Full disclaimer: The author of this article has seen the 1990 TV movie version of “It” countless times, so I fully acknowledge I may be biased in my analysis.
Also a warning: There are minor spoilers below!
The marketing around the It movie has been genius and it has been plentiful. From red balloons tied to city sewer grates to creepy clowns popping up coast to coast, the onslaught by Pennywise the Clown is omnipresent on billboards, bus shelters and in TV trailers.
The concept of a scary, murderous clown is a major draw — something that was so innocuous in our childhoods has now become the literal figurehead for fear. Played masterfully the first time around in 1990 by Tim Curry, Pennywise was straight-up terrifying. His jokes were few and far between, always with a sinister edge. Nothing was ever ha-ha funny, and Curry’s stares were intense, enough to make you avert your eyes from the screen.
Not so with Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise, whose buck teeth and high-pitched voice take down the clown’s viciousness a few pegs. At times, he’s even annoying; that is not a good thing when he’s the central figure of the film.
Wait, you’re saying this Pennywise isn’t scary?
Well, it’s impossible to say a murderous clown isn’t scary. A more apt description is that this Pennywise isn’t threatening. Skarsgård does his best to portray a crazed Pennywise, who sometimes resembles a slapstick Jim Carrey in costume. It seems that he’s going more for psychological horror, but the problem is Curry was both mentally and physically scary as Pennywise, an all-round assault on our fears.
Skarsgård is also helped by CGI, which contorts his face when necessary to up the scares. Of course, Pennywise also isn’t the only “bad guy” here. Each individual kid has their own fear (some of which aren’t specified very well), and some of those fears, when they surface, are completely CGI. This robs the movie of its horror purity and brings it into the modern realm of horror: little substance, cheap jump-scares, gory for the sake of gory.
A perfect example is when Beverly Marsh — one of the kids, the only female, played expertly by standout Sophia Lillis — hears the voices of the dead kids in her sink drain. In the original version, the kids whisper to Beverly, then blood sputters up through the sink drain, filling the basin until a red balloon inflates in the hole, then pops blood all over her face. In the 2017 version this is amplified to an absurd degree, and that slow, creepy tension is lost. (You’ll see.)
How about the kids? How do they compare to the original?
Stranger Things, it turns out, may be more of a curse than a blessing. It’s impossible not to compare the Netflix series to this movie, even though It has been around far longer. King’s stories nearly always feature a coming-of-age theme and it’s not absent here, but the script is littered with dick jokes and “your mom” riffs. While that’s not unusual for a bunch of young boys — in fact it’s expected — one would think that being in an environment where a) kids are disappearing by the day, b) you’re under a 7 p.m. curfew in the summer and c) you’re in imminent danger of dying in a horrible way would cause you to be a bit more serious than flippant.
In the original, Richie (played by Seth Green) is the joker, and he is here as well (played by Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard), but in the 1990 version, the jokes never took over the dire circumstances the kids are in. After all, there is an undead killer clown stalking them. Maybe if Pennywise didn’t dance around, make jokes, or just lunge at them without doing anything (which he does a lot), they would be more scared.
Another bothersome element: Mike Hanlon, the only black character, is so peripheral and tacked-on it’s offensive. In the book and in the original, Mike is the metaphorical lighthouse keeper, who never leaves the town of Derry and keeps track of It. Here he’s some guy who joins the group as an afterthought.
Is this version gory?
No. There are a few parts that are gross, but on the whole, this is child’s play (pun intended) for horror fans. Pennywise’s big move is lunging at the kids, and outside of some injuries he inflicts in the big finale, he doesn’t do a whole lot of damage. It feels like we’ve seen the majority of these scares before, too. School bully Henry Bowers almost hurts the Losers Club more than the clown.
So what’s the bottom line?
For those not familiar with the original, this will be a far more enjoyable film. Little details like Bill’s bike being named Silver, “deadlights,” and the sentence he recites to overcome his stutter (“He thrusts his fists against the posts but still insists he sees the ghosts”) are in the 2017 movie, but never explained. Pennywise’s spider-like corporeal form is also completely absent from the movie. For people who’ve seen the 1990 version, it’s frustrating to watch these lush, colourful details be painted over with a huge, clumsy brush.
All this said, the sellable nature of a killer clown and majorly positive word-of-mouth will ensure huge box office for It. A sequel is already in production, so there’s one new thing to fear: Chapter 2’s retelling.
“It” is now playing in theatres across Canada.