What scares you most, my child? Did you say clowns? By now we all know the term “coulrophobia,” and we’ve all heard of the 2007 University of Sheffield survey that informed UK hospital administrators in no uncertain terms that pictures of clowns on the walls are discomfiting to a majority of sick children. There’s a whole long think piece clamoring to get out of me on the subject of the noble history of clowns as agents of satire and social disruption, as antidotes to the sort of imperial smugness that is nourished by sycophancy, with deep and fascinating roots both in shamanism and in theater tradition. But a mere movie review – even one of my notoriously long-winded ones – doesn’t leave room for that. What matters at the moment is the fact that yes, an awful lot of people find clowns more creepy than amusing. My condolences to those of you who paint kids’ faces and tie knots in balloons for your living, but that’s the truth.
Why, though? Real-life clowns are no more likely than the average person to be a chainsaw-wielding homicidal maniac (John Wayne Gacy was just a blip on the statistical screen). It’s their ambiguity, their unpredictability, their unknowableness beneath the mask, psychologists say. Even when they’re trying to make us laugh, clowns can’t help but drag us down into the Uncanny Valley of fight-or-flight unease. For those of an entrepreneurial bent, such knowledge can be a goldmine come Halloween-costume time. And for Hollywood, it’s irresistible.
It also makes it paradoxically difficult to come up with a genuinely scary treatment of a classic killer-clown story like Stephen King’s It. King wisely made his Pennywise prone to alter his manifestations to suit the worst nightmares of a particular intended victim: an approach that should capitalize on that very factor of unsettling unpredictability. But once the modus operandi is understood, the jig is up, isn’t it? If one knows one’s own fears, one knows what to expect from this antagonist. Know your enemy and be empowered!
Tastes in horror movies certainly vary, but for me, their scariness quotient is directly proportional to the obliqueness of their approach. The threat fleetingly glimpsed out of the corner of my eye is far more unsettling than the monster roaring in my face. The latter may provoke a satisfying jump scare and admiration for the craft of the film’s prosthetic makeup and CGI teams, but it’s the former that will come back to haunt my dreams afterwards.
That’s my ultimate problem with Andy Muschietti’s new big-screen adaptation of It. For all Its mutability, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) favors the clown costume because It’s a showman (showbeing?) at heart. It likes being in its victim’s face. We even see Pennywise dancing on a subterranean stage at one point (albeit as weirdly, anatomically speaking, as a character in one of Terry Gilliam’s collage animations). We’ve seen extendable multi-part jaws on too many movie monsters since the first Xenomorph in the Alien franchise to be more impressed by their gruesomeness than by Pennywise’s more public set of teeth, which recall Bugs Bunny in an unnerving sort of way. This is one scary clown who becomes less scary the more It emerges from the shadows.
The result is a movie that, despite its R rating (mostly for gore, but also a lot of scatological adolescent male bragging; the book’s controversial group sex scene was eliminated), provoked more laughter than shrieks from the mostly high-school-aged audience in the theater. Word has it that a surprising number of people are bringing preteen kids to see the film as well. Viewers already inured to explicit monster-munching effects may well respond more to its mordant humor than to its fright moments. In a classic horror film, that has traditionally been seen as a weakness; but horror movies aren’t really what they used to be, are they?
It boasts a few excellent, Poltergeist-level special effects setpieces – notably a sink drain erupting copious quantities of blood, a distorted Modernist portrait come to life and a rampaging demented slide projector. But in general, the film succeeds better when it focuses on the prosaic perils of life in a small town in Maine, as opposed to its odd pattern of periodic mass deaths and serial disappearances of children. This version mostly trades King’s evocation of Lovecraftian “New England Gothic” atmosphere (no arcane spells are recited, and Its demonic origins and other-dimensionality are glossed over) for the more mundane soul-deadening weight of navigating puberty in a working-class Rust Belt neighborhood. Parents, when seen at all in this story, are the real monsters.
Skarsgård delivers a winningly skin-crawly Pennywise (though many will still prefer Tim Curry’s iconic turn in the 1990 TV miniseries version). Otherwise the cast consists mainly of unknowns; Finn Walthard, who plays Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier in It and has a recurring role in Stranger Things, is probably the best-known. Relative standouts among the young actors who play the members of the Losers’ Club are Sophia Lillis as its only female member, Bev Lillis, and Jaeden Lieberher as Bill Denbrough, the elder brother of the first kid to go missing during the 1980s portion of the story. (King’s parallel narrative of the Losers’ grownup selves is being saved for a sequel.)
But the acting won’t bowl you over with its subtlety. As an ensemble, the youngsters come off like the cast of an afterschool special; their characters are rather clichéd and thinly developed (there’s the black kid, the Jewish kid, the fat kid, the hypochondriac…). The teenage town bullies and most of the adults are even more cartoonish.
When in a group, the kids chatter over one another to the point that a lot of probably funny lines are difficult to catch. And Benjamin Wallfisch lays on the gooey, manipulative, John Williams-wannabe score with a trowel. Still, It supplies a crowdpleasingly good time, even if it does show way too much of the mechanics behind the stage curtain. If you’d be disappointed to head home from the cinema with somewhat less coulrophobia than you harbored coming in, you might prefer to give this one a pass.