Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, is something that has been prevalent in society ever since the earliest renderings of sinister court jesters were produced, but there is absolutely no doubt that the irrational dread of makeup covered circus mimes reached a fever pitch with both the 1986 novel release and 1990 TV mini series release of Stephen King’s It. Though it’s fair to say that the mini series has not aged well, Tim Curry’s turn as Pennywise the Dancing Clown remains one of the most terrifying horror performances of all time. Could this 2017 incarnation of the classic breath new life in to the classic tale?
In what is clearly the first of two ‘chapters’, It tells the story of seven misfit children who find themselves terrorised by a mysterious, shapeshifting clown figure called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), who once every 27 years plagues the town of Derry, Maine, feeding on young people by manifesting their deepest fears. I’ll start by saying that the film is great, but it isn’t ‘great’ for the reasons that you might anticipate.
Playing on jump scares and sinister imagery, there is no doubt that the picture makes for frightening and uncomfortable viewing at times, but surprisingly the true joy and power of It is in its wonderful cast of child characters and the coming of age type narrative that accompanies the more classical horror elements of the story. The Stephen King DNA runs deep here, with more than a hint of Stand By Me coming through in the authentic and believable interactions between the gang of misfits, and to my surprise I found myself much more invested and attached to their in-between moments than to the horror set pieces that arrive at regular intervals. The great thing about having such rich and detailed source material from which to draw (the novel runs at over 1000 pages), is that the layers and levels from which you can read the film are almost endless. With themes of growing up, puberty, responsibility, sexual awakening, bullying and abuse running alongside the heightened clown horror, the filmmakers are making the point that the real world can be just as terrifying as the world of demons, and that feeling really comes through thanks to great character development. The picture could have been even more streamlined and concise in its efforts if the cast of child characters had perhaps been culled from seven to, say, four, but I can understand the urge to pay homage to the original story.
If the relationship based, coming of age elements of It are a 10/10, then I would have to say that the key horror set pieces fall slightly short of that standard at around 6/10. It being It, after all, one might have hoped that these integral scenes would be more bone chilling than they actually are. If my memory serves me correctly, I jumped twice and was silently freaked out twice, and though particular moments are incredibly effective, the film’s failure to truly establish the ‘rules’ of Pennywise’s power and intentions leaves much of the terror feeling rather low stakes, which is a shame. However, if you can forgive some less than perfect scares in favour of a wonderful coming of age story being told around them, then It is a fantastic experience.
As I alluded to, the film’s central cast is unusually large, too large to dissect each performance individually in a small short review, but rest assured that Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs and Jack Dylan Grazer come together to create a fantastic ‘Loser’s Club’, a gang filled with spirit, humour, tenacity and all importantly, genuinely impressive acting chops. Special mention must go to Jaeden Lieberher, who as group leader Bill is a strong, solid presence, I can now forgive young Lieberher for his involvement in one of the year’s worst movies, The Book Of Henry. Sophia Lillis gives what could well be a star making performance as sole girl Beverly, her resemblance to Amy Adams is remarkable and if Adams isn’t tapped up to play adult Beverly in Chapter Two then I don’t what we’re all doing here. At fourteen, Finn Wolfhard has already racked up an impressive resume, playing delightfully against his Stranger Things type as the foul mouthed, girl crazy Richie, doing well to produce much of the film’s juvenile but effective humour.
As Pennywise, Bill Skarsgard brings a whole new level of creepy to the iconic role, I would even go so far as saying that he makes Tim Curry’s performance seem woefully quaint. Several of Skarsgard’s character choices, from the incessant drooling to the sinister grin are perfect. Admittedly, some of the character’s creepier moments are enhanced by the kind of CGI that simply wasn’t available in 1990, but the actor brings much more the role than just a face in makeup, and he should be commended for not letting the character fall in to the realms of parody.
Overall, I went in to It expecting one thing, and came out having received another. The film might not be as paralysingly terriyfing as the hype train built it up to be, but in my opinion it is something much more impressive than just a run of the mill horror. You certainly get your quota of jump scares, but you also get a layered, heartfelt, authentic tale of these misfit young people who join together to defeat something greater than the sum of their individual parts. I’ll miss the kids, but I can’t wait for the sequel.