There are three things in cinema that give me the absolute fear: Tinkling circus music, distorted facial features and, um, clowns. So, Stephen King’s It has never been top of my ‘must watch’ list. In fact, I’ve never seen the Tim Curry version. However, the social media frenzy and marketing campaign surrounding this particular adaptation piqued my interest so, in the name of journalism, I tried to put my fears to one side. This wasn’t easy when there were individuals walking about in and around the cinema, holding on to single red balloons. And, if I were to sum up my viewing experience of Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise in one word, it would be this: Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck.
This isn’t a horror in the conventional, slasher sense. There is a thorough plotline and well-developed characters, owing to the rich source material. It’s less mindless violence, more coming-of-age, psychological, adventure thriller – if that’s even a genre. Unlike a huge majority of horror films, there is a clear beginning, middle and end, justifiable violence and jump scares and a brilliantly talented young cast. Bill Skarsgard is absolutely electric as the villain of the piece, but more on that later.
Pennywise aside, The Losers Club at the heart of It are the key to the film’s success. Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor and Jaeden Lieberher stand out, in particular. They genuinely seem like normal teens, grappling with their high school and pre-pubescent experience. They make ‘your mum’ jokes and, despite the relatively large number in the group, are given time to develop a distinct personality and back story. It looks like they had a great time filming – racing bikes up and down, jumping into quarries. It captures how a summer should be spent.
In amongst the horror of the situation, there are moments of real poignancy and sadness. Beverley’s (Sophia Lillis) homelife – and how ‘It’ chooses to manifest that – is so heartbreaking. She is literally afraid of her own womanhood and what that means for her lecherous father. What the film absolutely nails is the very essence of childhood: We spend our formative years both fearless and afraid. We are fearless enough to follow a trail of mysterious Easter eggs and floating red balloons, but we are afraid of a monstrous old painting or the process of grieving and loss. Sometimes, it is the adults in our lives that are the source of our fears; a predatory father, a hypochondriac mother.
And that is exactly what ‘It’ is counting on: That fear will take over, making the children good enough to eat. Despite the fact that the clown imagery is so synonymous with this film, it’s the shape-shifting element of Pennywise that makes him so terrifying. He can literally embody your biggest fears. If you listen out, he’s even managed to worm his way in to the seemingly innocent TV shows that drone in the background. From the moment his glowing, slightly askew eyes appear in that storm drain, both the central characters and the viewing audience are in for a rough ride. Director Andres Muschietti doesn’t let the pace drop; subjecting you to some truly disturbing imagery and uncomfortable sequences of violence.
I’m not ashamed to admit that – for want of a more eloquent phrase – I was shitting myself for the vast majority of the two hour runtime. The opening sequence left me horrified, and that feeling never truly went away. Bill Skarsgard trained with a contortionist before filming, and that is so clear. His physicality is so impactful – He literally seems to take over an entire room with his stance. He is a maniac; ripening children to the point of absolute terror so that their flesh tastes better. What really got me was anytime he charged, full pelt, towards the camera, howling like a Banshee. I was squirming in my seat.
The final sequence in the sewers – wherein finally a group of potential victims realise that there is strength in numbers and splitting up is a stupid idea – is heart stopping. Skarsgard grins ear-to-ear, salivating and licking his lips, baiting the children to come at him. A fearless villain is always the most dangerous.
The more I think about this film, the more I absolutely loved it. It’s not about a ‘killer clown’ as such, it’s about the irrationality of fear and how it manifests within us. It’s a really intelligent contribution to the horror genre.
So, roll up, roll up, go see Pennywise the Dancing Clown … You’ll float too.