Film Review: It

The great comeback of Pennywise the killer clown is scary and surprisingly fun.
Major Releases

In case there’s anyone left who still associates clowns with light, wacky fun instead of blood, guts and murder, here’s Andy Muschietti’s It to reiterate the holy word of Stephen King. Namely: Clowns are creepy as hell. Never is this truer than when Bill Skarsgård dons the greasepaint and red wig of Pennywise, the dancing (and child-murdering) clown of Derry, Maine. Sorry, Tim Curry. You’ve been outdone. In this one particular instance, anyways. We’ll always have Legend.

In this time of endless remakes and adaptations, what sets Stephen King’s seminal 1986 horror novel It apart from other cultural touchstones is that it’s never really had a proper adaptation. There’s the Tim Curry-starring miniseries, of course, which introduced a whole generation to Pennywise. But this was network television in 1990—well before NBC broke new gore ground for basic cable with Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal”—and no one was willing to venture further than a strong PG. Not that scares require explicit violence, but…well, 27 years on, and that first adaptation of It looks pretty tame. Aside from Curry’s performance, it really hasn’t aged well.

“Tame” is an adjective that cannot be applied to Muschietti’s It, which embraces its R rating with all the blood, foul language and blistering sores (oh, that leper scene!) it can pack in its two-hour-and-15-minute running time. Still, the gore never feels gratuitous, or like Muschietti is delighting in piling pain onto his young heroes.

Pennywise is the most iconic character in It, but most important to the soul of the story is the Losers Club, a gang of elementary-school misfits—stuttering Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), whose brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is one of Pennywise’s early victims; hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer); overweight new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor); practical-minded outsider Mike (Chosen Jacobs); hyperactive Richie (“Stranger Things”’ Finn Wolfhard); tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis); and nervous Stan (Wyatt Oleff)—who decide that if Derry’s adults can’t see that there’s a demonic entity picking off children one by one, then, dammit, they’re going to have to do something about it themselves. It is scary enough, Skarsgård’s performance giving Pennywise a gleeful, childlike edge that makes scenes where he’s doing no more than verbally taunting the kids positively skin-crawling. But something that you don’t see in the pulse-pounding trailers is this: It is actually pretty funny.

Granted, we’re not talking full horror-comedy territory here. And your appreciation of It’s humor will depend largely on your attitude towards the incongruity of children—most frequently Wolfhard’s bespectacled Richie, a standout here—saying the word “fuck” and bragging about sexual encounters they clearly have not had. (Actually, that’s not really incongruous—young boys have joked about having sex with each other’s mothers and sisters since the beginning of time.) But across the board, Muschietti has assembled an amazing crew of young actors with a vibrant energy that makes them really fun to watch, whether they’re reacting (sometimes hilariously) to their dire situation or bonding at a local watering hole. Picture an R-rated Sandlot with a killer clown thrown into a mix, and you’ve got a pretty good start.

Itis not a perfect film. There are times when the CGI gets a bit wonky, particularly when Pennywise reveals a particularly demonic aspect of his form; one wishes Muschietti would have dialed back a bit and not shown us everything. And, like many films nowadays, It could have been about 20 minutes shorter. In the third act, in particular, the film lags a bit, and as a result it (and It) ends on a somewhat anticlimactic note.

That said, if you’re familiar with the source material, it’s no spoiler to say that the end of Muschietti’s film isn’t the end of the story. King’s book switches back and forth between the perspective of the young Losers Club and the events of decades later, when they return to Derry as adults to battle their hometown boogeyman one last time. Assuming It does well enough, the adventures of the adult Losers Club will take place in a second film. Which is to say, expect Pennywise 2: Electric Boogaloo to float into theatres a few years from now. With its crowd-pleasing blend of scares and laughs, It should bring audiences to theatres in droves.

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