The image of Tim Curry as Pennywise The Dancing Clown, the most famous visage of Stephen King’s famed horror creation It, is one that has been ever-present in the back of my mind as a pop culture avatar of fear, despite the fact I’ve never seen the mini-series (later edited into a film) he appeared or (entirely) read the book on which it was based.
Now director Andy Muschietti and a host of producers have brought the tale of Derry, Maine to the big screen with Bill Skarsgård in the Curry role.
The story follows a group of junior high school kids over the summer of 1988 as a number of their classmates disappear and they begin to see strange things. While I’m sure many already know the story I won’t elaborate much more.
Anyone familiar with the original will know it was based in 1958 and, while I was sceptical about the update, it largely works well as it falls suitably before cell phones and the themes of growing up and ‘coming of age’ fit just as well to both eras, though there are a couple of moments that feel a little anachronistic.
The group of young actors who play the self-named ‘losers club’ are, once the film settles in, all excellent but it’s Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denborough and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh who really stand out finding some of the emotional depth that exists in King’s epic novel and making it come to life.
Meanwhile the other members of the club are somewhat relegated compared to their text selves, but this is understandable as part of the translation and all have enough to do to not feel like ‘red shirts’.
As well as this perennial bully Henry Bowers has an extra added quality on top of his physical brutality and nastiness that may be me seeing things but aren’t there but if not is a very nice touch.
What really makes the film work though is the atmosphere it creates. Across its first half we see Derry as a normal town but with something else creeping just below the surface and, through the youngsters view, it is a surprisingly sinister place.
Muschietti does a great job of creating this feeling mixing modern horror tropes with much of Kings’ source material, translated startlingly to the screen, along with something of the idea that when following young characters you keep everything shot at their level. Then in the second half we meet this sinister something face to face.
Added to this is a Pennywise who treads the line between ridiculous and terrifying expertly.
Skarsgård’s performance occasionally raises a laugh but within it is more of that creeping sense of fear that the character needs, combined with enough well judged jump scares to keep you on your toes.
On top of this other aspects of It appear and are equally effective, making it clear that Pennywise is just one facet of the fear demon (or whatever It actually is) but like in the book he is the one who seems to cut through the most.
If I have one criticism of the film it’s that it seems to miss something of the more deep-seated ideas that exist within the book and are a strong part of King’s work in general, but this may be down to the fact that this film is only half the story so I’m hoping some of this gets dealt with when we meet the adult versions of our heroes.
To counter this though the film does build a very nice streak of ‘coming of age’ that feels far more well handled than I’ve seen in cinema for a long time, bringing to mind the works of John Hughes and films like The Goonies or (more recently) Stranger Things.
Andy Muschietti’s It, then, combines a nostalgic adventure film sensibility with the kind of creeping horror found in the best supernatural chillers and an iconic horror creation that could live on like Freddie, Jason, Michael Myers, et al, and I can’t wait for Chapter Two…