By Kevin Redding
Real-life clowns out there will no doubt have trouble booking gigs after this past weekend. But no matter what permanent damage Pennywise the Dancing Clown, as sinisterly portrayed by Swedish actor/chameleon Bill Skarsgard in the new “IT,” does to the facepaint-and-red nose industry, I believe it will ultimately be this generation of kids who are most struck by the modern horror masterpiece.
Just as the 1990 TV miniseries of “IT,” featuring Tim Curry as the evil child-eating clown, served as a gateway into the genre for many modern horror fans — I vividly recall being a kid transfixed just by the disturbing VHS cover in the forbidden-yet-intoxicating horror section at Blockbuster — this new, and far better, take on Stephen King’s 1,138-page source material might just be the key to that scarier side of storytelling for millennials.
Even during a sold-out showing on Sept. 8, young kids were peppered throughout the theater, many of them with sweatshirts on their laps and at the ready to be used as protective shields against the screen whenever the music turned sour and Pennywise reared its bulbous head. But as the movie went on, more and more of these kids got brave and began to face their fears, just like the film’s protagonists.
And it’s not hard to understand why. This movie, in a word, rules.
Director Andy Muschietti’s first of a two-part adaptation of King’s colossal 1986 novel about a pack of kids who battle various forms of evil floating out of the sewers in their hometown feels like the big-screen equivalent of navigating through a haunted house attraction at a carnival, where clowns with razor sharp teeth serve peanuts and popcorn.
“IT” — an intense and atmospheric barrage of pop-up frights and unsettling images balanced out with some big laughs (especially the big payoff to a running New Kids on the Block joke) and feel-good camaraderie — is a perfect mashing of coming-of-age adventure and ghastly freak show. And that’s what separates this beast from most horror movies these days.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker and lesser cast, this “IT” would’ve been all about the eponymous monster, and the kid heroes would’ve been an afterthought — or worse, rooted against. But it’s the Losers Club (made up of young teenagers Bill, Ben, Bev, Richie, Eddie, Mike and Stanley), and what I consider the best ensemble of kid actors I’ve ever seen, that ride away with the movie and our hearts.
The book bounces back and forth between kid Losers and adult Losers, but this movie wisely focuses solely on the kids, while an already greenlit-and-ready-to-go Part II will pick up in adulthood.
Set in Derry, Maine, in the summer of 1989, a time of nostalgia for 2017 audiences as the book’s early 1958 setting was for its ’80s readers, Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) is still shaken by the gruesome death of his little brother Georgie a year prior.
In a magnificent opener, little Georgie following a paper boat made by Bill is introduced to Pennywise, (the best and most quiet of Skarsgard’s chilling performances) who lurks in the darkness of a sewer. After brief niceties, Georgie becomes the first of many Pennywise victims when his arm is bitten off and he’s dragged down the storm drain.
From there, Bill, who believes his brother is still out there somewhere, is joined by his ragtag group of outcast friends to find out just what’s going on in their unsettling town, where the adults turn their backs while kids are bullied, go missing and frequently come face to face with terrifying creatures — such as a Leper, an embodiment of Eddie’s paralyzing fear of disease and a bone-chilling painting of a malformed, flute-wielding woman that comes to life to haunt Stanley.
The young cast give phenomenal performances, with the standouts being “Stranger Things” star Finn Wolfhard as foul-mouthed Richie, Jeremy Ray Taylor as portly-and-sweet new kid Ben Hanscom and Sophia Lillis, who will surely go on to become a huge star, as Beverly Marsh.
I have no doubt that this Halloween there will be a Losers Club in every neighborhood, riding around on bikes bonded together in search of candy and the inevitable dozens of Pennywises prowling the streets.
Speaking of Pennywise, it cannot be stated enough just how menacing, powerful and stress-inducing Skarsgard is in the role, somehow making the iconic character all his own and turning Curry’s clown into something cute and harmless in comparison (similar to what Heath Ledger did with the Joker in “The Dark Knight”). The Pennywise moment that will forever be burned in my head as long as I live involves a fridge. All I’m sayin’.
Muschietti, who previously directed “Mama,” pulled no punches here, offering up a relentless fun house of fear with an unexpected layering of heart and soul that will certainly connect with nonhorror audiences. While there may have been a bit too much reliance on computer-generated imagery and the all-too-familiar jump scares that make for startling movie trailer moments but come off a bit flat in the context of the film, “IT” is scary, thoughtful, funny and everything a horror nut like me wanted.
And it just might lure this new generation into the sewers of horror appreciation.
Rated R for violence/horror, bloody images, and for language, “IT” is now playing in local theaters.
Photos courtesy of Warner Brothers