Directed by Andres Muschietti
Written by Cary Fukunaga, Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman
Starring Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Nicholas Hamilton and Bill Skarsgard
“You punched me, made me walk through sh*tty water, dragged me through a crack house and now I’m gonna have to kill this f*cking clown.” – Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier
IT has arrived. Heavily hyped, a lot riding on it. The legacy of Stephen King’s 1000+ page epic and the 1990 two part film buoyed by Tim Curry’s memorable turn as the titular villain. After several start-stop attempts and mired in production hell, Pennywise the Dancing Clown has finally burst free from the sewers of Derry and back into the mainstream subconscious. And I, as record breaking audiences have undoubtedly already discovered, am happy to announce that the new film establishes its own legacy and crafts a striking, deeply unsettling horror opus.
There are a lot of moving pieces here. This is the first part of the two part timeline concerning the children of the Loser’s Club, a collection of outcasts who find themselves drawn together via a bond of friendship and shared collective of traumatic experiences. Not the least of course, being the targets of a shape shifting nightmare entity that literally feeds on fear. To set the tone for contemporary audiences, this film is set in the eighties and the production team does a remarkable job establishing tone and feeling (asinine Lego controversy notwithstanding). This is accomplished via a beautiful soundtrack composing both haunting and melodic original pieces and a great selection of period appropriate tunes. The set design is top notch and overall the film looks and sounds great.
The nostalgia tinged setting is populated by memorable characters as well. One of the biggest triumphs of the film is the fact that ALL of the Losers are wonderful. No small feat, collecting a septet of very talented preteen actors, all with their own quirks. Standouts include Finn Wolfhard (fresh off his Stranger Things turn) as the motor mouth Richie Tozier, Jeremy Taylor as the overweight, sensitive and gentle soul Ben and Sophia Lillis as bada*s Bev, sole female member of the crew. All of the kids have wonderful chemistry and they contribute some of the best tender moments and surprising spots of genuine comedy (a nice reprieve from the near relentless pace).
Of course, such a tale would be nothing without it’s most famous character, your friend and mine, Pennywise. Bill Skarsgard brings the quiet seething intensity that made him a highlight on Hemlock Grove and crafts it into something else entirely. This new incarnation of Pennywise is a success due to the harmonic coupling of Skarsgard’s performance and the physical design of the character itself. It’s very unfair to compare it to Tim Curry’s classic portrayal as the only aspect the two intepretations really have in common is the basic concept. Think of them as late era Freddy Krueger and original Freddy (accurate as Pennywise has many Krueger-esque qualities in and of itself and there’s even a nice shout out to NOES 5 in the film)…Curry’s character was a bit more of a diabolical jester against Skarsgard’s sinister bourder (I just compared them, didn’t I? whoops).
Little subtle touches make Pennywise a triumph. Setting aside obvious points like his jagged snake maw of fangs, he is comprised of creepy little details. His high forehead, unnatural jittery movement and especially his amber floating and slightly lazy eyes. It conveys the (accurate) message that the entity known as IT is actually an incomprehensible being wearing a disguise, a flesh suit, that doesn’t quite fit it quite right. Gorehounds will also be pleased as the film holds its R rating like a blood soaked badge of honor. Any sanitization occurring in the first film (understandably as it was a network broadcast) is jettisoned for full blown carnage and violence. There’s plenty of red to be seen and not just in the clown’s trademark balloons.
A few quibbles: The makeup and gore effects are top notch but the CGI is very telling and weakly rendered. Scenes like Georgie’s infamous death and the odd telescoping effect whenever Pennywise charges the camera. The projector scene popularized in the film’s trailer is intense and frightening but the ultimate payoff looks silly. Pennywise’s grand entrance in his sewer lair conjures flashbacks of Enchantress’ silly hula dance from Suicide Squad. There’s a few moments that just seem out of place or are fully exposed by the poor quality CGI.
A lack of subtlety plagues the latter half. This is perhaps the first iteration of the tale to play the tagline “We all float down here” quite literally and the film actually begins to suffer from an overabundance of Pennywise. We see him a bit too much and, while I love Skarsgard’s performance and the character overall, it’s a bit overbearing. Ditto for the relentless pace which is virtually one scare after another peppered in with unpleasant domestic violence and child abuse. Granted, it’s a horror film and the original tale was plenty gruesome and nasty, but the film just pushes itself forward a bit much. One minor complaint is that the Losers are 5 for 7 in characterization. All we really known about Stanley and Mike are that they are, respectably, Jewish/timid and a victim of racism/traumatic past. Not much else is explored, a departure from the more fleshed out of the group.
Minor quibbles, as I said. IT stands out amongst the horror pantheon, not just as a trend setting and box office juggernaut, but as a genuinely great film. It’s a remarkable blend of grand performances, legitimate heart and humor and bloodcurdling, intense horror. It’s rare that so many pieces mesh as well as they do here. True, I didn’t score it a perfect 5. There are a few downsides and the CGI is really noticeably bad. Yet it stands a proud centurion amongst a throng of mediocre infantry that is the modern day King adaptation.
Recommended for all fans of Stephen King, coulrophobes (immersion therapy!) and those who want a few child devouring monsters sprinkled in amongst their coming-of-age stories.
4/5 SS Georgie paper ships
Splatter Factor: 4/5 **This one embraces the red. There’s plenty to see here that we didn’t in Curry’s version. Georgie’s arm is actually witness to be ripped off, there’s a brutal slashed throat, Henry Bower’s violent bullying, nasty corpse makeup effects, a brief moment that will upset animal lovers and of course the Beverly bathroom scene with now leaves the room soaked in crimson, not unlike the blood rain scene in the Evil Dead remake. Wonderfully violent and gruesome.**
The Collective speaks:
Pennywise is but the metaphysical meat sack masquerade of a being far more vast and powerful than your human minds can hope to comprehend. Not unlike the Lovecraftian old Ones, the Dancing Clown will imbue insanity on you with a whim and devour the wretched husk you leave behind. In other words, it’s a stand up being and a well noted citizen amongst us who flit through the shadows.
We are proud that IT is honored with lovingly crafted carnage and intensity.