Tim Curry made such a lasting impression as Pennywise in the 1990 version of Stephen King’s It that it’s easy to forget how terrible the rest of it was. It was listless and bloated, with awful pacing, bad acting, absurd special effects – only Curry rose above, trying in vain to steer it away from the cliff-edge.
That, however, doesn’t make the sins of the present any more forgivable. Director Andrés Muschietti’s take on the first half of the 1,200-page novel is stylish enough, but he seems overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material, with too much of the action reduced to a series of flashy horror vignettes.
Where it succeeds is its depiction of the self-styled Losers’ Club, a gang of kids plucked from the intersection of Stand By Me and Stranger Things. Their fears – domestic abuse, puberty, not fitting in – for which the clown is an undisguised metaphor, feel relatable and urgent. The world they inhabit is also brilliantly realised. The action is shifted from the 1960s to the late 80s, and the cursed town of Derry shimmers with a lazy golden glow, as if the camera were smeared in a layer of delicious treacle.
The attention to detail is immaculate, from the tank-tops and leisurewear to the bilious-green bathroom suites. Both the stylised aesthetic and the tendency to embrace nostalgia beg for comparisons with Stranger Things, which it plays up to further with the casting of Finn Wolfhard as Richie, the wise-cracking teen once played by Seth Green.
The main attraction, though, is Pennywise, here played by Bill Skarsgård. While Curry’s clown was just about plausible enough to lure children to their doom, this one would be arrested on spec if he turned up at a kids’ party, and would certainly never be inducted into the prestigious World Clown Association. Skarsgård is a graduate of the Jared Leto School for Overacting Men, with more than a shade of the Joker to his jittery performance.
Muschietti isn’t afraid to dangle his monster in front of us, either. From the opening sequence we’re treated to lingering shots of his bulbous head, and every five minutes Pennywise runs directly towards camera (his stop motion-style of movement is genuinely unsettling).
This clown is clearly thrilled to be free of the shackles of network television, too, often to the detriment of the film. Where once blood gurgled up from a sink, now it spurts into the air in a geyser of viscera. And watching little Georgie have his arm bitten off isn’t actually any scarier than simply seeing him get dragged into the watery depths of a sewer. There’s even a scene with a room full of clowns, because the more must equal scarier, right? It’s shameful to reduce one of modern horror’s most enduring antagonists to cheap tricks and jump scares.
But perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Muschietti’s film is how much it feels like yet another TV show. There’s no cinematic structure, just a series of things that happen. Each child endures a more-or-less equally weighted horror sequence that plays to their most Freudian fears, followed by a cooling-off period in which they bond and fight the local bullies. The rhythm is off; chop it up into little parts and it would be right at home on Netflix.
In the pantheon of Stephen King adaptations, this is nowhere near the bottom; it’s fine. But neither does it come within touching distance of Misery, Carrie, The Shining or The Mist.
Bear in mind that the second part of the 1990 TV show was a huge step down from the first: if that’s the case with the inevitable sequel to this (all but confirmed in the closing titles), we’re in for a real horror show.
First published in City A.M.