If there’s one thing Stephen King knows how to do, it's scare people, and with Pennywise the Dancing Clown he did that in spades, by creating one of the all-time horror icons. Which is lucky, because this latest adaptation of King’s novel It doesn’t have all that much going for it beyond Pennywise itself.
The source novel tells the tale of seven people who as teenagers fought a shape-changing monster that fed on their fear, only to discover 25-odd years later that they have to do it all over again; this version ditches the adult story to focus entirely on the kids’ side of things. Presumably if this makes enough money the grown-ups will get their own sequel; it seems the one surefire way to ensure Pennywise doesn’t return is for audiences to stay away.
"The one surefire way to ensure Pennywise doesn’t return is for audiences to stay away"
Every version of It (there was a memorable television mini-series with Tim Curry as Pennywise in the early '90s) starts out the same way: a young boy is playing in the rain with a paper boat, he loses it down a gutter, then when he looks for it he finds a clown standing down in the sewer. It’s about as creepy as things can get in the daylight, and this version doesn’t mess it up. Nor does it mess up the Losers’ Club, the group of seven misfit teens who’re the only ones who figure out that small town Derry’s unnaturally high rate of missing children really is unnatural. Their (justified) fear of the local bullies, their grim home lives, and the warmth of their friendship are all sketched in efficiently without feeling by-the-numbers.
Despite updating the time period to the Stranger Things-fan friendly '80s (it even features that series’ Finn Wolfhard as one of the Losers) the new It doesn’t wallow in nostalgia, and largely confines it to a handful of New Kids on the Block jokes. And while Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) is clearly the big 'crowd pleaser', It doesn’t forget that he’s also just the front man for a shape-shifting entity (the much-derided “space spider” of the novel). So we also get at least three other creatures lurching after the kids and a range of scary events to hammer home the point that if It wants you, It has a very large bag of tricks it can reach into.
While the idea of a “creepy clown’ is pretty much an oxymoron – just put a regular clown out there and the creeps will flow naturally – Skarsgård’s performance gives Pennywise some much-needed shading between the jump scares. He knows, even if sometimes the movie itself doesn’t, that he’s at his creepiest when he’s clearly trying not to be creepy. But by splitting the novel into a planned two movies – young and old – director Andy Muschietti’s version throws out both the novel’s plot and its reason for existing. As a novel It is a story about adults who had bad things happen to them as children, and how growing up largely involves forgetting about those bad things. The tension comes from having a group of grown-ups realise that unfinished business from their childhood is coming back, and they barely survived the first time. So even if you don’t find the individual moments scary (and It features some of King’s most frightening writing) there’s still a disturbing look at growing up and getting old going on (King, who was always excellent at depicting the world of kids and the terrors they feel, was definitely working through some issues with this one).
None of that is in this film. This It is a half-hearted remake of Stand By Me with a killer clown. At least the film tries to give all seven kids their own unique personalities, though by necessity they’re largely defined by what makes them Losers. Their flaws are somewhat retro too: the film can’t quite come out and say African-American Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) is a victim of racism; Beverly (Sophia Lillis) is branded a “slut” (while suffering from an overly handsy dad); while “stuttering” (Loser’s leader Bill Denbrough, played by Jaeden Lieberher), “smothering mum” (Eddie Kaspbrak, played by Jack Dylan Grazer) and “fat kid” (Ben Hanscom, played by Jeremy Ray Taylor) haven’t aged well either. But that’s the point: it doesn’t take much for a kid to find themselves on the outer, and the obvious insults are fresh for every generation.
For the idea that It / Pennywise knows your greatest fears and that’s how it gets to you to work as a movie we really need to dig deep into the characters. With seven different kids defined by generic flaws in a two-hour movie, that’s never going to happen. So while the kids give great performances and there are some scary moments here (a mid-film slide show is a classic), a lot of this largely plotless film is made up of the usual jump scares and chase sequences, plus some boilerplate coming-of-age material about the power of friendship. Without the adults adding the thematic side of things, this is just a film about a creepy clown that jumps out at people. You can get that at your average circus.
Watch the trailer