Clowns were, are and always will be scary. Pennywise, the antagonist of Stephen King’s It, is no different. He is arguably the second scariest clown of all time. He terrified many in the literary form in the 80s, Tim Curry embodied him in a hit 90s miniseries and now Bill Skarsgård is bringing the horror to the 21st century.
It opens with an iconic scene of Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) playing with a paper boat during a storm in the small town of Derry. He encounters Pennywise, the dancing clown (Bill Skarsgård), when reaching down a sewer where his boat got lost. Pennywise offers Georgie his lost boat, but their encounter results in Georgie getting lost as well. It is a thrilling opening, one that perfectly sets the mood for the upcoming two hours, even if the film never lives up to this moment.
Everyone believes that Georgie is dead, except for his brother Billy (Jaeden Martell) who thinks that he’s merely lost in the sewers underneath Derry. Due to this tragedy looming over him as well as his constant stuttering, he’s an outsider. A loser, if you will. He has a small group of friends that consists of a Jewish boy Stan (Wyatt Oleff), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) and the joker of the group, Richie (Finn Wolfhard). During the course of the film they are joined by an overweight new student named Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor). He doesn’t have any friends, so he spends his time in the library, reading about the surprisingly violent history of Derry. Mike (Chosen Jacobs) helps his family sell meat in the town, despite the threat of an racially-motivated attack. Last, but certainly not least, is Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the only girl in this group.
All of them possess a certain setback that, in one way or another, makes them a loser. Thus, the Losers Club is born. Not only do they bond over they setbacks, but also over the threat of Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), the school bully. This subplot serves its purpose to bring characters together, but it’s largely uninteresting in its execution. Henry exists only for few scenes, which slow the film down significantly. He is given some character development in the film, but by that time it’s already too late.
Beverly ends up being the stand-out character of the film, thanks to Lillis’ fantastic performance. She brings a dynamic that immediately livens up the screen every time she’s in the frame. Her backstory is one of the more complex ones, with a few surprising twists along the way. As the only girl in the Losers Club, it’s fun to see the adolescent boys act around her. Another great performance comes from Jaeden Martell as the lead of the film. Billy is the unlikely hero, who just wants to get his little brother back. That’s what makes his role in the film so endearing, as he drives the story forward with his determination.
The interactions between the Losers Club make for most of the comedy in the film. Besides being a horror, there are parts when It feels like a comedy-adventure film in the vein of Stand By Me. The comedy comes mainly from Richie, armed with dick jokes worthy of a 13-year-old. Others get a few funny lines, but it’s Wolfhard’s Richie who gets the laughs, even at the very end.
No matter how funny these kids may be, they are rarely fun to hang around with. This stems from their friendship, or lack thereof. All of them get a brief backstory, explaining their deep fears and their connection to the overall plot of the film. These stories are well done, even if they do little to make the characters more appealing. Most of the Losers Club doesn’t change significantly throughout the film and there is never a good reason to care about them. It is scary watching Pennywise close in on them, but I never found myself worrying about their well being or their chances for survival. Other than Billy and Beverly, the Losers Club is pretty uninteresting to the point that you’ll struggle to remember their names shortly after the film ends.
As unpleasant as the shortcoming with the kids may be, they all fall short when the time for horror comes. It is a chilling film, thanks to the amazing Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise. He gives a raw portrayal of a shape shifting killer clown. In equal amount childishly playful and animalistic, this version of Pennywise is truly terrifying. He makes the film his own, easily overshadows Tim Curry and every other clown put to screen. Part of the reason why Pennywise works so well is his very limited screen time. Like the best movie monsters (shark from Jaws, Michael Myers in Halloween or the Xenomorph), It is only briefly seen, with very few lines.
With his clever direction, Andy Muschietti manages to effortlessly combine comedy and horror in a way that feels natural for the film. There are many scares in the film and most of them are made up of cleverly staged jumpscare-esque moments prone to make you move in your seat. Even in the funniest moments, the film doesn’t let you forget that it is a horror and any comedic scene can be turned into a nightmarish set-piece in a matter of few moments. It is shot by Chung-hoon Chung, a frequent collaborator of Park Chan-Wook. The lush, sweeping cinematography gives a special kind of flow to many of the films dreary sequences. Town of Derry itself is shot in a naturalistic way, which makes the red balloons and Pennywise himself pop on the screen. The visuals are complemented by Benjamin Wallfisch (A Cure for Wellness) rich and heavily atmospheric score, that is a lot more straightforward in its composition than modern horror scores tend to be.
All of this works perfectly for the film, but Bill Skarsgård ends up feeling underused. The film could have given him more, especially during the second act of the film, where the pacing gets dragged down by subplots. His lack of screen time is thankfully made up for in the final showdown at the end of the film. Bill’s performance is enhanced by some great VFX works, when the Losers Club face It in all the possible shapeshifting forms.
Andy Muschietti crafted a horror film that stands strong not only as a prime example of an adaptation, but as a great film on its own. Anchored by a powerful performance from Bill Skarsgård as the titular character, It is a compelling must-watch for any fan of the genre.