Pennywise, the antagonist of Stephen King’s It (1986), is one of literature’s great villains. A shape-shifting creature of the night, he reawakens every 27 years to feast on the fears of children, transmuting himself into a victim’s utmost phobia before the feed. Referring to this creature as “Pennywise” or a “he” feels all wrong, though; as later revealed in the novel, this is a demonic entity with no other purpose besides inserting otherworldly evil into the everyday.
And that makes his existence all the more bone-chilling. Akin to Halloween’s (1978) Michael Myers, this is a villain with no emotion, no humanity, and, apparently, no outright weaknesses. He lives only to frighten, to destroy. How one might go about destroying him is unclear, and that invincibility immortalizes him in our minds and in our hearts.
It was first adapted into a generally well-received miniseries in 1990, with Tim Curry headlining as Pennywise. Though acclaimed and considered by most of the general populace to be a memorable genre outing, interest in telling King’s story was renewed in 2009 when Warner Bros. announced that they were in the process of adapting the original novel into a feature length. The creative lineup consistently changing since that announcement, with possible screenwriters, directors, and actors regularly attached and then unattached, filming finally began in the summer of 2016. In the months since post-production, newcomers and fans alike have wallowed in anticipation.
With Andy Muschietti, the atmospherically-minded director behind the effective Mama (2013) at the helm, and with Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman writing, the long-in-the-making final product proves itself to be worth the wait: 2017’s It is among the premier horror movies of the decade. Comparable to 1980’s The Shining (also a King work) in terms of scope and ambition, it is the rare film of its kind that chooses to be more than just its assemblage of scares. That is as determined to fabricate sympathetic, lived-in characters as it is to getting our hearts thumping and our eyes strategically covered.
Set in 1988-89, the film, unlike the King novel, does not jump back and forth in time. (The book famously watches over its core characters during their adolescence and their adult years). Instead, we’re strictly inserted into the lives of a group of teenage friends whose formative years are hampered by death and destruction.
All living in the fictional Derry, a seemingly charming Maine town, seven pals are forced to battle the aforementioned Pennywise (portrayed here by Bill Skarsgård), an encapsulation of evil who’s haunted the city for centuries and whose reawakening happens to coincide with their coming of age.
All are grappling with various horrors before the demonic clown decides to wreak havoc. The main protagonist, the stuttering Bill (Jaeden Liberher), is dealing with the death of his younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) and the hostility of his grieving parents. His friends, Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophia Lillis, a star), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stan (Wyatt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), are respectively confronting prepubescent weight gain and loneliness, incestuous sexual abuse, neglect, religious pressure, trauma, and debilitating anxiety.
But as the film accelerates do these characters come to understand that something sinister is afoot. That Georgie’s demise might be much more ominous than meets the eye, and that the extreme number of childhood tragedies that have historically plagued Derry is not coincidental. So once terrifying encounters with the mysterious Pennywise start to proliferate, then, worries are solidified. Bill determines that he and his friends — affectionately called “The Losers’ Club” — must investigate the situation further rather than loll about like lambs awaiting their slaughter.
What they find, of course, is life-altering. And what a harrowing thing that is: While most of us undoubtedly find the transition from childhood to adulthood to be awkward and relatively nerve-wracking, an uneasy period in which one must become comfortable in their skin, these so-called losers see the worst years of their lives made even more horrific.
Given how protective we feel, one of the movie’s great strengths is unmistakably how corporeal its characters are. Their fears already so palpable — the screenplay subtly pauses for us to witness Bill’s familial instabilities in real-time, to see Beverly’s contending with her sexually abusive father, and more — we can see why they’re so easy for Pennywise to target. But we see them as intelligent, aspirational individuals, too — brilliant kids whose futures would be brighter if not undermined by such melodramatically awful childhoods.
Inevitably, comparisons will be made to Netflix’s Stranger Things (2016-present) and Stand By Me (1986). Like those pieces, It sensitively fleshes out its focal teenagers, providing their problems with an urgency not often seen in mainstream television and film. Nostalgia’s here, too, not just because the soundtrack, the clothing, and the setting all flash back to the childhoods of many adult viewers, but also because we can so effortlessly relate to the experiences of the characters. We’re already familiar with the emotional and physical hardships that come with being a gangly, self-conscious teen, and so we can easily fathom just how much harder their lives must be as an effect of this unspeakably odious terrorization.
In some ways, the film’s best when it’s simply allowing its characters to be friends, when they’re able to confide in one another as everything else seems to be caving inward. We believe in the relationships, and the transitions from perfectly-timed juvenile humor and monstrous horrors are immaculately conceived. The young actors, wonderfully cast, have convincing chemistry that welcomes us into their tight-knit circle.
Aside from its heartfelt glimmers, though, It still delivers as a cheap way to be terrified for a few hours. Muschietti is an adept horror director, valuing close-ups as a mechanism to humanize the characters as much as he does protracted sequences of quiet in which we eagerly await a popping out of the shadows. The scares are difficult to shake (I continue to be distressed by the scene wherein Pennywise crashes what’s supposed to be a harmless use of a projector), and so is Skarsgård’s performance, so parasitic and stunningly deranged.
It could benefit from a couple more scenes of merely letting friends be friends, and might be better off cutting out some of the jump scares and throwing in a few more fake-outs. The final act ever so slightly plods, unnecessarily elongated by redundancy, and the climax might unsettle more efficiently if Pennywise’s maleficence weren’t so explicitly stated.
But the movie is so magnificently scary and so poignantly written that these qualms don’t much diminish its potency. It isn’t often that going to the theater to see a horror movie becomes an unmissable cultural event. And yet here It is, a tried-and-true horror movie that really and truly is unmissable. A-
Jeremy Ray Taylor
Jack Dylan Grazer
2 Hrs., 15 Mins.
It September 12, 2017
ennywise the Dancing Clown is the archvillain of a lifetime — he’s every fear you’ve ever had merged into a single entity. He’s the creak in the floorboards heard eerily at three in the morning; the threatening shadow seen only in your peripheral vision; the schoolyard bully who thrives on torment; the abusive authority figure; the bogeyman you’re certain is living under your bed. He’s pain, sorrow, sadness, anxiety, alienation; he’s rejection, humiliation, anger, frustration. You might want to overcome his evils, but he won’t give you the satisfaction of defeat. He’s always one step ahead of you, a master of the
outsmart. To escape him is an impossibility. Once he’s decided that you’re his next midnight snack, there’s no turning back.