If there’s any one profession whose practitioners I find some amount of sympathy for it’s that of the professional clown. These poor sons of bitches have dedicated their lives, at great personal sacrifice, to a trade they must genuinely think brings laughter and joy to children when more often than not it does the exact opposite. Personally I never had much distaste for clowns when I was a child but I can totally understand how in the mind of a small child it would be more than a little unsettling to have a strange man intrude on one’s birthday party and doubly unsettling to have this man wearing garish makeup and bizarre dress and perform mysterious magic tricks like pulling scarfs out of their mouths and exiting en masse from tiny little cars. It’s a strange and rather outdated form of performance art and people have been interested in the dark side of these demonically painted jesters at least as far back as an 1849 Edgar Allen Poe story called “Hop-Frog” and has continued through such creations as the operatic “Pagliacci” and Batman’s arch nemesis The Joker. However, the idea of the evil clown got a huge boost in the 70s and 80s by the one-two punch of the John Wayne Gacy murders and the 1986 publication of Stephen King novel “It” which is sometimes considered to be that author’s magnum opus. In fact, the World Clown Association has recently released a press release blaming the 1990 mini-series adaptation of King’s novel for causing the fear of clowns in children and putting their trade at risk, a position that perhaps ignores the many many many other reasons kids have for finding guys frightening. That press release was of course created in response to the release of a new theatrical adaptation of It which is set to be a major hit and which will at the very least cause a couple more cases of Coulrophobia.
I read a great number of Stephen King novels when I was in high school, but “It” was not one of them. I’d heard it was great and I always wanted to get around to it but given that the thing is literally over a thousand pages long it just seemed a bit too daunting. I never watched the ABC miniseries adaptation either, in part because I still hoped to read the book some day and in part because I’d heard mixed things about it. Some people seem to think that TV version is really scary, others seem to hate it. I’ve heard it theorized that the positive assessments are mostly the result of people having seen it when they were young and that it’s actually pretty bad outside of Tim Curry’s performance, and that explanation of its reputation makes sense. In retrospect I was kind of glad I missed that adaptation because it meant this more ambitious screen take would be my first experience with the story, though I should note that this was not fully uncharted territory for me. Through cultural osmosis I did know a decent amount about the original novel’s basic story and structure as well as its most iconic images like the paper boat going towards the storm drain and the sight of Pennywise’s teeth and hands.
My understanding is that the novel is set in two timelines; looking at the characters dealing with this threat as children in the late 50s and the then as adults in the then contemporary 80s, and that it intercut between the two through flashbacks and the like. This movie adaptation ignores this structure and focuses entirely on the characters as children and that they plan to deal with the adult material in a potential sequel. The setting has been moved to 1989, which would put a sequel right in 2016 and which has the added bonus of placing the movie squarely in the sweet spot of nostalgia for Spielbgergian adventures of children with free reign to travel extensively by bicycle without adult supervision with other projects like Super 8 and “Stranger Things” have been riding as of late.
Set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine (which shows up in a lot of Stephen King books) the film follows a group of outsider kids called “The Losers Club.” The most prominent of them is probably Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), whose younger brother disappears one day after being scene peering into a storm drain, one of many children who have disappeared in this town recently. In fact the rate of disappeared people in Derry is off the charts high but the adults seem to be in denial about this. Over time everyone in “The Losers Club” start seeing frightening visions of the things they fear the most and at the center of most of these visions is the frightening figure of a clown called Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård). Soon “The Losers Club” is joined by other children who’ve had these visions like Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), who is ostracized at school and is forced to contend with an abusive father, and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) who lives with his uncle on a farm outside of town. Soon, through the research of a group member named Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor) they learn that this evil force seems to surface in this town every twenty-seven years and the group resolves to face this monster rather than back down in fear.
I mentioned earlier that the movie is in many ways latches onto the look and feel of the Amblin movies of the 80s, but I don’t really think this is (entirely) a case of cynical nostalgia peddling. After all, this childhood nostalgia element was clearly present in the original novel and King adaptations of the time like Stand by Me clearly contributed to the wave of movies that the “Stranger Things” of the world were aping from. The decision to move events from the 50s to the 80s also seems logical enough and the movie doesn’t seem too shameless about throwing in tributes to the pop culture of the time and I like that they made these kids of some kind of lame relics of that era like The New Kids on the Block and Nightmare on Elm Street V rather than making them implausible fans of The Clash and The Thing (though showing one of them playing the original Street Fighter in an arcade, which wasn’t nearly as popular as its eventual sequel, is a bit odd). More importantly I think the aim here is a little different. Spielberg made movies about these cadres of suburban child bicyclists because his target audience could relate to them (and the adults in the audience could nostalgically relate back to them) and excitedly want to go along with them on their whimsical adventures. Here I feel like the goal is more to make you like them enough to want nothing bad to happen to them and build suspense that way, not unlike John Carpenter envision the protagonist of Halloween as someone who could be a stand in for everyone’s sister, girlfriend, or daughter and create a sort of paternalistic protectionism between her and the audience.
Indeed one of the film’s great strengths is its ability to establish its characters in a very short period of time and make you like each of them. Granted, there’s not a whole lot of depth to any of these people and most of the kids are identified by one simple quirk: Bill misses his brother, Ben like history and has questionable music taste, Richie talks too much, Eddie is overly pampered, Mike lives on the other side of tracks, and Stan is the most cautious. When the movie actually does try flesh some of these characters out a little more it can feel a bit rushed and awkward like when it tries to establish that Mike’s parents were killed in a fire and then does very little with this information. The character who’s given the most in the way of unique characteristics is Beverly, who is plainly the boldest member of the group and who (along with Mike) comes from the most adversity and has the most tumultuous home life. Some of the supporting characters fare worse. For all of his strengths as a writer Stephen King is kind of bad at writing human villains and often turns them into these insanely over the top creations that don’t ring true in the slightest. You see that here both in Beverly’s abusive father and in this teenage schoolyard bully named Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) who seems extreme in his almost psychotic cruelty even for a bully in the 80s.
The other character I’m not so sure about is actually Pennywise himself, whose motivations seemed a bit unclear. In the film’s opening sequence Pennywise seems to have taken the form of the clown as a means of luring children into his grasp. He gives the boy at the beginning a false sense of security before lunging in for a quick kill. Makes sense, but he completely switches up his M.O. for the rest of the film. Every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them and seemingly putting himself in danger by giving away hints of his identity. There’s some talk late in the movie of him feeding off their fear, which makes some sense outside of the way it clashes with his behavior in the opening scene, but I still ultimately just find the rules of this world a bit muddled and unclear. I suspect that this is explained in more detail in the novel and may be explained more clearly in a potential sequel, but looking at the film as a self-contained work I do think this is a bit of a problem.
This iteration of It was directed by a guy named Andy Muschietti, a Guillermo del Toro protégé whose previous film credit was a 2013 horror film called Mama which I frankly didn’t really care for. Muschietti, like Del Toro, is a guy who is perhaps a little too in love with monsters and is overly excited to show them on screen at times. Del Toro gets away with this because most of his movies aren’t really horror movies and aren’t really trying to scare the pants off his audience, but Muschietti’s are and his over-eagerness to show his CGI ghosts ultimately made Mama a rather deflated experience. Muschietti does fare a lot better here because he’s working with much better material and has other things to fall back on, but when this is trying to be an actual suspenseful horror movie I think it ultimately does still have that same weakness. At times the film shows its hand with Pennywise a little too quickly and never quite lets the mystery of this entity play out as long as it could. The opening scene is a good example of this: a weird freaky clown in a sewer turning a kid into a puddle of blood should have been enough, we didn’t necessarily need to see Pennywise’s semi-convincing CGI teeth as he bit into said kid’s arm that early in the film. In fact questionable CGI is kind of a problem throughout the film; there are some effect in it that work really well but there are other shots that are pretty weak and kind of undercut the suspense a bit. An approach more akin to Jaws where the big shots of the shark were saved until later would have been helpful.
This is not to say that there aren’t some legitimately great scenes and images to be found in the movie because there certainly are, possibly even too many of them. When this movie is on it really cooks, but I ultimately think it works better as an adventure movie than as a pure horror film, and as an adventure film it seems kind of incomplete. The movie ends with a title card that all but says “to be continued” and there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel and there are other things like that which I’m not quite sure what to make of until I see how all this plays out. In many ways it feels like a movie I feel like withholding judgement on until that second part comes out. That could be an issue because that sequel is not going to be easy to pull off. A lot of the appeal of this first movie comes from the charming cast of child actors and from its period setting and the sequel will have to eschew both. If the second part is able to stick the landing I think it will make the original that much more meaningful as a setup and if it shits the bed I think that could tarnish the first film’s legacy completely. That’s the long term assessment, in the short term I don’t want to come off like I’m damning this thing with faint praise, if I’m critical of it it’s only because of how much potential it has. This is plainly has a lot more to offer than most major studio horror movies and anyone whose been intrigued by the trailers should give it a shot.