'It' Review: Pennywise the Killer Clown Is Back and More Twisted Than Ever
By John Boone
Warner Bros. Pictures
The premise of It -- an evil clown lives in the sewer and terrorizes children -- is scary enough on its own. Not much need be done to eek a few frights out of that setup. Nonetheless, from the first scene of the newly rebooted movie, an adaptation of the 1990 television miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's 1986 novel, it's clear that this is not your parents' (or grandparents') It.
This version opens with arguably the most iconic scene of any iteration of It -- and one that's been a cornerstone is advertising the remake: Young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) chasing his paper boat down the street, the boat sailing down a stream of rainwater into a sewer, and Georgie coming face-to-face with the mysterious, cackling clown, Pennywise (Hemlock Grove's Bill Skarsgård). Unlike the It of yesteryear, the scene refuses to fade to black, as Pennywise's jaw unhinges and his razor-sharp teeth bite Georgie's arm off. Then, as Georgie tries to crawl away through a geyser of his own blood, the clown's arm stretches from the drain and yanks the boy under. They are not f**king around this time.
One year later, in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, in 1988, Georgie's older brother, Bill (The Book of Henry's prodigious Jaeden Lieberher) and his self-proclaimed loser friends (Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Jeremy Ray Taylor and Wyatt Oleff) spend their summer milling about town on their bikes and avoiding the town's increasingly sadistic bully, whose harassment goes beyond noogies and swirlies and in one horrific sequence, sees him carving his name into another kid's stomach.
These sequences play out in the same vein as last summer's King-extolling Netflix series, Stranger Things, with its Losers' Club of similarly sweet and often surprisingly funny boys. (Seeing that they share a star in Wolfhard, it's even harder not to compare the two.) (Stranger Things does it better.)
But unlike the Dorgegodon -- and this is where our Stranger Things comparisons will end -- there's Pennywise, who is never hidden in the shadows or teased out to build suspense. Skarsgård doesn't so much skew toward Tim Curry, the actor who first and iconically embodied the dancing clown, as he does an actual music box clown come to life, with a bucktoothed innocence barely veiling his far more perverse, even perverted, actuality. When Pennywise laughs, a chuckle that becomes a manic, maniacal giggle, it's equal parts silly and sinister, as are most of the choices Skarsgård makes in the role. He isn't necessarily playing what you would expect from a quote unquote creepy clown, which makes it all the more unnerving. You'll laugh, too, but out of discomfort.
The first two-thirds of the movie can often feel aimless, with no over-arching plot, just a Loser (and us) being terrorized by a clown over and over, these scenes hitting the same beats over and over: A kid is lured into a dark and/or mysterious place, he is dumfounded by an unnaturally creepy vision, at which point Pennywise pops up to lunge at the kid with his teeth gnashing. The repetition means any actual jump scares are few and far between here; however, even though you know he's going to appear eventually, there is still a tension rising in your stomach, and you'll find yourself folding into your seat, clutching the arm rest or person next to you. (These early scare sequences would benefit from a few additional "breaths" between Pennywise appearances as well, which would make all the various ghouls and omnipresent balloons all the scarier.)
Slowly, It begins to piece itself together, as the boys and Lillis' Beverly realize they all have clown-centric frights in common and decide to hunt "it" down to end his reign of terror. That is when the movie begins to get genuinely terrifying, too, but where's the fun if I spoil any of that?
As directed by Andy Muschietti (2013's Mama), this It is certainly more outright scary than the one from the '90s, which aired over two nights on ABC. This iteration is rated R, for graphically violent bullying, implied incestuous rape and naturally, child murder. (Making clowns scary all over again, if the clown epidemic of 2016 wasn't enough.) Where It ultimately stumbles is when it gets bogged down in setting up its "Chapter Two." The original novel and series was split over 27 years, between the Losers' Club's childhood haunting and their return as adults. This, too, was conceived as a two-parter, which leaves audiences with an unfulfilling amount of answers when credits roll: Like, who is it and what is it and why is it? The answers to which, as dolled out in King's novel, are absolutely wild, and I dare Muschietti to adapt them into his It sequel. (Maturin the universe-creating turtle!)