I hate clowns and reading Stephen King’s It when it was first published in 1986 only served to solidify my loathing of their creepy smiling faces and garish costumes. And, I’m not alone in my dislike of clowns. A 2016 Vox poll revealed 42% of the adults questioned were afraid of clowns, while a University of Sheffield study of children confirmed kids disliked even pictures of clowns. Take the existing prejudices against clowns, toss in Stephen King’s ability to turn the ordinary into the horrifying, add in a red balloon or two, and It’s Pennywise holds a special place in clown hell for terrifying generations of horror fans.
King’s It was made into a miniseries in 1990 with Tim Curry taking on the role of Pennywise. Curry was fantastic and terrifying in the role, and Bill Skarsgård had gigantic shoes to fill when he accepted the part in the 2017 feature film. Fortunately for King loyalists and horror enthusiasts in general, Skarsgård doesn’t disappoint. His Pennywise the Dancing Clown will haunt your nightmares.
Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman adapted King’s book, moving the story forward a couple of decades into the ‘80s while keeping intact the premise and tone of the bestselling novel. Set in Derry, Maine (of course), the film follows the formation of the Losers’ Club – a group of seven kids, outcasts all, who are individually picked on, but as a team stand strong against not only bullies but also the killer clown who terrorizes their town every 27 years.
The adults in Derry turn a blind eye to the evil that lurks in the hearts of their fellow citizens, ignoring the bullying that goes on and only briefly seeming to care about the extraordinarily high number of children who go missing and are never found. The Losers’ Club, led by the wise-beyond-his-years Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), understand it’s up to them to put an end to their town’s deadly legacy. It’s personal for Bill because his adorable kid brother, Georgie, went missing while playing with a little paper boat during a rainstorm. Bill’s near obsession with figuring out what happened to poor Georgie leads the club on a dangerous quest to find the thing responsible for so many deaths in Derry.
It is brought to life on the screen with an incredible group of young, talented actors in the lead roles. It’s easy to believe these kids are friends who could form such a strong bond that they’d be willing to confront pure evil to save each other’s lives. They fight, they tease, they get jealous – everything normal kids do – and they’re also fiercely loyal to each other. The casting is spot-on, making it easy for the audience to not only root for but to connect with this ragtag group of social misfits.
Jaeden Lieberher is perfectly cast as the de facto leader of the group who’s determined to find his beloved kid brother. Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard is terrific as Richie Tozier, a wise-ass who’s quick with a comeback. Jack Dylan Grazer’s a scene-stealer as Eddie Kaspbrak, a walking encyclopedia of illnesses who’s never without his inhaler. Jeremy Ray Taylor’s solid as Ben Hanscom, a chubby kid who comes out of his shell once he’s welcomed into the Losers’ Club. And, Sophia Lillis is absolutely fantastic as the sole female member of the club, Beverly Marsh. Lillis looks like a young Molly Ringwald (in fact one of the characters in the film points that out) and has that same aura as Ringwald did in Sixteen Candles and Breakfast Club. The camera loves Lillis and it’s impossible not to be impressed by her performance as Beverly.
Unfortunately, Wyatt Oleff as Stanley Uris and Chosen Jacobs as Mike Hanlon aren’t allowed to shine as much as their co-stars. Oleff and Jacobs are both relegated to more supporting roles and their characters aren’t as developed as the other Losers’ Club members. That’s understandable for Stanley, but Mike was much more important to the group dynamics in the novel than he is in the film adaptation. In fact, much of what Mike was responsible for introducing into the story has been given to the Ben Hanscom character to explain. Book readers will be left wondering the reason behind the shift and how it will affect the second half of the story which will be told in It Part 2.
Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) delivers a satisfying number of jump scares mixed with humor and a surprising amount of heart. The set pieces are creepy and all the visual effects are top of the line, including the many manipulations of Pennywise’s physical form. Muschietti’s film is a lengthy one, but it doesn’t feel like it and there’s not a single extraneous scene that made the cut to bog down the pace.
But, It could have all the above and still not work if Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise didn’t deliver the goods, so to speak, which he does. Skarsgard’s Pennywise is different than Tim Curry’s…not better, just different. Skargard’s Pennywise comes across as more devious and calculating, and you can clearly feel his maniacal glee as he zeroes in each victim’s most intense fear. King’s Pennywise the Clown was such a terrifying killer because “it” knew exactly what scared each of its victims and used that to feed into their fears before murdering them. The film retains that aspect of the story, just as it keeps intact the now iconic red balloon Pennywise is usually seen with.
It is true to Stephen King’s book while updating the setting and altering the events (sometimes just slightly, in other cases completely changing things up) in each of the members of the Losers’ Club lives which led to their belief in the evil lurking beneath the town of Derry. Fans of the book and/or the miniseries will find sufficient scares in this version to justify the price of a ticket.
It is one of King’s most popular books and, thankfully, the movie is one of the better film adaptations of his work. Hopefully, the studio can find an adult cast for It Part 2 that can live up to the work done by part one’s young ensemble. They’ve set the bar really high.
Running Time: 135 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language
Release Date: September 8, 2017