TURN THAT CLOWN UPSIDE DOWN
Director: Andy Muschietti
Review: David Stephens
So here’s a small low-budget film that’s gone under the radar, which has been apparently inspired by an unknown horror writer … Nah, just kidding. “IT” is arguably perhaps Stephen King’s magnum opus and widely regarded as being one of his most accomplished novels. It weaves the lengthy tale of kids (and their adult versions) facing off against an entity that appears to be pure malevolence and evil, and can take the form of your very worst fear to kill you. And of course, for a lot of people that’s an evil clown. It was memorably brought to life in a TV miniseries in 1990 by Tommy Lee Wallace (“Halloween III”). It’s an integral part of many genre fans’ memories mainly due to the wonderfully menacing and eccentric performance by Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown. He was visualised as a Bozo-type jester who could grow a mouthful of sharp fangs to terrify kids, along with his ominous red balloon and threatening catchphrases (“Oh … you’ll float”). So following the announcement of a new film version (after some false starts), people were cautiously optimistic. This grew to high levels of anticipation when Andrés Muschietti (“Mama”) took on directing duties and the first set photos were released. As we write this review, it has literally just been announced that US preview screenings resulted in the biggest R-rated advance preview gross ever (beating “Deadpool”) and the biggest preview gross for any kind of outright horror movie. And that’s along with the slew of positive reviews. Impressive. It’s now screening nationwide in the US/UK, so YGROY dons our biggest shoes and honks our noses for a viewing of the film…
It’s 1988 in the small town of Derry and the rain is coming down. 7-year old Georgie is playing with his paper boat that his beloved bigger brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) made for him. As he chases it down a storm drain, he encounters the figure of a clown lurking in the sewer. Never take balloons or boats from strangers. Georgie vanishes and Bill is left devastated. Six months later and Derry has been rocked by a series of apparent child abductions, with a curfew in place and missing posters everywhere. Bill takes solace in the company of his close friends, a group of young outsiders who come to call themselves “The Losers Club”. The four core members are joined by three others including Bev (Sophia Lillis) and Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor). Ben has uncovered a dark history of disappearances in Derry, and the group of kids realise that they themselves have all been marked by “IT”, a dark force that feeds on the fears of the young and has the preferred appearance of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård, quite brilliant). As they fight for their town and their futures, they learn to find strength in unity…
No disrespect to Lee Wallace’s miniseries (it’s still good), but it’s hard to imagine a more perfect adaptation of King’s book then this film. In retrospect, the 1990 version had a lot of padding and a simplistic televisual take on the imagined horrors of the story, which were overcome by Curry’s spirited performance. By contrast, Muschietti’s version is a surprisingly cohesive, compelling, and – yes – genuinely scary visualisation of the novel. Although partially driven by budget and necessity, the decision to concentrate only on the childhood section of the book is a very canny one and it works brilliantly. The lack of flip-flopping between the adult and child selves of the “Losers” allows it to tell a straightforward story well, and provide a host of downright disturbing sequences.
Although it rides the waves from the sensational success of “Stranger Things”, and the zeitgeist of horror/kids/80’s nostalgia that the series inspired, the film was in development well before the Netflix show. It’s turned into a happy coincidence that has no doubt helped box office, particularly as both productions share young actor Finn Wolfhard in the cast. Nonetheless the 80’s setting is a joy with “Airwolf” T-shirts, Streetfighter video games, and “Lethal Weapon 2” showing at the cinema. It also allows for some nifty attempts at humour with one character being a fan of “New Kids on the Block” (not Bev!), and some choice one-liners like Richie (Wolfhard) dissing ginger-haired Bev with; “I’m sorry, who allowed Molly Ringwald into the group?”
All the young actors portraying the “Losers” are uniformly great as well and play each off the roles just at the right level. Special kudos to Lillis though, who totally nails the character that comes with some difficult “baggage”. The part her burgeoning sexuality plays in King’s novel is extremely controversial (if you’ve read the book, you know what scene we’re referring to). Here the abuse themes and attraction to Ben and Bill is handled well, and there’s still some totally awks moments but it’s more appropriate to the plot. And instead of THAT scene, we have something way more sweet-natured and innocent.
But all this nostalgia and acting shenanigans would be nothing without a scary Pennywise … and boy, does this version have it in spades. Skarsgård is a revelation, playing the ancient evil with new quirks and tricks. The nightmarish buck-toothed harlequin makeup almost does the business by itself, but the actor infuses the minimal dialogue with creepy body language and odd inflections (there’s a touch of Swede in the accent we’re sure). He goes from Yoda-like crooning and childish dialogue, to vicious and psychotic shouting. A benchmark moment is where he literally unfolds himself from the inside of a fridge, slowly approaches a victim and moans “…beautiful, delicious fear” before opening a yawning fang-filled maw. He can also look in two different directions at once, which was all Skarsgård apparently. Ew.
Plenty of other horror highlights exist, such as; Georgie’s shocking and upsetting murder, the attack in the garage via a projector, the leprous man, and the most blood you’ll see spewing into a room outside of the lifts in “The Shining”. It just works beautifully as a horror, but it’s the way it meshes with the coming-of-age theme that nails it as a whole. Far better than “Mama”, it feels like “Stand By Me” crossed with “The Conjuring”, but still captures that quintessential American Gothic feel that most King horror has.
If we’re going to grab for any negatives … it does feel a touch over-long (although we can’t think what could be trimmed without hurting it to be honest), and even then some characters get a fairly short shrift with screen and story time (especially Stan and Mike). None of the adults really matter or are fleshed out at all, and the ones that do feature in the plot are invariably as monstrous as Pennywise. But to be fair, these are inherent issues with the source material rather than a criticism of the film.
So in summary, yes it pretty much IS as good as the hype says. Great monster, good performances, and scary stuff. And given its (now) assured success it’s also likely to be one of – if not THE – most important mainstream horror this year and will bolster the big studio’s confidence in the genre yet again. Winner, winner – Clown’s a sinner.