We all float down here…
It’s been a long time since Tim Curry graced our screens with his disturbing and disturbed Pennywise the dancing clown in a two part version of Stephen King’s It. In 1990, he was a pretty scary evil clown, but what passed for fear in the 90’s is camp now. The property was ripe for a remake, but it could so easily all go wrong. King’s books have been adapted for the screen for decades with some really mixed results. For every Carrie or The Shining you have supremely bad and confusing duds like Dreamcatcher. There was always the chance that this could be an epic fail.
Instead, it’s one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time (and I watch a lot of horror films) and is perhaps a new entry in my list of favourites.
It is the story of a group of kids who live in Derry, an idyllic small town in Maine (of course, where else?) which has a major problem. When Georgie, younger brother of Bill (Lieberher), goes out to play in the rain one day, he never comes home. Soon other children go missing, but Bill holds out hope that Georgie might still be alive. When he and his misfit friends start to see strange and terrifying things, including a clown called Pennywise (Skarsgard), they discover that this isn’t the first time the clown has stalked children in Derry, and also that adults can’t see him. They may be the only thing that can save the children of Derry.
Those of you who know the book or the older film will know that there’s more to the story, and this will be told in a second film. If you’ve seen how thick the book is, you can imagine why (it’s fat enough to choke a whale!). And if you’re a fan of the Stephen King book, you might have concerns about those changes from manuscript to screen… well there are some, notably that instead of being set in the 60’s, it’s now set in the late 80’s, and Beverley who was such a good shot in the original story now has a slightly different story, but these are really cosmetic changes. The sense of the deep bond between a group of kids who don’t fit in and need each other, who all have their own dysfunctional family story, who all have their own personal fears, well that deep beating heart is till there.
In fact, it’s probably what makes this film so wonderful. The group of kids call themselves jokingly the losers. There’s Bill, whose lost his little brother Georgie to the clown. Beverley (Lillis), who lives with her creepy father and who is slut shamed by the other girls at school. The new kid Ben (Taylor), who here loves New Kids On Block, crushes on Beverley and is chubby enough to gain the attention of the school bullies (no one bullies like an 80’s bully). Richie (Strnager Things alumnus Wolfhard) is the joker of the group, and is adorable with his thick glasses and attempts at humour. Mike (Jacobs) is home schooled and lives with his grandfather since his parents died. Eddie’s (Grazer) mother is overbearing and overweight, and he’s terrified of getting sick. And Stanley (Oleff) is a Jewish kid, whose father is a Rabbi and pressures him to study harder. Each one is a well realised person with a distinct voice, which is no small feat with this many characters and with child actors. They manage to encapsulate different aspects of being an outsider and how important belonging is. The bond and banter between them feels really natural and it’s lovely to watch it develop.
Perhaps the heart of them is Beverley, who is remarkably pretty and a Molly Ringwald doppelganger. A real stand out, she is warm and caring, strong and vulnerable, plucky. She was a pleasure to watch.
On the flipside, psychotic bully Henry Bowers is played by Nicholas Hamilton, which manages to look incredibly like River Phoenix to me, and shows all the delight in humiliation that a vintage 80’s bully would, but with an added dimension. You know that he really wants to destroy someone, and you also know that it’s grounded in a destructive home life. Yes, he’s a bit mad, but he’s never one dimensional, which makes him all the more terrifying.
But that leaves the scary parts to talk about til last. I guess that clowns are a pretty scary prospect on their own, but Bill Skarsgard manages to put so much cheerful menace and playful evil into Pennywise that it’s a whole new level. He’s delightful in a, you know, really deadly and scary way, chewing up the scenery and popping out of it in the most creative ways. The design of this film is amazing. It never really relies on jump scares, it’s more the creeping inevitable dread of the awful. I don’t want to give anything away, but the way the film evokes our deeper fears and manifests them is so well handled. The use of CGI is beautifully rendered, the film is full of dark surprises, and the way things move and come inexorably on towards the victim is really something. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the way it got under my skin and made me so uncomfortable and yes, scared.
It’s a nightmarish vision, all the more terrifying because it’s attacking the most vulnerable, children. It’s foregrounds the importance of childhood friendships for survival of the horrors of life that family and school life visits on the young, and shows how those relationships are the means to survive the unimaginable horrors that should only be the stuff of nightmares, but that are, in Derry, Maine, all to real. A wonderfully balanced story of horror, grounded with just enough humour.
It is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!