By Steve Newton
As the only journalist invited to interview Tim Curry on the set of It back in 1990–I was the Vancouver correspondent for fabled New York horror mag Fangoria at the time–I’ve felt a connection to the two-part TV miniseries. Not that I really liked it much. I thought the acting was pretty weak throughout, and the dialogue didn’t ring true for me. And then there was that utterly bogus ending with the giant spider.
But Curry’s iconic role as Pennywise the Dancing Clown was totally awesome, and is undoubtedly the reason why the show has stuck in people’s minds over time. His bravura performance has been brought back into focus in recent years by the “creepy clown” sightings that made headlines around the world.
So between the memories of Curry’s work and the recent clown hysteria, the makers of the new It movie–which stars Swedish actor Bill Skarsgård as a younger, more vicious Pennywise–had a lot of momentum for their remake, which opened September 8 to record-breaking box office. It earned $123-million opening weekend, the most successful launch for a horror movie ever. Shows you what a shipload of hype can do.
Not that It‘s a terrible movie. It has its moments. But as a critic specializing in scary films, I can honestly say that in the last three years alone there’s been several that have impressed me more, including Get Out, Don’t Breathe, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Green Room, Creep, and It Follows. I don’t get what makes It so special.
For the uninitiated, It–based on Stephen King’s 1986 brick of a novel–follows the exploits of a group of teenage outcasts, the self-proclaimed “Losers’ Club”, who go up against the child-killing entity that stalks the small town of Derry, Maine, every 27 years. This personification of evil usually appears in the form of the clown Pennywise, who we first meet inside a storm drain, tempting young Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) to reach in and retrieve his paper boat. Because director Andy Muschietti’s new version is R-rated, we get to see Pennywise sprout fierce fangs and viciously bite the seven-year-old kid’s arm off before dragging him into the sewer. Not much is left to the imagination this time around.
Fast-forward eight months and Georgie’s big brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), still deeply haunted by Georgie’s disappearance, is being taunted by the cruel Pennywise for his loss–and by ruthless town bullies for his speech impediment. He eventually learns that to face up to both wicked parties he needs to team up with the other six Losers, who are also dealing with their own Pennywise-, bully-, and family-based fears. The movie lines up a string of jump scare-driven sequences–much like the 1990 version, but with slicker visuals and louder sound-effects–to separately depict each character’s nightmarish encounters before they join forces to fight the evil on its home turf.
While much better than Muschietti’s ridiculous 2013 horror outing, Mama, It comes off as fairly routine 21st-century fright fare with its abundance of CGI and cranking of the volume knob to raise the fright meter. And just as with the 1990 version, the cast of kids isn’t very convincing. Their conversations sound corny and contrived, especially the ones involving unfunny loudmouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard). Think Goonies as opposed to Stand By Me.
Skarsgård, known for his role as the troubled Roman Godfrey on Netflix’s Hemlock Grove, is quite effective as Pennywise. It helps that he’s kinda scary looking even without makeup. But when you put him in that puffy, Elizabethan-style costume and give him that bulbous forehead and glowing, off-centre eyes, his impish smile can really creep you out. His overall look is reminiscent of an antique doll brought to life, and lord knows how disturbing dolls can be. They’re creepier than clowns, if you ask me.
But after numerous not-that-frightening encounters with the various Losers–and the odd slimeball bully–the twisted appeal of the new Pennywise starts to fade some; you just don’t pine for his reappearance the way you did for Tim Curry’s 27 years ago, when the child-chomping demon first made the rounds on the small screen. Curry’s acting chops resonated through the greasepaint to deliver nuanced scares without the benefit of all the modern-day visual tricks bolstering Skarsgård’s performance, and while I don’t blame Muschietti for using them, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Call it the curse of the old-school horror freak.