Every 27 years it rises again to stalk the countryside and bring terror to children. I refer, of course, to Pennywise, the diabolical kid-eating clown first made famous in Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel, It. But I also refer to It itself, which was last seen as a two-part miniseries in 1990 and has now returned as a feature film by the Argentine director Andy Muschietti, best known for his 2013 movie Mama.
I recently revisited the old miniseries and found it to be a Spielberg-y throwback to the vibes of 1980s cinema—a bit like last year’s Netflix thriller Stranger Things. The difference, of course, is that Stranger Things, which returns for a second season next month, is consciously (and brilliantly) aping all those old ’80s tropes. The It miniseries, by contrast, couldn’t help but embody them: It did, after all, feature both John Ritter and Harry Anderson in central roles.
Unlike the miniseries, Muschietti’s film has opted to tell only half of King’s sprawling novel. That story began in 1957 in the town of Derry, Maine, with the murder of a young boy, Georgie Denbrough. Georgie’s preteen brother Bill, along with a group of fellow misfits who dub themselves the Losers Club, uncovered that Georgie’s death, and others, had taken place at the hands of Pennywise, an ageless and shape-shifting force of evil with a particular fondness for circuswear. The kids defeated the demon and pledged that if it ever returned they would come back to Derry to stop it again. The latter part of the novel took place in 1984, when Pennywise did in fact make his cicada-like reappearance and faced his final destruction at the hands of the now-40ish Losers.
Muschietti’s movie tells only the first “chapter” of the saga—there are plans for a sequel that will tell the second one—and he has moved the action forward to take place in 1988 and 1989. The odd result is that this telling, too, feels eerily like Stranger Things, albeit with considerably more gore splashed around: the same
The story, as any fan of the book or miniseries could tell you, begins with the most ill-fated paper boat in all of cinema. A rainstorm is sweeping Derry, and young Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), though too ill to go outside himself, carefully folds a construction-paper boat for little brother Georgie to play with. The latter delights in chasing the boat down the overflowing curb-streams of the neighborhood until it slips down a storm drain. There awaits Pennywise, who proceeds to bite off the boy’s arm before dragging him into the sewer. Poor Georgie. We scarcely knew you.
And so it begins. Pennywise starts haunting Bill and the other Losers (played by Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Wyatt Oleff, and Jack Dylan Grazer) by appearing as the embodiments of their darkest fears: an eruption of blood from a bathroom sink, a painting come to life, a club-footed leper. These hauntings eventually lead the gang to a creepy old abandoned house that sits atop a well to the sewers—a perfect horror twofer if ever there was one.
The young performers are good across the board (in particular Lieberher, Lillis, and Wolfhard), and manage the tricky feat of carrying a film with no meaningful adult lead. In this, they resemble the cast of the King-story-based Stand By Me, and indeed many of the movie’s best moments revolve around the complicated navigations of adolescence more than the gruesome machinations of Pennywise. (There’s a nice nod to a screening of A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 tucked in there, as well as several to the far-greater horror of New Kids on the Block.)
As Pennywise, Bill Skarsgård—son of the actor Stellan—sports a frilled collar, white skin, and high forehead that recall the Elizabethan ideal of female beauty. The result is a monster coyer and less overtly clown-like than the 1990 Tim Curry version, though one, I suspect, that will ultimately prove less memorable.
Nor are the terrors of Derry limited to the many guises of Pennywise. Though the streets are lovely, darkness lurks behind its doors: an abusive father; a jealously protective mother; a posse of exceptionally murderous bullies. (It’s no coincidence that the best onscreen adaptations of King tend to focus on such human complications and abjure the supernatural altogether: The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Misery, etc.)
It is here, on the level of metaphor, that Muschietti’s film unexpectedly disappoints. One of the themes of King’s novel, and the original miniseries, was the deep-seated complicity of Derry’s adults in the atrocities committed by Pennywise. They were unable, in the literal sense, to see the visions he inflicted upon the children of the town. But, more broadly, they refused to acknowledge that anything unusual was taking place at all, even as the disappearance of one child was quickly superseded by the disappearance of another.
Muschietti nods lightly toward this idea, but despite his movie’s 135-minute running time, he prefers to devote his footage to the many CGI-enhanced transformations of Pennywise (including the way his jaw distends impossibly to reveal row after row of dagger-teeth, an image that has grown all too common in horror and sci-fi fare). This privileging of the Big Scare over the deeper dread is a particular letdown coming from Muschietti, whose Mama was a far moodier, more evocative entrant in the genre.
What we’re left with is a solid but relatively conventional horror movie, above average but overlong—especially given the decision to limit its scope to half of King’s novel. But the hoped-for sequel is quite clearly advertised at the film’s conclusion, which announces that it constitutes “Chapter One,” and closes with the iconic pledge that Bill demands of his fellow Losers: “Swear: If it isn’t dead, if it ever comes back, we’ll come back too.” I’m afraid I can make no such promise.