amongst the audience, hoping for a relentless bounty of jump scares, might be left a little underwhelmed but for those looking for a more engaging narrative, the individual adolescent struggles and the camaraderie amongst the young cast will more than make up for the lack of obvious terror.
With that in mind, It leans heavily on retro tropes with this adaptation set in the ’80s as opposed to the original series which was set in the ’50s. There are touches of The Goonies in the film’s quest-like aesthetic and the calculated combination of the supernatural and horror here will certainly please fans of Netflix’s Stranger Things let alone the casting of the show’s own Finn Wolfhard as the comically quick-witted Richie Tozier.
As for Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgard is every bit as disturbing and terrifying as his predecessor but Skarsgard’s portrayal is special in its own way, perhaps altered by the difference in age between Curry and Skarsgard at the time of portrayal. Skarsgard’s Pennywise feels far more whimsical which, rather oddly, makes him infinitely more likeable than Curry’s creepier iteration. The youthfulness of Skarsgard definitely makes the clumsier aspect of playing a clown more realistic and that human element to Pennywise works effectively when slotted in alongside Derry’s blatant disregard of bullying and child abuse. In the current context, retreating from the mythic aspect of Pennywise for something far more tangible feels like a solid pivot on the part of the writers and director.
It may not be as scary as some movie-goers would’ve hoped for but the added bonus of cinematic gloss and weighty character development makes It a far more dynamic film than one could’ve predicted. The scares here are measured and sprinkled carefully by Muschietti and they’re effective when the reveal is made, but it is the manifestation of fear in all forms and how these seven relatable Losers learn to conquer that which elevates It from potentially cheap scares to a memorably existential horror.