By Scott Daniels
For my sixth birthday, my darling mother, bless her cotton socks, hired a clown for my birthday party. It did not have effect she intended. I cried, the other children cried, the clown cried, my mum cried, the other children’s parents cried, the clown probably lost faith in life, I developed a phobia of clowns, the clown probably drank himself into cardiac arrest, my mum probably (and correctly) thought she had ruined me forever, my dad probably cracked a beer and laughed his head off.
It would be easy to pin this particular response on the classic 1990 miniseries IT, and even though it was released at a perfect time to be nostalgic for me now, my fear is based on something more … arbitrary. Somewhere in my formative brain, I lumped in clowns, venquilotrist dummies (yeah cheers, Goosebumps), and my mum’s ever-growing doll collection (complete with their display cabinets covering three walls of an alcove in my house) into a conglomerate of flaking pastel, glass-eyed, rosy-cheeked devilry. Perhaps that is it — the concept of the clown was always doomed to become a horror icon through association. I wonder if the participants of Greek theatre would be astounded to discover that their symbology of the duelling happiness and sadness which dwells within everyone would become a modern horror icon. Paganini would be rolling in his grave.
Perhaps, it is the manifestation of all of these fears that is what truely unsettles me — Raggedy Andy dolls. They are my Achilles heel, my Kryptonite, my Star Wars Holiday Special. They are evil incarnate and much like George Lucas post-Christmas 1978, if I had the resources to track down every single of those accursed ranga cum rags, I would.
Personal context aside, 2017’s adaptation of Stephen King’s cocaine-fuelled magnum opus about a multi-generational battle with an intangible evil existing underneath their hometown of Derry, Maine, is an easily achieved improvement over 1990’s bloated, campy and technically scrappy miniseries that only attained its pop culture status due to Tim Curry’s legendary performance as Pennywise the Clown. Whittling down and rearranging King’s hefty narrative, thankfully avoiding the more questionable aspects of the novel and miniseries (no bonding pre-teen orgy is to be found here) and focusing solely on the first half of the story involving the children’s first encounter with this evil force (moving the story forward from the late 50’s to 1989) to keep the as yet-to-be produced second half of the story to be set in the modern day, 2017’s IT demonstrates a confidence and clarity lacking from the previous incarnation.
Whilst perhaps not as outright terrifying as perhaps the filmmakers intended, an inescapable veil of dread drenches the screen from the very first frame, with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung’s stunning use of framing, angles and colour resulting in one of the most picturesque horror movies to date. Clearly drawing influence from and paying tribute to another Stephen King classic, Stand By Me, as well as another 80s horror classic Nightmare On Elm Street (definitely in terms of the modus operandi of the titular villain), the script is snappy and concise for the most part, and allows for some startlingly powerful moments of drama and emotion, particularly in the storyline involving Bill’s obsession with the disappearance of his brother, culminating in a stunning scene in the film’s climax, to which this reviewer would be lying if he didn’t admit he noticed a lot of onions being cut up nearby.
The performances in IT are truly something to behold. Modern horror films are hardly praised for their actor’s performing chops, let alone those involving children, yet the entire cast absolutely demolish it. Jaeden Leiberher (Bill), Sophia Lillis (Beverly), and Jack Dylan Grazer (Eddie) are particular standouts, demonstrating an emotional range and ability far beyond their ages would suggest. It’s actually a slightly saddening thought knowing that we won’t be seeing them in the next film, as the chemistry between the actors is so strong it’s actually easy to forget you’re not watching a classic coming-of-age film helmed by Rob Reiner or John Hughes. Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise is the perfect foil to Tim Curry’s portrayal; every moment he has on screen reeks of ferocity and menace. Never does he disappear into the undoubtably massive amount of makeup and prosthetics (and occasional CG enhancements), when Skarsgard is on film, it is his. Such a shame that his performance, coupled with the tireless emphasis on establishing an unsettling creepy mood, too often gets derailed by jump scares that feel so out of place with the rest of the film, they feel like a forced afterthought.
Whilst not likely to become a modern horror classic, IT stands tall above most genre entries and no doubt due to the film’s record-breaking box office performance, will be in the public consciousness for the foreseeable future. Hopefully the next entry into the series will avoid the childish pratfalls into frustrating cliches that distracts from the rest of the stellar production quality, perhaps then, we may have a real monster on our hands.