- OnScreen Chief Film Critic
At the end of last year I had my first virtual reality experience, purchasing the Gear VR for my Samsung Galaxy phone. VR is a crazy, slightly surreal experience that I highly recommend trying, though I’m sure it will become a lot more commonplace in the near future. One of the games on the Gear VR platform is called “Face Your Fears” and it features a handful of scary scenarios that are intended to scare based on a set of fears that most people have: spiders, snakes, claustrophobia, heights, etc. The game is not interactive; your “character” is unable to do anything in every situation except look around. It’s pure reaction. The entire point of the “game” is to scare the person playing it. It’s very effective because it is so immersive but also because the premise of the game exploits basic, elemental fears. Emotions are tricky things. They can be shared as a group, but we all experience emotions on an individual level, and an emotion like fear can feel especially personal, even isolating. It’s why the game is called Face Your Fears. This popped into my head after seeing the highly anticipated film adaptation of Stephen King’s It.
King is an author whose novels, novellas, and short stories have been adapted into films, TV miniseries, and various other forms of media for over 40 years now (Carrie, the first, came out in 1976). So much of his work has been adapted that it’s easy to forget that some of them, like The Shawshank Redemption or Stand By Me, are even Stephen King adaptations. It is one of his most popular stories and turned into a miniseries back in 1990. That miniseries featured an iconic performance by Tim Curry as the titular It, a menacing clown creature known as Pennywise. It was one of several King stories turned into a miniseries in the 90s, and while It is memorable for Curry’s performance, there is a ceiling for it based on the TV model at the time and how things had to be sanitized a bit for television audiences.
There are no such limitations here, though. I was frankly shocked by the depiction of several things in the film, particularly the opening scene involving the disappearance of Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). Not shocked in a “Oh, my delicate sensibilities!” kind of way, but by the commitment to the visual follow-through of what they were indicating was going to happen in that scene. Most films, even R-rated ones like what It is rated, would not have the stomach to show what happens in the opening here for fear of alienating the audience. Similar to how a movie like Scream kills off Drew Barrymore in the opening, what happens to Georgie signals that this is not a safe film and potentially anything can happen. This is the best place to be if you want to be an effective horror movie, and It is certainly that.
Pennywise the Dancing Clown is a terrifying, unforgettable monster, whether encountered in the pages of a book, in the form of Tim Curry, or here, portrayed terrifically by Bill Skarsgard. Skarsgard gives a very different performance than Curry, making the smart decision to make his own character rather than do a Tim Curry impression (Is it weird that we’re discussing these two like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s performances as the Joker in the Batman movies?). Without getting into plot details, the character and visage of Pennywise is partly shaped by the perception of the kids he preys upon and their fears. This leads to a character that talks a little goofy and has a demeanor that is clearly off, the Biblical idiom of a wolf in sheep’s clothing comes to mind. This comes across in a few scenes, most notably early on when Georgie is talking to him in the storm drain. At some point when Pennywise is talking, it becomes clear that he is fighting to restrain himself while he lures this unsuspecting prey into the trap he has set.
The protagonists of the story are a group of young, prepubescent teens known as the Losers’ Club, led by Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), Georgie’s older brother. Despite Georgie disappearing in October, Bill still holds out hope that he is still alive at the end of the school year in June and sets out to hopefully find his brother exploring the drainage areas of the sewer system in their small town of Derry, ME. The rest of the group, initially, is Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), and Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer). Over the course of the film, their ranks grow to include Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Bev Marsh (Sophia Lillis), and Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs). All of them are outcasts of some form or another, and most of them are terrorized by the local school bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), and his little Bowers Gang. Eventually, all of them have personal interactions with Pennywise, whether they realize it at the time or not, and are prompted to band together to fight back.
It’s here that the heart of the story is to be found. As an emotional response, fear can be so strong as to be paralyzing. As I said before, it is especially personal, even isolating, because fear at its peak can cause peripheral things to fade into the background and overwhelm the senses to the point where it seems like the only other thing in the world (Think how quickly your attention to the show on TV fade when you see that spider scurrying on the floor or up the wall?). Pennywise is basically a creature that feeds on the fears of his victims. And kids are especially vulnerable to fear.
It’s a surprisingly simple, basic, and even archetypal story of overcoming fears that this film is about. The isolation of fear is essential to the experience of horror movies. It’s a classic trope of the genre of people wandering off from the group and being picked off by the monster one by one in some fashion. This even happens in the film when they enter a decrepit house they believe Pennywise lives under, and when they enter the sewer system to retrieve one of their own. It also gets to the basic utility of social interaction and society and community that there is strength in numbers. It’s not a coincidence that they are able to face their fears more effectively as a collective group than one on one against this monster. There is a reason these archetypes survive and resonate.
As a movie monster, Pennywise probably most favorably compares to a better version of Freddy Krueger; similar to how Freddy would pop up in various ways in people’s dreams, Pennywise appears in various forms and instances to the kids in this story. It’s never clearly explained, but the whole town is under some kind of spell of his too, to the point where adults are either hypnotized or immune or somehow blinded to what the kids are experiencing, meaning the Losers’ Club is on their own in dealing with this problem (further isolation). The versatility of the different fears that everyone in the group has allows the film to play at different kinds of horror, from disturbing paintings brought to life, to a blood-soaked bathroom, to a room full of mannequin clowns. There is almost certainly at least one thing in this film guaranteed to scare or creep out everyone.
It is an effective horror movie because it understands the fundamentals of fear. That is a testament to the King source material, but also the confident direction of Andy Muschietti. It stands near the top in regards to the best adaptations of Stephen King’s body of work, far exceeding the TV miniseries. It earns every scare, every jump, and every slack-jawed moment. Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise is more definitive and iconic than Tim Curry’s turn as the character. And the promise of a Chapter 2 to tell more of the story should fill everyone with more anticipation at what is to come.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars