Clowns and balloons, fairgrounds and friendship (and the odd paper boat). All things wonderfully twisted and played with by Stephen King in his 1986 novel It, laying the foundations for the small screen adaptation four years later and now It (2017), some 27 years after that. It does not go unnoticed - certainly not by avid fans - that 27 years is the timescale in which Pennywise the clown tends to disappear and then re-emerge in the novel, to terrorize a new generation. It also happens to be the age of Bill Skarsgård who plays Pennywise in this version. An (un)happy coincidence perhaps.
Tim Curry made famous the role of Pennywise in that TV mini series, infecting many viewers, especially those younger than its certificate age (myself included), with coulrophobia (the fear of clowns). But whilst Curry brought to the titular role personality, acting prowess and enough credibility to genuinely frighten those on set with him, patchy special effects, a television network budget and not entirely convincing acting from everyone involved brought forth several areas for vast improvement in any reboot.
And so, step forward the Duffer brothers. Who, I hear you ask? The siblings who created the smash hit Netflix original series Stranger Things originally wanted to direct this film but were apparently turned down for not being experienced enough. Cary Fukunaga was next in line but, after years or pre-production, dropped out. Instead, Argentinian director Andy Muschietti stepped into the shoes previously filled by Tommy Lee Wallace (dir. It 1990). His task? To create a commercially successful R rated feature film adaptation of Stephen King’s It, the story of a clown whose job it is to terrify and murder children, revelling in and becoming manifestations of, their greatest fears.
Whilst the 1990 version was true to the novel in terms of timeline and period, with the first part set in late 1950s Derry, Maine, this year’s version shifts the story forward to the late 80s, taking full advantage of the whole Stranger Things nostalgia vibe, with older viewers able to identify with the period and allowing it to become disturbed by the latest incarnation of It the clown and his various manifestations. 1980s films are visually referenced on screen too, with A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 on at the local cinema whilst posters of Gremlins and Beetlejuice hang from the children’s walls.
The self-identified Losers club is seamlessly assembled in this updated version, with each member’s story amply told within the confines of the film, helped along by superb acting performances by Jaeden Lieberher (Bill), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Ben), Sophia Lillis (Beverly), Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame (Richie Tozier), Chosen Jacobs (Mike Hanlon), Jack Dylan Grazer (Eddie Kaspbrak), and Wyatt Oleff (Stanley Uris). If we are comparing the original film (Part 1, runtime 94 mins) with this one, Muschietti allows much more time for the characters and the story to develop (runtime is 135 mins) and this really helps.
Although the film is classified as a horror, it generally feels more like a coming-of-age drama with horror elements. Themes of sexual awakening are delicately (and humorously) handled, with at least two of the boys having a crush on Beverly. A lake swimming scene is the closest the film comes to the sex scene depicted in the book and rightly so given the characters’ ages.
Apart from Pennywise and his various forms hounding the kids, the theme of adolescent bullying is explored as the youngsters have Henry Bowers and his gang to contend with too. Bowers is played well by Australian Nicholas Hamilton, who bears a resemblance to River Phoenix who, of course, appears in 80s classic Stand by Me, another movie this film also nods towards and has a similar feel to. Scenes such as Henry cutting Ben with a knife are hard to watch, whilst the stone throwing scene is believable and a (SPOILER) a small victory for the Losers which foreshadows their battle with Pennywise at the denouement.
Bill Skarsgård has admitted that whilst he grabbed the role of Pennywise with both soon-to-be clown gloved hands, he also met it with trepidation, such was the impact of Curry’s turn in the original. He wanted to make sure he didn’t simply produce the same performance in this film. So, does he do the role justice? Yes. Is he “better” than Curry? It’s a difficult one to answer. In my opinion Curry’s performance as Pennywise is a little more nuanced, believable and, frankly, scarier. You really feel that you just can’t shake him off, that he could appear just about anywhere, and he’s perhaps a little more of a typical bully; his hatred of the children is depicted a little more forcefully by Curry, aided by the gravelly voice.
Skarsgård’s turn is softer, in a suitably creepy way, in a nursery crime (to borrow Mark Kermode’s term) way. You may not notice or be aware of it on first viewing, but Skarsgård sprinkles some of his native tongue, Swedish, into some of his lines (I’m not sure whether this was adlibbed or not) which perhaps adds an idiosyncratic mystique. It was hard – nay impossible – not to have the original in mind whilst watching Skarsgård’s performance, but I was certainly impressed. It needed to be different and it was. He was, of course, aided by special effects which I thought were done well. For me, the fast jerky forward movements of Pennywise when attacking the children (such as the projector scene) were genuinely frightening and made my heart skip a few beats, which is a rarity in today’s often CGI-over-substance horror movies (and, indeed, many blockbuster movies of course).
So, was It (2017) scary enough? For me, probably not. It certainly could have ratcheted up the fear factor. Am I looking forward to It: Chapter Two (2019)? Absolutely.
The original mini tv series, which I have unapologetically referenced a number of times in this blog, ended with a pretty appalling (SPOILER ALERT) gigantic arthropod as the final manifestation of It, which the adults finally finished off thanks to some pieces of silver and a slingshot retained from their childhood. We can surely hope for much much better in the second part of the reboot, and perhaps Muschietti will take on board the criticisms of the first part, making the sequel a genuine horror fest, giving Skarsgård licence to terrorize us a little more.
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