I can firmly recall my first encounter with Pennywise the Dancing Clown as a naïve 11 year old boy– the original 1990 TV mini-series was showing at 9pm on the Horror Channel one school night and I set the reminder on my Sky box, settling into enjoy/endure the three hour runtime in order to experience Tim Curry’s toe-curling performance for the first time. A mere five minutes later, I had changed the channel. My face was icy white and my heart was beating out of my chest; I hadn’t even reached the end of the immortal opening scene in which Pennywise appears in the storm drain to entice 4 year old George Denborough to his death before I had been forced to forfeit. The next few weeks were spent crossing the road to avoid any drains.
Fast forward a full 10 or 11 years and we have an updated film version of Stephen King’s highly esteemed novel, this time with Bill Skarsgard portraying the evil, shape-shifting clown and set almost 30 years after the book in the 1980’s. Highly anticipated (the It trailer is the most watched movie trailer within 24 hours worldwide) this big-screen adaptation smashes all expectations to produce one of the best films of the year, and is sure to replace Tim Curry’s version as the definitive telling of Stephen King’s story.
It revolves around the ‘Losers club’, a group of school friends who come to realise that they are all being haunted by their worst fears and that their parents are oblivious to the danger that they are in. In order to ensure that no more children are abducted or murdered, the gang take it upon themselves to put an end to the ongoing horrors. More of a part teenage coming of age story, part comedy at times, It leans heavily on the boys and girls that constitute the Losers club for most of the film – thankfully, the group’s connections and interactions help make this a pleasure. Finn Wolfhard (of Stranger Things fame) as Richie Tozier and Jaeden Lieberher playing Bill Denborough particularly shine; Lieberher acts out Bill’s trademark stutters perfectly while Wolfhard curses his way through the film, providing the comic foil to the terror moving around him.
While there are warm and comedic moments scattered throughout the film, the real crux of the story (and the reason why the trailer was shared so often) is Pennywise – the malevolent force who pops up in various guises depending on the fears of the character he is stalking but mainly as the clown best associated with It. Skarsgard’s Pennywise is poles apart from Tim Curry’s in the original TV series – Pennywise menaces like never before. Technological advances in the 27 years since Tim Curry donned the orange buttons and red nose allow Skarsgard’s version to reveal even more rows of razor sharp teeth and to savage his victims in ways far more violent than seen previously. But Skarsgard’s acting also helps to make Pennywise appear far more frightening – he advances in strides and towers far above the child actors across from them, often drooling and growling. He still manages to possess a child-like innocence, none more so than in the opening scene where he tricks George Denborough into interacting with him from the aforementioned storm drain. The less said about the scene in which he dances (the one which has already become a much shared meme) the better.
Every child gets there moment in the sun with Pennywise as he isolates them and manifests himself to them as their worst fears – this often provides the biggest frights of the film but it can also get repetitive, and I found myself trying to count at one point how many more individual Losers were left to go through their Pennywise initiation sequence. Director Andy Muschietti does lean mostly on jump scares to get the audience squirming in their seats, however, the fear and dread conveyed in different scenes help to ensure that the film doesn’t rely entirely on a clown jumping out of cupboards to scare the audience. The haunted house scene is deeply uncomfortable but the set-piece involving the projector is an absolute beauty – I found myself jumping so far out of my seat at one point that I thought I was going to have to be scraped from the roof before the next showing.
It is one of those rare movie experiences that don’t come around too often – a horror film which has a great story, with solid acting and moments of genuine comedy. Purists may point to differences between the novel and the movie but for the most part this is a highly successful adaptation of a brilliant Stephen King book and a massive update on the previous attempt at the source material.
Watching It alone? Not advisable. And neither is answering any calls from the drains.