by Michael Henley
“Everybody loves a clown, So why don’t you?”
So sang Gary Lewis and the Playboys in 1965, but this is a bald-faced lie, because we all know that nobody likes clowns. Or at least I don’t like clowns. Not that I’m alone: coulrophobia is a pretty common fear, and that was before that news story last year of clowns prowling the woods across the country. Maybe it’s something of the uncanny valley in the way their pale, painted faces mock the qualities of human flesh. Personally, I rank clowns somewhere between ventroliquist dummies and costumed characters at Disneyland on the trustworthiness scale. Is this unreasonable? Absolutely. But there we are.
This is not a referendum on clowns, but it is a reflection of how right Stephen King was when he conceived of It, his 1986 1,000 page doorstop of a novel, and how smart he was by making the shapeshifting menace at the center of its story an entity that most preferred taking the form of a scary clown. It, the new long-awaited move adaptation, has a lot to live up to, since it’s an attempt to bring one of King’s most cherished works to the big screen, but also because it has to dispel memories of Tommy Lee Wallace’s 1990 miniseries adaptation, which may have been uneven but certainly featured a memorable star turn from Tim Curry as the red-nosed psychotic face of the amorphous evil known as (among other names) Pennywise.
But I am more than happy to report that Andy Muscetti’s new film version of It is a winner. It’s very scary when it wants to be, and Bill Skarsgård’s fresh take on ol’ Pennywise puts any thoughts of Curry out of your mind. But it’s also one of the most well-constructed studio horror films of the past several years, and the reason for that, paradoxically, is because it spends a lot of time not being scary but instead being warm and funny.
This is faithful to King’s novel, which is more than a simple story about kids facing an evil clown. It’s a lengthy meditation on childhood friendship in general, as well as eventful summer vacations, troubled town histories, disturbing secrets, generational cruelty, and most poignantly the many forms that terror can take for a child, some of them very very human. In many ways, It plays like a supernatural riff on King’s short story “The Body,” (made into the movie Stand By Me), especially in the way it tests friendship by weighing it against an oncoming loss of innocence. And then, of course, It is also a story about adulthood and trauma, two themes that ooze out during the novel’s decades-later rematch between the kids and Pennywise, a thread that has, smartly, been excised here and saved for use in a future film (in a nod to that inevitability, the book’s 1950’s settings have been revised here to the 1980’s, making this story post-New Kids on the Block but still blessedly pre-smartphone).
But the guts of it remain unchanged. It opens, as it must, with a horrific curtain-raiser: Pennywise luring toy-boat-loving Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) down into a storm drain—and to his untimely death. It’s a loss that weighs heavily on his brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), but it’s one among many in Derry, ME, a small town so thick with child deaths that “Missing” posters are stapled right on top of old ones. Derry has a clown problem, certainly, but there’s something off about the town in general. The adults are either disconnected and apathetic to the town’s not-so-buried traditions of abuse and violence, or they’re willful propagators of it.
But the kids, just like in The Goonies (which this movie recalls in its visual cues, and tonally isn’t a million miles from) see things for what they are, perhaps because having received just enough torture in their regular lives gives them clear eyes. There’s Bill, of course, who is trying to uncover the mystery of Georgie’s death. But there is also smart-mouthed Richie (Finn Wolfhard, from Stranger Things), the put-upon rabbi’s son Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), the squirrely fraidy-cat Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and the pudgy romantic Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor). Into their group comes a girl, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), which of course changes everything, especially since she is pretty and warm, despite coming from a home situation fraught with sickly human terrors. Eventually joining things is Mike (Chosen Jacobs), who suffers racist attacks but is slightly underdeveloped compared to the others, which is unfortunate, although Jacobs does get one of the most satisfying payoffs in the movie’s complex finale.
The film is at its best when depicting the childhood friendships, which feel endearing and correct in their slight rawness: the shared lewd jokes, the activities that have a spark of danger (like jumping off a lakeside cliff), and the unspoken bonds (the kids, for example, are supportive of Bill’s grief, but mainly in ways that involve not talking about Georgie, and there’s a chill in the air whenever someone almost says his name). Individually, they’re each a lot of fun, with Eddie being a fast-talker to hide his fears, Richie’s obsession with sex and showing off, and the sweet love-triangle that forms between Ben, Bev and Bill. It’s telling, and perfectly representative of King, that one of the movie’s sweetest scenes happens between two young characters flirting as they’re trying to clean up a bathroom double coated with both blood and subtext. The movie’s cast is ace, top to bottom (where did they find these kids?), but if we have to talk MVPs the clear winners are probably Wolfhard’s boastfully insecure Richie and Lillis as Beverly, who is so sweet and soulful in a role so star-making that she practically walks away with the picture.
Not so easy a task with a murderous clown also in here. It, when it formalizes the bond between the children and then turns up the scares, becomes a surgically effective horror picture, even risking moments that could make the whole enterprise collapse with just the wrong amount of silliness. Muscetti, who previously directed the horror picture Mama, does a skillful job early on of goosing the boundaries of the prepubescent sexuality and loyalty, of savoring the comedy, and by emphasizing geography that makes Derry feel like a real place. And also layering in suspense and horror sequences that feel carefully constructed (there are hidden details in many of them that you may miss). Finally, when Muscetti steps on the gas (as in the movie’s pretty intense last hour), he really earns his salt, as the kids’ showdown with Pennywise gains a lot from his ability to tweak our expectations on how the rhythms of these things usually go, all building to a finale that proves, what do you know, it was all about the characters all along.
It’s rare to see a studio horror picture this good that takes its time to be that way. Usually they sketch the characters quickly and hurtle towards a climax, or take an ironic stance in refusing to develop the characters at all (see practically every found footage movie). It’s the difference between depicting horror and siding with it. It, blessedly, has affection for its young heroes, and even as it constructs terror traps for them you can tell the movie hopes they’ll turn out okay.