With IT – which is likely to be regarded as one of the year’s best horror films, or in any event one of the most popular – you will get two movies for the price of one. Firstly, as an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, it’s an unrelenting work of terror, the kind you’ve come to know not just from other horror movies but also from those haunted mazes that open to the public every Halloween season, all decrepit sets and spooky sound effects and gory scenes and dark corners where hideous, evil things hide before lunging at you and screaming. They’re not the most original tactics, but they sure are effective, and director Andy Muschietti most definitely understands this.
In this case, the hideous, evil thing is the title character, also known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, which lives in the sewer systems of Derry, Maine and isn’t really a clown at all, but rather some demonic entity that uses rows of inhuman teeth to feed on children, especially when they’re afraid. In fact, in much the same way as Freddy Krueger, it can pick up on and exploit whatever a person fears. According to what little information is gathered, mostly from old photographs and newspaper clippings, it awakens from hibernation every twenty-seven years to go on a killing spree.
Pennywise is played by Bill Skarsgård in a performance that could potentially get him mentioned in the same sentence as Robert Englund – an actor who can play a sadistic monster so effortlessly that it’s a wonder he didn’t do it sooner and will be surprising if he doesn’t do it again. With his white and red greasepainted pace, his malicious smile that exposes oversized front teeth, and a maniacal laugh you can imagine echoing down the halls of an insane asylum, he’s absolutely terrifying, the very reason why so many people are coulrophobic. My sincerest hope is that Skarsgård isn’t endlessly compared to Tim Curry, who played Pennywise in the 1990 miniseries adaptation of It. Given that they each had a unique take, such a comparison would be an insult to both actors.
The second movie in It is a coming-of-age story, the unlikely bond between a group of junior-high friends with their own personal demons examined. It doesn’t go as deep or is as compelling as it was in another King adaptation, Stand by Me, but then again, that wasn’t a horror film. The friends are: Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), a stutterer who lost his kid brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) to Pennywise’s voracious appetite; Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), the overweight bookworm; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), the only girl of the group with a bad reputation at school; Richie Tozer (Finn Wolfhard), a foulmouthed comedian in the making; Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), the only black kid, who still reels over the burning death of his immediate family; Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff), a nervous sort on the verge of his bar mitzvah; and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), an asthmatic conditioned by his overprotective mother to be a hypochondriac.
Bill’s guilt over his brother’s death, Eddie’s encounter with a walking disease that’s a leper, Beverly’s uncomfortable relationship with her father, who in the worst possible way wants her to remain his little girl – all this and more are tapped into and exploited by Pennywise. But all the friends, who are both cruelly and affectionately dubbed the Loser’s Club, have other fears, most notably town delinquent Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), not a bully so much as a burgeoning psychopath. He thinks nothing, for example, of carving the letter H into Ben’s stomach. He only seems to cower in the presence of his father, a cop, who is himself a bully.
Those familiar with the novel and the TV adaptation will be the first to tell you that the story, as originally conceived, is divided into two main sections: When the main characters are children, and when they’re adults. They’ll also be the first to notice that Muschietti’s film focuses only on when they’re children, and that the setting has been changed from the late 1950s to the late ‘80s. The film ends with a title card reading “Chapter One,” which of course means that another chapter is on the way, and presumably will focus on the characters as adults. That’s assuming this film is successful. I’m fairly confident that it will be. IT is a hallmark of macabre style, brooding atmosphere, and some really terrific scares.