OP-ROB RATING: STARTER
Clowns have never been a particularly strong source of fright for me. Perhaps that is because I grew up decades after Bozo’s Circus would have been on TV and the part-time clown and serial killer John Wayne Gacy committed his appalling crimes. Nonetheless, there is something eerily strange about a full-grown man dressed up in makeup, with dyed hair and a colorful outfit with buttons and tassels. Furthermore, there is something downright terrifying about one of those men coaxing a small child into a storm drain. Such a situation is the opening scene of Andy Muschietti’s new horror film, “It”, an adaption of Stephen King’s 1986 novel.
The main characters are the self-deemed “Losers”, a group middle school-aged misfits led by Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), a scrawny boy who struggles with a stutter. Other members of The Losers are Mike (Chosen Jacobs) one of the few black kids in town who is well-versed in local folklore, Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) who is overly cautious and seemingly always sick, a fat kid named Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Stan the germaphobe (Wyatt Oleff), the foul-mouthed Richie (Finn Wolfhard) who wears glasses as thick as a window pane, and finally Bev (Sophia Lillis) a pretty girl who has been unfairly outcast as a slut by everyone at school. It is a big crew, with many of the members being drawn in out of fear for the town bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who sadistically terrorizes them with a pocketknife.
However, it is not Henry Bowers who poses the main threat to The Losers, or their small town of Derry, Maine in general. The aforementioned child who is unfortunate enough to happen upon the storm drain is Bill’s younger brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), who in the introduction run downs his neighborhood street chasing a paper boat swiftly floating through the gutter in a rainstorm. The boat takes an ill-fated turn into a storm drain, where upon investigation Georgie is surprised to come face-to-face with an impish looking clown clutching his boat. The clown introduces himself as Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård) and proceeds to entice Georgie to reach into the drain for his boat. The rest of the scene makes for unpleasant viewing, and the start of many hauntings that will threaten the existence of The Losers.
As far as performances, the kids work together nicely enough, yet the utmost praise goes to Skarsgård in the role of Pennywise. While his clown attire is nothing short of disturbing, his manner of speech is at once inviting and repulsive. You can see in the scene with Georgie how his slick tongue is tricky enough to cajole especially younger children. The most spine-chilling scenes are those in which Pennywise is given the floor to talk without interruption. Yet the bulk of the thrill is devoted to pop-ups and blatant special effects. In the horror genre, pop-ups and brief scares can only do so much. The greatest moments of dread are instead built on patience and sure-handed direction. Would “Get Out” have the same petrifying effect if Chris’ experience at the Armitage house weren’t a steady escalation of weird situations? Would the climax of “The Silence of the Lambs” be as thrilling if Clarice were absolutely positive of Buffalo Bill’s house when she knocked on the door? Obviously not! Great horror requires great endurance, and “It” lacks such focus.
The supposed “scariest” scenes in the film are hit-and-run in nature. Pennywise never traps us in a way that sucks the air out of the theater. In one of the scenes documented by the theatrical trailer, Pennywise uses a mirage of Georgie to lure Bill into his flooded basement cellar. Georgie runs into the corner and invites Bill to join him saying, “You’ll float too”, over and over. Georgie rapidly speeds up his tone as Pennywise rises out of the water and rushes Bill. The scene is over in seconds and is a prime example of how “It” speeds up where it should slow down. In too many instances the scares are too rushed.
Though “It” flails around with many scenes, the movie as a whole is superior to your average horror flick. As we find out throughout the film, Pennywise is not the only monster lurking beneath the warm small-town vibes of the fictional town of Derry, Maine. Almost every one of the main characters comes from dysfunctional or abusive families, Bev especially. This David Lynch-ian dynamic is perfectly set up in the opening of the film in which Bill crafts the paper boat for his little brother. In the scene, Bill waterproofs the cute little boat using wax from a box labeled “Gulf Wax” in 80s style lettering. Georgie then runs out into the quaint neighborhood with his classic yellow rain jacket, only to encounter a horrifying monster at the end of his outing. This idea of underlying darkness adds an impressively deep element to an otherwise ho-hum string of jolts.
Even more apparent is the theme of childhood fear, which Pennywise exploits to torment his victims and feed his own power. Each child in the crew is haunted by a personal ghost. By the end of the film, the main characters are forced to either overcome their inner demons, or succumb to the killer clown. Although “It” isn’t a film I would want see multiple times, it bears a compelling message and a unique approach that will endure much as its original material has.