Welcome to Stephen-Kingville! Also known as Castle Rock or sometimes Derry, but almost always located in Maine. Perhaps it’s been a while since you were last here, but it’s just as you remember it! There are sociopathic bullies, abusive adults, alcohol problems, and a scrappy bunch of disparate kids doing battle with an ancient evil. This time it’s the evil clown monster, Pennywise, who has been picking off kids in the small town of Derry. The kids must overcome their own fears and pull together to defeat the child eating beast.
Stephen King’s horror has always been rather silly for my taste. Haunted 1958 Plymouth Furies, killer St Bernards, whatever the hell Tommyknockers are. You have two options. You can cut most of the silly stuff and substitute your own, darker brand of horror. Stanley Kubrick took this option and made The Shining, the scariest movie ever made. Alternatively you can lean into the silly, and make an unapologetically playful yet grisly horror movie. IT (2017) is the latter, and it’s pretty damn fun as a result!
Andy Muschietti is the director, the argentine film maker who brought you the short film, and later the motion picture, Mama. You can see how the director’s sensibilities shape the horror set pieces. Grotesque monsters, including a deformed skinny woman, jerkily chase our characters around. Pennywise is able to form whatever guise will frighten the children the most and so we get some very diverse and creative monsters. My favourite is undoubtedly the decaying transient who comes after germaphobe, Eddie. It’s quite a unique horror aesthetic, pitched somewhere between a children’s book and the Evil Dead.
But the greatest monster is Pennywise the clown, as he should be. Bill Skarsgard is fantastic in the role previously made famous by Tim Curry. Sometimes the CGI was a little overbearing, but Skarsgard’s gleeful performance shines through. His menacing smile and halting speech were far scarier than the rows of big teeth the animator gave him.
There were two instances where I felt unnerved by the horror, instead of amused (and I don’t mean to detract from the film. I haven’t been this entertained by a horror movie in years!). The first was the iconic sequence of Pennywise in the sewers, trying to lure in Georgie. It ends rather more viscerally than the original TV miniseries, but the tension was very patiently built leading up to it. The other involved a single image amidst one of the horror set pieces. At the end of a corridor and through a sheet of plastic we glimpse pennywise swinging from the end of a chain. It’s played to silence and it’s not clear what he’s doing. A nice quiet, unsettling image, like Kubrick would do! Aside from those I found myself giggling quietly, which is no bad thing. I think kids will find this very frightening. I hope enough of them are able to sneak into the cinemas to see it.
Of course all this horror is only really effective if you care about the characters. Looking past the rather one-dimensional abusive adults and bullies, the actual “Loser Club” are well played and charming. They’re not very natural or deep, but they’re fun archetypes that you can immediately identify. We learn just enough about them to understand why the particular apparitions scare them and care just enough to hope they overcome the clown. The humour often fell flat for me, but the young performers were able to inject some life into their roles.
What I enjoyed most about this horror film, and what sets it apart from previous, po-faced King adaptations is the mischievous atmosphere. It’s a playful film that’s creative enough to find new ways to startle you. . It’s just not all that scary. But perhaps that’s just me and King.
3 / 5
Paul Salt is co-host of the podcast One Good Thing.