i'm pennywise the dancing clown. now we aren't strangers, are we?
film review- major spoiler-free
How exactly would your darkest adolescent fears manifest in front of you? In what cosmic, shape-shifting form would they haunt your shadows and the very things that bring stable comfort? These questions, among many, are tent poles that hold up the fascinatingly grim tale of It, the classic Stephen King novel.
The 1990 miniseries, originally aired on ABC, scarred its fair share of Generation X kids and forever made clowns a latent foe to many more. Howver, the project never really quite had the muster nor the resources to drive home the visceral terror of the source material.
After creative differences led to admired up-and-coming director Cary Fukunaga leaving the project,
those following its production were weary of the guidance that would be able to appease long-time fanatics of the meticulously monstrous, profound page-turner. The story of IT is a playfully fucked up epic, consisting of almost 1200 pages of painful adolescence, ambivalent adults, despair, imaginative terror and true love. The type of love that, like Pennywise the Dancing Clown, can take many forms.
Director Andy Muschietti and his sister, producer Barbara seized the reigns without much of a resume to speak of, other than 2013 horror film Mama. Right from the opening frames, a sense of imminent, unspeakable terror was established. Seeing one of fiction’s most seminal evil clowns come to life in a new was a thrill in itself. A particular master class of filmmaking exists within the lighting and contrast of the many shadows
Much like Jack Nicholson’s once definitive portrayal of another classic tormented clown motif, Bill Skarsgaard takes this supernatural ancient evil and elevates the character acting that came before. Although Pennywise and Heath Ledger’s Joker don’t have much in common, the expressive approaches to the small nuances of harbor both twisted humor and actual sociopathic evil within.
Tim Curry more or less a played an approachable yet spooky character to be frank, but what this new creative does with the character is stupendous and at times, legitimately terrifying, even to a more mature audience where malaise may have set in to scares and horror movies in general. Not only is his lanky frame very unnerving, the creative team’s variance of his threat through differing faces and features offers an evolved Pennywise from what was seen previously. Dressed in old-time harlequin circus clown garb, what could have looked very goofy instead instills the sense that this metaphysical demon of sorts has had its objective refined over decades of feeding on the people of Derry.
Of course, the fulcrum of the IT has always been its collection of rich characters. The Loser’s Club consisting of unofficial leader Stuttering Bill Denborough, overweight romantic Ben Hanscom, OCD hypochondriac Eddie Kasprak, boy scout Stanley Uris, impressionist smartass Richie Tozier, homeschooled racial Mike Hanlon and the ginger girl Beverly Marsh, from humble beginnings.
All of the young actors embodied these beloved characters but the greatest takeaways were the thespians who stepped into the shoes of Beverly & Bill. Not only was their chemistry together on screen impactful, Sophia Lillis and Jaeden Lieberher made the most of their singular opportunities for the whole cinema world to see.
Lillis stole the second act; her intricate facial acting proved great casting among a team of relative unknowns sans Stranger Things’ Wolf Finnhard (Trashmouth Tozier). Beverly Marsh elevates many key scenes, particularly the horror that takes place within her own home and a certain mess in the bathroom. Finnhard, meanwhile, departs pretty heavily from his character Mike on Netflix’s biggest hit, this time portraying the crude, loquacious character of the group. Being that Richie is arguably the most annoying character to read in the novel, this new rendition was a welcomed departure from Seth Green and King’s repeated arcane dialogue for the character. Tozier’s fondness of comedic accents and imitations were sometimes cringeworthy to read came across well solely because of Finnhard’s abilities to remain likeable. Trashmouth and all.
Lieberher does an excellent job as the stuttering boy still in mourning, yearning to find and get closure for his declared dead little brother. The young actor’s temperament was ideal for the character Bill is; a tormented boy of intelligence who welcomes logic and reason but is desperate to find out what happens to his brother George.
As someone who knows the novel inside and out, it was relieving to not see many crucial deviations take place. In fact, even the biggest alteration- changing the setting from 1950s Derry to 1980s Derry was accomplished smoothly. It would have been an easy and simply lazy, decision to oversaturate the picture with needless nostalgic namedrops and references. Instead, the visual and cultural sensibilities of this era were kept to accurate fashion, a couple movie marquee callbacks and timely musical choices that have not been played out by other recent media. All of this was approached with self-awareness, which is the case for many of this hulking story’s key decisions that were to be translated from page to screen.
The only design choice that ended up being questionable remained the house on Neibolt St., Pennywise’s lair that leads directly into the underground Derry sewer system. In the novel, the house is imagined (at least by my singular mind) to be fairly nondescript and ordinary; the real terror is what transpires inside an otherwise innocuous home. The passage of Eddie initially escaping his customized monster, a perverted leper complete with puss-excreting boils and open sores was particularly terrifying due in large part from the home seeming quaint. In this new film, 29 Neibolt St. is basically a cliché- looking house in a horror movie meant to be scary; the bastard child of the infamous Bates home and the sentient structure in Monster House.
Picky moviegoers, a.k.a. insufferable elitist nerds may denigrate the attempts at horror made by Muschietti and Co., as some of the scare tactics are indeed tropes every modern horror movie seems to use- jump-scares, a loud, unnerving score during key moments, etc. While this may be a nitpicky yet valid point, an R-rated blockbuster trending the way IT has since the first stills and trailer, making a $35 million investment lends itself to maintaining conventional practices every now and again. For this, I will not stick my nose up at any film with the level of quality IT has throughout.
With being an early success-both by varied feedback and box-office opening weekend score- looking ahead to the Loser’s Club returning to Derry as adults in a second installment only seems natural. If the same production team can match its casting dynamics of this chapter, we could all be in for a brilliant mainstream adaptation of an insanely visual and difficult to film story. To properly honor King's metaphysical epic, matching the characters as actual people from childhood to adulthood; that is what made the novel standout- its rich characters in the middle of horrifying, relentless evil. Perhaps the child actors will return in flashbacks to aid in this process. I can't help but think of the wonderful metaphor King uses in the story in which Ben, the literary nerd that he is, walks in an air tunnel that connects the children's and adult library. In essence, that is what IT is about- to move through the disorienting tunnel between the innocence of youth and the actualizations of real life terrors. Pennywise represents a supernatural entity of this function, using our fears to conquer and divide our own mind until possible madness.
Yet until we stare into It's Deadlights and discover the true depths of our inner power and those closest to us, we can rest assured that one hell of a modern day creature feature was served up this year that properly honors one of the most well-layered stories in our recent times.
"He thrusts his fist into the post and still insists he sees the Ghosts."- Stephen King