Will you have nightmares about clowns after seeing It? That probably depends on how you feel about clowns in the first place. If you’re already creeped out by smiles painted on white-face make-up with a balding mane of red hair, like one of the central characters in the story, then the sight of Pennywise the Dancing Clown will surely disturb you.
It’s difficult to imagine that anyone wouldn’t be at least a bit unsettled by the demonic clown terrorizing the children of Derry, Maine. As played by Bill Skarsgard (Hemlock Grove), Pennywise is indeed scary. Perhaps he’s at his most creepy when we see him at the beginning of the story, trying to entice young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) into retrieving the paper boat that was pulled into a storm drain by heavy rain.
Cheerful and smiling, Pennywise is every predator we were told to avoid as kids, that we want our children nowhere near. With his big eyes and toothy smile, the clown almost looks innocent and child-like, even though we know it’s a facade he’s putting on so children will let their defenses down. There’s menace underneath that smile, especially because we know that this clown is a monster. As Georgie asks, why are you in the sewer? Pennywise is almost less terrifying when he becomes the monster that we fear he is, because he takes the form of something we know to run away from.
What makes It so terrifying is that Stephen King remembers what it’s like to be a kid in his original novel, when our imaginations create our greatest fears. We envision monsters in the dark, menaces lurking behind a corner, something sinister down that dark corridor or sewer pipe. But what happens when those visions are brought to life by an entity that feeds on those fears and exploits them to abduct, terrorize and kill children?
King also reminds us how much it can suck to be a kid, especially at that in-between age when you’re no longer a grade schooler but not yet old enough for high school either. If you’re not one of the cool kids, you might be bullied or subject to nasty whispers and rumors that stick to you like tar. Adolescence can be awkward and miserable, unless you have friends to suffer through it with you, who appreciate and share your quirky interests. At the very least, the five kids who call themselves The Losers Club (and add two more members have the story progresses) have each other to get through rough times.
But what should be the last care-free summer of their lives is ruined by the emergence of Pennywise, looking to add to a historically epidemic wave of children disappearing. How many small towns — which create a feeling of warmth, friendliness and safety — require a 7 p.m. curfew? Derry is no normal town, but most of the residents seem to be in denial about that.
Maybe it takes being on the fringes to see the entire picture. An outsider has a different perspective. Mike (Chosen Jacobs), one of the few black people in Derry, is bullied because of the color of his skin. His family has always been outsiders. Maybe that’s why his grandfather thinks that the town is cursed. Since he’s not quite a part of Derry, he can see it for what it really is and has passed those fears on to his grandson.
Or maybe he’s just aware of the town’s history. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), an overweight kid with no friends before his path crosses with The Losers, spends his leisure time in the library, fascinated with three disastrous incidents that occurred in Derry — a fire, a shootout, and a mass murder — going back to the earliest days of the town’s existence. What triggered these events? And why did they occur exactly 27 years apart? Ben’s interests in Derry’s dark history find a believer in Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), Georgie’s older brother, who believes that his younger sibling isn’t dead, but missing — trapped somewhere underneath the town in the sewers.
Bill persuades his friends — Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Stan (Wyatt Oleff) — to join him on his quest, even though they think that Georgie has to be dead. But they’re all friends and they have nothing better to do (although there is surely anything better) during the summer than to explore the sewers. Their curiosity is hooked upon finding the shoe of a girl who went missing years earlier. Yet that’s just the bait Pennywise uses to reel the kids in. Bill is all too willing to accept, however, hoping that he can find his brother in addition to making sure no more families have to endure what he and his parents have been through.
Though the initial attraction of It is the scary clown who will hopefully scare us out of our seats and unnerve us for days and weeks to come, it’s the kids who make this movie memorable. Many people will relate to at least one member of The Losers Club, which grows from five to seven with the additions of Mike and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who’s crushed on by two of the boys and causes some heartache. Along with Bill, Beverly ends up being a driving force for the group in their pursuit of Pennywise. Additionally, she has problems to deal with at home that are far more threatening than Pennywise. The killer clown isn’t the only creepy thing in Derry.
That’s something that helps make It more skin-crawling. The real fear may exist at home. Whether it’s King’s original novel or this film directed by Andy Muschietti (Mama) from a script credited to Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman taps into those fears and uncertainties so well. None of the adults in the story seem friendly or nurturing. And isn’t that how it should be? The grown-ups are always preventing the kids from having fun. Don’t do this, don’t do that! Being too strict or overprotective can cause its own harm and resonate well into adulthood.
Pennywise is scary, especially when he’s lurking where the kids are afraid to go. But he’s also over-the-top in plenty of other scenes, whether it’s with manifesting sharp teeth and an impossibly large jaw, long claws and frenzied behavior that is too extraordinary to be truly terrifying. (Others might disagree.) I haven’t read the original novel, so I don’t know how much that happens in the story, but it feels like the movie loses something when Pennywise becomes larger than life and more of a cartoon than a sinister version of something that’s supposed to entertain children. Is Skarsgard’s performance better than Tim Curry’s in the 1990 TV version of It? Yes. But to be fair, they’re different.
What might be the biggest disappointment of It is that we’ll never see these actors play these characters again. That’s kind of a shame because they’re great. The banter, the insults, the fun, the frustrations — all of it feels real and will surely trigger memories of childhood.
Fans of King’s novel know that the story doesn’t end after that fateful summer (which takes place in 1989 here) and follows these kids into adulthood. If you’re already familiar with the book. the movie doesn’t take that entire story on. I don’t believe it’s a spoiler to say that the rest of the story is being saved for a seemingly inevitable sequel (especially if It performs as well at the box office as projected). Whoever the adult casts ends up being, they have some big (little?) shoes to fill when the story picks up 27 years later.