IT movie review: Stephen King's Pennywise is terrifyingly revived in nostalgic horror
When I first heard the term coulrophobia, I thought it meant a fear of cholera. That's an anxiety I can understand, but why anyone would be bothered by clowns has always puzzled me. Seeing It would give you pause, however, because Bill Skarsgard's Pennywise is a truly scary creation.
The film is based on Stephen King's 1986 novel, which in 1990 was turned into a TV show starring Tim Curry as the predatory clown. But his was a tricksy, manic, slyly humorous version: the Pennywise in this film is a baleful, cruel, primordial presence.
In a superb opening sequence, a heartbreakingly cute six-year-old boy called George Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) waits impatiently while his older brother Bill (Jaeden Leiberher) coats a paper boat with varnish so it will float in the flooded street drains. He finishes it and George heads out into the torrential rain to sail it down the gutters. When it races ahead and disappears into a storm drain, George bends down to retrieve it. A pair of glowing yellow eyes appear, and a friendly voice salutes the boy by name.
It's Pennywise, who chats to the boy, offers him a red balloon and pounces at exactly the right moment. After George disappears, his older brother refuses to accept that he's dead and becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to him.
It emerges that other children have been disappearing around Derry, Maine, and Bill connects these events to the town's crumbling sewers.
Bill stutters and is marginalised at school, but gets help from his best friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stanley (Wyatt Oleff) and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), who refer to themselves as the 'Losers Club'. All these boys have social disadvantages - Richie has glasses and a big mouth, Eddie's a hypochondriac, Stanley's terrified of germs - but find solace in each other's company, and a long summer gets much more interesting when they're joined by Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis).
Beverly is bullied, and dogged by stories about her legendary promiscuity which turn out to be untrue. And things are even worse at home, where it's implied she's been abused. She bonds with Bill's gang of misfits, but as they begin to unravel the mystery of Pennywise, they're all haunted by terrifying visions of their worst fears. The clown is trying to separate them, and they'll only defeat him if they stick together.
It is directed by Argentinian film-maker Andres Muschietti, whose only other feature was the stylish but insubstantial 2013 horror movie Mama. He starts this film brilliantly and that sweeping rainy opening sequence draws you completely into King's chilling story. His novel was set in the 1950s, but this movie is situated very deliberately in the mid-1980s, and constantly evokes the cultural touchstones of that time.
It's partly a horror film, of course, but also a surprisingly funny and touching coming-of-age story that reminds one of 80s classics like Stand By Me (another King adaptation) and The Goonies. The teenagers' social exclusion and ongoing battle with a gang of bullies are part and parcel of their larger struggle with Pennywise, who in the end is an embodiment of their fear.
The young ensemble work well together and Leiberher and Lillis are excellent in the film's most pivotal roles. Grown-ups are largely peripheral in this story and the teenagers live in a world where they must solve their problems alone.
But despite its heart and sumptuous design, It has problems. Most good horror films are 90 to 100 minutes long because that's about as much tension your average audience can stand. It jangles on for two hours and 15 minutes, and makes the mistake of throwing a few too many apparitions at us.
But though Pennywise makes regular appearances, he never quite emerges as an actual character.
Tim Curry's clown made you laugh and quake at the same time, but this thing is a hollow bogeyman, and not substantial enough perhaps to build an entire film around.
Films coming soon...
Mother! (Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris); Victoria And Abdul (Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Simon Cowell, Tim Pigott-Smith); The Villainess (Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon); The Jungle Bunch (Michel Mella, Paul Borne).