I was 11 when I first saw the It mini series from 1990. My cousin or whatever had a VHS copy that we watched in his parent’s basement. He told me it would give me nightmares and my reaction when the credits rolled was “Wow, what a piece of shit.” Tim Curry’s amazing performance aside, the series is not great or scary. It was three hours of decent kid actors and awful adult actors being afraid of a clown with Rachel Dolezal hair, trolling at them with balloons. It did not help that the series was cheap as dirt and all of the characters were walking tropes. They were either bullied, abused, damaged or a stand-in for the author, and they needed to stick together because there is power in friendship. Am I watching a shounen anime or a Stephen King adaptation? Maybe because clowns were never that frightening I could not feel the fear, but I would rather sit through quality horror than Z-tier trash. And because the It mini series was an objectively bad adaptation, the movie remake falls perfectly in line with my rules. Was the film a vast improvement or somehow worse?
After a series of child abductions in the town of Derry, a group of friends realize they have had shared encounters with a spectral clown named Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgard, that may be behind the disappearances. While investigating the monster they find it has a dark and lengthy history associated with the town.
Picture Stranger Things with an R rating and you get the It movie. It takes the kid adventure concept, pioneered by Stephen King and many 80’s films (Goonies, Monster Squad, etc), and turns it into a nightmare. It is more or less an ensemble where the fears of each kid plays into their shared goal of defeating the monster. It can become your worst nightmare made manifest and a part of their journey is overcoming what they are afraid of.
However, most of the film is focused on the kids’ friendship, and it would not have worked without great writing and acting. I cannot imagine how difficult it was to get the cast to seamlessly gel together. Everyone is their character in the purest sense, rolling with it from start to finish. Finn Wolfhard’s Ritchie and Jack Dylan Grazer’s Eddie work the best, berating and insulting one another like they’ve known each other for years. Then there is the love triangle between Bill and Ben in pursuit of Bev, played by Sophia Lillis. She is probably the standout with a ton of emotion and subtlety in her performance that will go a long way if she does not crash and burn like most child actors.
The relationship and interactions between the kids is enough to warrant admission. They carry the film like it is Tuesday and it also just happens to be rather decent horror. The jump-scares can be annoying if you hate them as much as I, but the grotesque imagery is significantly more palpable. The look of Pennywise when he transforms or contorts his body, his disguises, and hallucinations are genuinely frightening and well done. One disguise is an abstract woman with white eyes that is totally creepy, but the leper is worse.
Some of the effects-oriented horror is done practically, save for Pennywise’s monster teeth and the abstract woman, but the main issue I have is more in the execution. Loud noises and orchestra stings aside, the use of CG and weird editing drags down maybe a quarter of the scares. The abstract woman could have been done with prosthetics and the monster teeth with puppetry that was possible since the dawn of time. I do not know what it is called, but when Pennywise is charging the camera, it focuses on his face as he moves while the rest of the frame is blurred. It is like this scene from Fight Club or this from Catwoman and it was distracting. The scares would have been better if they saved the stings for after the reveal to let the audience react or take them out completely. Ambient noise and silence can go a long way; just look at It Follows and Silent Hill 2.
The last few issues with the It movie are three individual scenes. All of them are tone-deaf musical interludes that were very out of place. They happen in the midst of darkness, including a rock war after Mike sees Pennywise gnawing on a child’s severed arm, and Bev’s bloody bathroom followed by a clean-up montage. It is strange why these scenes were done this way because they take you right out of the moment. The rock war I can forgive, but the other two did not need to happen.
And now comes the most important question of all: how does Skarsgard compare to Curry’s iconic performance from the mini series? The dueling versions of Pennywise remind me a lot of Heath Ledger and Jarred Leto’s Jokers. Obviously there is only one that is great, but this time around the successor actually succeeds. Like Curry, Skarsgard uses his expressive features to his advantage, making wide toothy grins while bugging out his massive Rami Malik eyes. Unlike Curry he did not have much dialog, but focused more on using his physical presence than anything else. The guy is 6’3” in a giant costume, wearing a ton of make-up, and pulls it off in a way Curry and his legendary charisma could not. Skarsgard is physically scary where his predecessor was emotionally. I hope to see more of him in the future, especially as Pennywise.
Trying to be better than the It mini series may seem like punching a blind kid, but the remake had a lot to achieve. Other than be good the film needed to be scary and surpass or improve upon Tim Curry’s iconic performance, lest it fail. It is not just an improvement; it is a whole other animal. The chemistry and dialog of the ensemble, the horror-adventure concept, and Skarsgard’s Pennywise make it fun to watch. Honestly, it has been a while since I have felt this way in a movie. I wanted to see where it went and felt invested in the characters. Only once in a while do you get a film like this and Dunkirk in the same year. Regardless of how you feel about horror, go see it immediately.