Second take on teenage chills
It’s interesting to think of the movies that most scared you when you were a kid. When the television version of It screened in 1990, I was by then too wise and mature to hide under my bed. I mean, that same year TV also unlocked the gates to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Now, that frightened me.
The new, super-hyped film version of It didn’t shock me either, at least while sitting in the cinema. There are lots of jump scares to be sure, but age accustoms one to them. However, the more I have thought about the movie, and discussed it with my 12-year-old son, the more unsettled I feel. That’s a credit to the director, Argentinian Andy Muschietti, to the spot-on teenage cast, which includes Australian actor Nicholas Hamilton, and most of all to the man who wrote the novel in 1986, Stephen King.
The post-viewing thinking and discussion took me back to what King did with the novel. It digs deep into themes that course through his prolific career: childhood anguish and the shadows that lurk behind white picket fences in small-town America.
Pennywise the Dancing Clown is there all right, with an unnerving singsong voice and teeth like something out of Alien, but he’s the manifestation of something much more ordinary, much more common: degenerate humans. That goes to the acutely psychological title: the source of terror is not described as he or him. “It knows what scares us most,’’ one of the kids says, “and that is what we see.’’
Even back in 1990 I realised there was a distinct evil about Pennywise. And Tim Curry in the role was something special, a fact his replacement 27 years down the line, Swedish actor Bill Skarsgard, knows too well. He decided to do the role his own way, and it works. He morphs across lines that should be unbridgeable, from childlike friendliness to demonic depravity. And of course that is exactly what John Wayne Gacy did a few years before King published the novel. He dressed as a clown. He lured and killed 33 boys and young men.
It troubles me a bit that my son knows this now — bloody Wikipedia! — although at the same time I’m pleased he’s so engaged when we talk about movies and books. To continue in parental mode for a moment, I wouldn’t let Syd see It today, but I would in a couple of years.
The MA15+ rating is a touch strict, I think. The sex in King’s novel is not in the film. The rating is for “strong horror themes and violence”, and yes, there is a lot of that. Muschietti’s previous film, the supernatural Mama, was ample evidence that he knows how to raise the goosebumps. Though personally I think the right audience age for It is 13-16, the same as that of the children at the centre of the movie.
The main group is derided as the Losers Club: stuttering but strong Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), bespectacled, intelligent smart-alec Richie (Finn Wolfhard), over-mothered asthmatic Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), clean freak Stan (Wyatt Olef) and, joining a bit later, chubby new boy at school Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), African-American history nut Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and, perhaps most important of all, spunky Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who is wrongly teased as the town trollop.
The teasers are led by a smaller group of boys a couple of years older, headed by the nearpsychotic Henry (Australia’s Hamilton). The cast is near-perfect. Every one of these kids, even knife-wielding Henry, is believable. Watching them took me back to another movie based on a King book, both for the performances and some of the themes explored, Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986).
In front of these kids is Pennywise, along with other grotesque incarnations such as zombies and a living headless corpse. The superb scene where Beverly’s cut-off hair shoots back up the bathroom basin to strangle her is, well, gripping. Behind these kids — behind Pennywise too perhaps — are the adults in their lives. Beverly’s borderline incestuous father, for example, or Eddie’s smothering mother, or Henry’s tough police officer dad.
The movie is set in the late 1980s in Derry, a fictional town in King’s home state of Maine. There’s a clever nod to how popular horror was at the time when the kids walk past a cinema showing Nightmare on Elm Street 5.
The opening scene is perhaps the best in the movie. It is long and full of a seat-edge tension that would work for a 14-year-old viewer, who might not know what’s going to happen, and for an older viewer who will know. Indeed, the knowing is more shocking.
Ben and his little brother Georgie are in their bedroom on a rainy day. Ben makes a paper boat. Georgie runs into the street to float it. The boat races along the gutter and slips into a wide drain. When Georgie goes to retrieve it he sees something in the drain. It’s Pennywise, smiling.
We move forward to the following summer, to the Losers Club and the bullies. Light is in the air and dark lurks beneath. There are stories of children going missing.
Mike looks up old newspapers and realises that every 27 years something bad comes to Derry (it’s 30 years in the novel, but 27 is the cinematic distance between the first It and this iteration.)
King’s novel unfolds in two threads: the experiences of the children are told in flashback from the present setting, in which they are adults. Muschietti tells only the childhood story, in a much more linear sense than the novel, and I think that’s a clever solution. It turns an 1100page book into a tight, forward-moving, thrilling, dark and sad movie. He will do the adult story in a sequel (and though I think Skarsgard is terrific, I’d really, really, really like to see Ben Mendelsohn, who reportedly turned down the part, as Pennywise).
King has been on my mind lately, partly because of It and the other new film based on one of his novels, The Dark Tower. When you consider his book-to-film career, he is hard to beat. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is top of my list, but I know others will go for Reiner’s Misery or Brian de Palma’s Carrie or a non-horror one such as Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. I’d add another Darabont, the death-row drama The Green Mile, which I think is one of Tom Hanks’s best performances.
I liked It a lot. Its aftermath is so busy in my mind, that I’m tempted to award it four stars just for that. But based on what is on the screen I’ll stick with 3 ½.
Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, the manifestation of degenerate humans, in It