Clowns have never scared me. Unnerved, sure. Weirded out, wouldn’t you be. But terrified? Not so much. After all, they’re little more than a person dressed in a suit, designed to entertain and thrill you. Right? But then came the news that Warner Bros had decided to bring their crazed-killer-clown adaptation IT (1990) into the 21st century. And with it came a series of creepy (and allegedly unrelated) sightings of such creatures across the world. And suddenly clowns stopped representing a fun night out at the circus or rodeo and instead became psychotic killers lurking in bushes. Perhaps after Stephen King’s original novel they always had been. What is interesting though, is that the studio’s remake could have so easily played into this melodrama and cliché. That clowns are evil and that’s all there is to them. But these red-nosed, white-faced, devilishly-smiling creatures aren’t the only thing to fear and IT (2017) wisely knows it. Sometimes, what makes us most afraid, is fear itself.
Based on King’s work, and given the seal of approval from the author himself, the movie follows a rag-tag group of teens as they investigate a spate of mysterious disappearances in their sleepy Maine town. A year after Bill’s (Jaeden Lieberher) little brother Georgie vanishes while out playing, he and his ‘Loser Club’ friends start witnessing haunting visions. From blood-soaked bathrooms to pus-filled lepers, each play on the children’s worst fears. And soon they start culminating in the appearance of Pennywise, a malevolent clown (Bill Skarsgard). Not your average circus performer, this monster is determined to wreak havoc, using a red balloon, well-timed music and a set of nasty teeth to do the job. Scared, yet determined to get to the bottom of it, the team start connecting the dots the adults refuse to see, leading them deep into Derry’s history and sewer systems to find the heart of the beast itself.
Part horror, part coming-of-age tale, the film dances around both for most of its two-hour runtime. But director Andy Muschietti has a steady hand and throws us just enough of both to keep us intrigued. A close-up of Pennywise’s face here, a dramatic build-up there and just enough gore sprinkled between the moments of childhood innocence. His biggest success though is making us care for the seven-strong main cast, each getting almost enough screen-time and bonding moments to make them individuals. Even if Stan is reduced to little more than the Jewish boy preparing for his Bat Mitzvah and Ben is represented as the formulaic new kid who spends his time in the library. The child actors show talent and wisdom beyond their years though, led by an impressive performance from Jaeden Lieberher. But two standouts work hard to upstage him, in Finn Wolfhard’s foul-mouthed, comic-relief character Ritchie, and the dazzlingly-innocent yet terrifically tomboyish performance of Sophia Lillis’ Beverley.
And while killer-clowns sound like the most cliched of all horror tropes, IT’s fiendish villain is a breath of fresh air. Skarsgard delivers a phenomenal and all-encompassing turn, so deeply and richly conceived it’s hard to see any humanity in the character at all. It’s not Tim Curry’s iconic version, I’ll give you that, but it’s a scintillating vision nonetheless. Sadly, it is let down by Muschietti, who spends too much time establishing the character rather than delving into the film’s darker fear – that parents are the true fiends. He hints at it when we see abusive fathers controlling their daughters or pushing their sons to breaking point, but it is never at the forefront. And its such a let down, because fear is a contagion that is made worse when we can’t explain or confront it. And for all the dread, uncertainty and mystical forces Pennywise conjures up, he can be overcome. Trusted adults exploiting their power and pretending the terror isn’t real, is a whole lot harder to beat.
The movie’s strongest element therefore, is its focus on the theme of fear. For starters, each child’s horror is hinted at long before it is used against them. For Beverley, coming into womanhood and having her first period, blood plays a big part in her terror. While Eddie, raised by a mother in constant fear of his health, the thing that frightens him is sickness. Mike, the outcast unable to deal with death, is forced to relive such a demise time and time again, just as Stanley, who has no tangible female figure in his life, is unable to get past a creepy portrait of a woman hanging in his father’s office. And then there is Bill, plagued by his brother’s disappearance and unable to let him go. But the most frightening part of what Pennywise represents is the fear of the unknown. A killer clown that appears from nowhere, doesn’t discriminate and most importantly – is never named. Fear of fear itself is what drives the film forward and keeps us glued to our seats. Because if we can’t understand it, how can we hope to beat it?
With King’s mammoth novel spanning more than 27 years and more than 1,000 pages, the question of splitting the film was, for once, a legitimate no-brainer. Unlike Twilight (2008), The Hunger Games (2012) or The Hobbit films (2012 – 2014), in this case making two films from one book will finally prove not just a box office hit, but also one the critics can’t slam. Provided it has the same level of fun and friendship delivered in act one. Because who doesn’t like watching a group of misfit kids throw rocks at bullies while an eighties soundtrack blares behind them.?Or see them whack the crap out of a clown using metal poles, baseball bats and chains? It just ups the ante when they become adults. The only thing I’m hoping for is that the giant spider from the novel doesn't make its way into the antagonist’s manifestations second time round. Because that would truly be terrifying.
Rating: 4 Red Balloons out of 5
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