He pronouned me…
The children of a small town are terrorized by a demon, until they realize they can simply beat the shit out of it.
Stephen King’s novel It was a television B-movie in 1990, starring Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown, with a Cagney-gangster voice that is now dated and goofy. This big screen remake puts the IT back in “holy sh-IT,” as an eerie, fearsome Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) stalks teens in Derry, Maine, abducting them to feed on their fear.
IT opens in 1988, with young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) losing his paper boat down a gutter, where Pennywise suddenly peeps from the depths, tempting Georgie to come get his boat, assuring him that, “you’ll float too; everything floats down here.” It’s an iconic scene that is even reproduced well in the 1990 version, but then—JESUS CHRIST! Did the clown just amputate that kid’s arm?!
Our backbones straighten in our seats immediately, as Pennywise sprouts piranha-teeth and bites Georgie’s arm clean off! The visual of Georgie trying to crawl from the gutter with his lower arm severed, gouts of blood mixing with the rainfall in the street, jolts us to the realization that this sinister movie is going where its 1990 version feared to tread.
Director Andy Muschietti (MAMA, 2013) and screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman dare to take on King’s gargantuan 1986 novel, reworking it as an R-rated chiller, with more blood, swearing and latent child porn than its predecessor. They’ve eschewed King’s non-chronological device of the kids as adults recalling their youth in flashback, and simply rolled with the kids’ tale. The kids’ futures are in a distant movie, as revealed by the film’s final title card: IT: CHAPTER ONE.
No matter the excellent production values of this remake, and its meticulous attention to King-ian detail and tone, Pennywise’s appearances bug me. Y’see, it is discovered that the clown is the manifestation of a demon, a supernatural entity that sustains itself on children’s fear. Why then, does it need to cajole Georgie into the drain? And in human English, no less? It’s the same intrinsic problem as that of the 1990 version, where Pennywise Curry boasted of being “an eater of worlds – and children!” (Like it’s harder to eat children than worlds?) Pennywise Skarsgard fares no better with his dialogue, “…and I’ll feast on your flesh while I feed on your fear!” (Uh, could you mansplain that gastronomic process, please?), the problem being not what Pennywise is saying, but that he speaks at all. Put it this way: do you converse with your food before you eat it?
Even so, Skarsgard’s personification of Pennywise eats Tim Curry’s alive; it’s almost on a Heath Ledger Joker level, twitching and oddly-accented, with inhuman contortions and spasms. And it is much scarier than Curry’s fruity rendition.
Georgie’s death would spur his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) to bear a vendetta against whatever took him. Bill informally leads a group of 13-year-old outcast kids dubbed The Losers’ Club by the school bullies. Of the seven kids, only four can be focused on: Bill (because – leader), Mike (Chosen Jacobs, because – black), Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor, because – Meat Loaf meets Jack Black) and Beverly (Sophia Lillis, because – so startlingly Amy Adams I couldn’t tear my eyes away!). The rest of the three pasty white kids (Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer and Wyatt Oleff) are interchangeable pasty white kids.
School bully is mulleted Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), who is later possessed by Pennywise to kill all the Losers– But waitaminute! Did he really need to be “possessed” to go on a killing spree? We meet this guy as he is about to knife-carve his name into Ben’s belly fat. Is being Pennywise’s puppet even relevant if this guy is already a reg’lar homicidal maniac anyway? And if Henry is killing the kids, how is Pennywise going to benefit from their fear? Or does it get channeled to Penny through some grandfather clause? I’m getting too cynical to watch horror movies aimed at kids…
At least Henry is a steady presence as a bully, while the mean girls who bully Beverly for being a slut are only plot devices to drive her into the quivering embrace of the Losers. Then we never see them again. Any wonder they insinuate she’s hot. She’s smokin’! And we don’t question the pharmacist flirting with her, as creeps are always sniffing around girls of her carriage (14 going on 24).
Fat Ben is smitten with gorgeous Beverly, and writes her a secret poem. And even though Beverly accrues intimate connections with Ben, she still hooks up with the skinny kid in the end, meaning the movie undermines its own message vis a vis the Losers’ Club.
In the novel and the 1990 movie, Mike is the historian on Derry; in 2017 it is Ben who discovers via his research at the library (that’s a building with books in it, chillun!) that every 27 years a spate of disappearances in Derry heralds the return of the child-killing demon. (No small coincidence that this version of IT comes 27 years on the heels of its predecessor! Dun-dun-daaaah!)
After Pennywise appears to each kid as their darkest fear (a leper, a werewolf, a painting come to life, Mike’s parents burning to death), they join Bill’s obsessive vendetta, deducing that Pennywise lives under the sewer plant, marching to meet him face to kabuki. Mike takes an air-gun (the type his grandfather brains sheep with, and chastises Mike for being skittish about using on the sheep: “You can either be out here – or in there with them”), because anything used to kill sheep is also effective on supernatural daemons if it gives your character a good arc.
Stephen King has a thing of pitting his characters against danger with no weapons (THE STAND comes to mind.) The walking-towards-danger-with-no-weapons trope is trying enough, but when his characters under extraordinary duress don’t take the opportunity to arm themselves with extraordinary weapons, it borders on silly.
Don’t hold your breath for the child orgy, Movie Maniacs, even though it would sit serendipitously in this gritty depiction. Beverly’s visions involve excessive blood because her darkest fear is womanhood. The advances of men, including her father, keep her fearful of developing into a woman. To conquer that fear, she must make love. Since she loves all her Friend-Zone guys equally, she must engage all of them! But again, the Gutless MPAA closes its minds to anything related to procreation or sexuality. Murder good. Love bad… Gangbang awesome!
Nonetheless, Beverly becomes the focal point of the boys’ spelunking adventures. Though the interchangeable pasty white kids were terrorized by visions that gave them opportunities to escape (the headless body chasing one of them is actually pretty scary), Pennywise just grabs Beverly by the Amy Adams, with no chance of her wriggling free. But then he doesn’t kill her or eat her, just takes her away to float with a bunch of other children. IT has officially devolved to damsel-in-distress trope. As all the boys trip over their knob-ends riding to her rescue like knights in shining armor. (This plot point lends credence to Bill’s theory that his little brother might be alive, yet every time we see Georgie, he is obviously dead – which sparks our pondering on Basic Supernatural Rules, some of which are definitely being contravened here.)
I understand the metaphor that the less the kids fear Pennywise, the less they have to use physical weapons, yet it is still anticlimactic to see a demon bargaining, “I can take Bill alone, or I can take all of you!” when it can easily stop with the talking and just Do It already!
IT is for kids to identify as heroes, to imagine themselves as those brave kids onscreen conquering their fears, all making a pact to return in 27 years when the evil rises up again. And when Beverly will definitely be legal…