In the film industry, it’s a very noble and lucrative task to traumatize your audience. They ask for it and pay good money to be psychologically crossbowed for two-plus hours. Older generations want their old wounds ripped open, and newer ones want to be summarily robbed of their innocence. For better or worse, that was the daunting task that director Andy Muschietti undertook when adapting Stephen King’s alcohol-fueled, 1,100-page novel “It.”
Muschietti’s “It” isn’t just an adaptation — it’s also a remake of the 1990 two-part miniseries, which makes up for what it lacks in technical flourish with a surplus of lasting creepiness, mostly owing to the indelibly haunting performance of Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, a shapeshifting manifestation of the collective childhood nightmare that terrorizes seven kids known as the “Losers” in the town of Derry, Maine.
As memorable as the original miniseries was, its flaws keep it from being the definitive adaptation, leaving the door open for an ambitious reimagining starring Bill Skarsgård as the titular clown and a new, talented young cast of Losers headlined by Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame. “It” also borrows from the Stranger Things era, transforming into what was originally a late-50’s, anti-Rockwellian backdrop into a pop culture soaked 1989 setting. And if you miss the title card that announces it, the rapid-fire references to New Kids on the Block, The Cure, Michael Jackson, and other late-80’s cultural touchstones will likely clue you in.
On the surface, “It” initially comes across like another Stephen King inspired film, “Stand by Me,” with the additional supernatural horror. The reality, however, is much darker. The nightmarish scenes that the kids witness around Derry serve as a mask for the town’s sadistic bullies, deadbeat parents, violent racism and sexual abuse. At times, it’s hard to tell which is scarier: the dancing circus clown that abducts children and drags them into Derry’s sprawling sewer system, or the adults that turn a blind eye. Between the bathroom sink spouting blood that works as a thinly-veiled menstruation metaphor for the lone female Loser, Beverley, and the leper that plays on the fears of the hypochondriac asthmatic kid, Eddie, as well as the prevailing AIDS paranoia of the time, “It” taps into a general anxiety that almost everyone, regardless of age, race, or gender, can identify with. Of course, it all culminates with the clown.
Like when Heath Ledger assumed the role of the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” a character mostly associated with Jack Nicholson prior to 2008, Bill Skarsgård makes Pennywise into his own creation rather than impersonating Tim Curry. Skarsgård’s Pennywise looks different, sounds different, and acts different than Curry’s. The 1990 iteration of Pennywise, clearly inspired by the real-life monster John Wayne Gacy, is more terrifying when he opens his mouth and taunts his victims about their deep-seated insecurities than when he actually attacks them. This new Pennywise hardly looks human, almost as if the clown makeup isn’t temporary, and is as violent as he is menacing, although that may be as much the product of 27 years of technological advance and a larger budget than an updated vision for the character.
Like the miniseries, “It” is not without its flaws, but it eventually succeeds in spite of them. In the first half of the movie, “It” shifts too quickly between the lighthearted dialogue between the kids and the sudden terror, which makes it hard to establish any type of mood or atmosphere, and puts composer Benjamin Wallfisch in a bind when trying to create a score that fits the choppy sequencing. By the second half, however, the movie gathers itself and settles into the high-concept horror story that “It” is.
Ultimately, “It” is thoroughly terrifying, maybe not in the lasting way the miniseries or novel is, but in a way that makes you desperately want to look away, but not long enough to get a look at your own, personal It.