Director: Andy Muschietti
Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs
Running time: 135 minutes
In the fall of 1988, tragedy hits close to home for Bill Denbrough (Lieberher), leaving him plagued with grief. The following summer, the children of the small town of Derry, Maine, start to go missing without a trace. Both events appear to share the same culprit: an immortal, shapeshifting clown. Along with his bumbling band of fellow pre-teen outcasts – the self-proclaimed ‘Losers’ Club’ – Bill and buds must face their worst fears in a bid to bring down the evil entity for good.
Remember when clowns were those things found only at circuses, who would bring nothing but joy, laughter, and smiles to young children everywhere?
Nah, me neither.
Take circuses and replace with nightmares; try swapping joy, laughter, and smiles with terror, screams, and sleepless nights; and bundle adults in there along with children, and you’ve probably got a more accurate depiction. Chances are, 99.9% of all cases of coulrophobia (yes, I had to google it too) in those born in the 80’s and 90’s can be attributed exclusively to one thing: Tim Curry’s drain-dwelling, child-devouring, dancing clown called Pennywise in the 1990 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s acclaimed novel.
27-years and some devilishly ingenious marketing later (in the original story, Pennywise is said to resurface every 27-years) and director Andy Muschietti is bringing it (pro and proper noun inclusive) all back to burst the balloon for all those snooty remake sceptics – myself included – with a marvellously meticulous, unnerving, and entertaining cinematic resurrection, and one of 2017’s most enjoyable two-and-a-quarter-hours.
Beginning on familiar ground, 21st century It, like its 20th century original, does to yellow anoraks and paper boats what The Exorcist did to nighties and masturbation: instantly makes them no fun at all. Young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) enlists the help of his stuttering older brother Bill in the construction of the infamous A4 SS Georgie, as the October rain lashes down outside. Too unwell to accompany him, Bill can only offer the dutiful elderly brother advice of ‘be careful’, before sending Georgie out – clad in the aforementioned brightly covered waterproof – to give the boat its maiden voyage. For fans of the novel and/or 1990 mini-series, the initial warm, innocent sibling exchanges do little to distract from what they know is soon to come, once Pennywise has had his say. It’s an opening that sensibly sticks quite resolutely to what has come before, save for one unexpectedly grisly visual that, quite literally, severs ties to its 1990 counterpart.
From there, Muschietti peppers his film with welcomed deviations from the last time Pennywise was in town. Bringing the original 50’s setting forward some 30-years to a time when Krueger was doing the rounds for a fifth time, and New Kids on the Block posters were being hidden away on the back of young boys’ bedroom doors everywhere, the Argentine’s It has a distinctly Stranger Things 80’s retro vibe to it. A cohort of charming, slightly dorkish kids riding push-bikes along rural streets? Check. Pop-culture references aplenty – “Who invited Molly Ringwald into the group”? Check. A plethora of carefully constructed and articulated mum-themed jokes? You betcha! The result is a careful combination of shocks and smiles – picture the kids from Stand By Me (another King adaptation) playing the gang from The Goonies, on Elm Street.
Muschietti never shies away from his Spielbergian shaped influences; instead fully embracing them with great effect. At the heart of this tale of a child-murdering clown, there is a heartfelt coming of age story, complete with explored parent-child relationships and pre-teens dropping s-bombs left, right and centre. It’s a multi-layered work of wonderful depth where each character is given their fair share of narrative exploration and complexity.
But such extensive character investment wouldn’t be possible without the magnetic performances of Muschietti’s largely youthful cast. Choosing to focus solely on the youngsters this time round (chapter one in a two-parter) as opposed to the disruptive back and forthing of the 1990 version, It’s Losers ooze chemistry and likeability from the get go. From one Spielberg flavoured film to another, Midnight Special’s Jaeden Lieberher confidently leads the emotional beats as Bill, and Sophia Lillis turns in a fine performance as Bev: the plucky female member of the Losers’ Club. Elsewhere in the ranks, overweight, but overtly kind Ben (Taylor) steps up as the autodidact of Derry’s history; the logical, rationally minded Stan (Oleff) quickly becomes the group’s (largely ignored) voice of reason; and orphan Mike (Jacobs) brings with him the musings of his wise, but strict, ol’ Grandfather. But stealing the show is the banter-iffic rapport between Grazer’s hypochondriac Eddie and Stranger Things’ very own Finn Wolfhard’s loud-mouth Richie – particularly the latter, who ramps up the humour to Eleven (sorry), and delivers the lion’s share of the film’s best one-liners – we’re talking a “Go blow your dad, you mullet-wearing asshole!” kinda level.
Crucially, though, each of them is a solitary soul bound to one another through their idiosyncrasies. Each is finding their place in the world; a world which for many is already the daunting and unforgiving place we know it to be. Bill battles with his own guilt; Bev, at a time of balancing nasty rumours, bodily changes, and boys, fends off terror on both fronts – from Pennywise to her abusive father. Eddie suffers from an overly protective mother; and even ferocious token school bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) is no match for his bully of a father. Allegory is the name of the game here, as It poses far-from-subtle questions about where the film’s true threat lies.
And, speaking of threat, the ‘It’ of It is where the eyes of most sceptics and fans alike will be firmly fixed. After all, how can one out-clown Curry? Well, in the case of Bill Skarsgård (son of Stellan, brother of Alexander) don’t try. Instead, do something altogether different, but equally as menacing.
While Muschietti opts primarily for conventional jump scare tactics, forms of Pennywise that should come with a cited reference to his 2013 work Mama, and blood-soaked puberty metaphors of a most unsubtle nature, Skarsgård offers something altogether new by giving us a baby-faced, buck-toothed Pennywise who is as much child as those he hopes to ensnare, and as memorably menacing as he is enticingly entertaining. When it comes to horror, I strongly advocate that less is more, and Muschietti intelligently uses his antagonist sparingly until the inevitable showdown, opting to veil his visual presence with the eerie lullabylike chimes of Benjamin Wallfisch’s haunting score instead. Yet, despite limited screen time shared with the CGI folk, Skarsgård still leaves a distinctive impression. With far less dialogue than Curry’s clown, it is the finer details – the trickles of drool, the wide-eyed, foreboding gaze – that pack 2017’s Pennywise with a real intriguing punch.
Opting for more conventional tropes and suffering from the age old, going-off-on-your-own-when-there-is-a-murderous-clown-about genre logic means It isn’t likely to terrify those fluent in the language of horror. But It more than makes up for it in pure, unadulterated… errr… unadult bliss. Cliché it may well be, but when cliché is this good, it’s easy to forgive.