Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) terrorises kids in the small American town of Derry by envisioning their fears and then feasting on their flesh in It. Posters of missing children stack up walls but the adults ignore what’s happening, and the town thrives regardless of the tragedy in its midst. Director, Andy Muschietti (Mama), taps into the American tradition of failing to protect the innocent in his adaptation of Stephen King’s chilling novel that turned clowns into nightmare fuel.
And the book is still the best bet if you want to forego weeks of sleep. Muschietti’s film; not so much. The opening scene with Pennywise appearing in a sewer for its first kill is strong. Skarsgård is excellent playing the clown like a shark ready to roll its eyes back at the smell of blood in the water; his teeth are too sharp to be human.
But It becomes prey to a formula of delivering scares: creep, creep, pause… here’s Pennywise! You can set a stopwatch to the film’s game of peek-a-boo.
It blurs the line between what’s real or a vision created by the monster. It’s reminiscent of the paranoia of being awake or asleep in A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it lacks the inventiveness of Wes Craven’s film. Muschietti manages to only glance the skin but he never gets under it. A lot of the edge is taken off by an overuse of digital effects in key moments that make horrifying creations look more like Play-Doh left in the sun too long.
The more time you spend with the kids, who call themselves ‘the losers’, the more you realise It is a good film about friendship and growing up trapped in a mediocre haunted house. Most of this is down to perfect casting – expect to see these kid actors popping up everywhere soon. Finn Wolfhard (recognisable from Stranger Things) is fun as the fast-talking goofball of the group and Jack Dylan Grazer is great as a neurotic naysayer always reaching for his puffer.
Each of the loser’s fears is related to the pre-pubescent dread of a dark world waiting to twist them into adulthood. The strength of It is how they face their fears united, especially when it’s clear the adults are failing these kids. Muschietti evokes the sense of dread that surrounds American tragedies like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, an incident that failed to get a nation to act on gun control. The town of Derry, Maine, is far more terrifying than anything the clown can conjure. Encounters with trusted members of the community are chilling; the pharmacist is a sleeze, older residents look away from violence and parents are predators. Muschietti’s camera lingers of street signs, local businesses, houses and amenities; idyllic looking, but it’s a facade. Derry is a bear trap laying silent to snare the town’s youth.
Unable to rely on their parents, the losers realise they are stronger together while Pennywise works to divide and devour them. It functions best like another King adaptation, Stand By Me, but instead of going looking for a dead body, the corpse comes to the kids dressed like a clown and ready for a feast. With a big heart it’s a shame It can only muster an impersonation of an cuckoo clock on the horror front.