Send in the clowns, Stephen King must have thought to himself back in the '80s at he put pen to paper on It. The prolific horror author wasn't the first to turn makeup-caked comic performers into nightmare fodder, but boy oh boy did he help make the concept stick. One glance at Pennywise — the white-faced, flame-haired figure who jumped from the novel to a '90s mini-series and now a feature film — and it's easy to see why the character has become so iconic. Even for those who don't suffer from coulrophobia, he's a terrifying sight that no one would want to spy peering out at them from a storm drain.
As such, It is at its best when it embraces Pennywise's frightening presence and runs with it, whether he's roaming around a crumbling old house, splattering blood all over a bathroom or crawling out of a screen. It knows which buttons to push, and when to have the sinister villain appear suddenly to ratchet up the scares. That's to say nothing of the fact that, in addition to just being an inherently upsetting concept, an evil clown makes for a potent symbol of innocence corrupted. Indeed, when it comes to watching kids get spooked by not only a shape-shifting monster, but by a spate of dramatic and everyday childhood traumas, the film delivers.
We first meet Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) on a rainy 1988 afternoon in Derry, Maine, as pre-schooler Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) floats a paper boat in the gutter. Needless to say, it doesn't end well for the curious boy. The next summer, his 13-year-old brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) still holds out hope that Georgie is alive, and enlists his pals to help in the search. From the outspoken Richie (Finn Wolfhard) and mama's boy Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), to the overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor) and rumour-plagued Beverly (Sophia Lillis), they're the picked-upon, self-named Losers Club of the school, each with their own set of troubles. Before long they all start seeing Pennywise — along with the unfriendly entity's various other guises — as they delve deeper into their small-town's death-ridden past.
In a considerable step up for Mama director Andy Muschietti, It assembles a clown car full of effective elements: horrific imagery aplenty, the skills to make it stick, and the smarts to show that supernatural bogeymen and real-life bullies aren't all that different. Each does the trick, even when viewers can guess what's coming. It helps, too, that it's all paired with an impressive cast. Skarsgård, brother of True Blood's Alexander, is an unease-inducing delight as the murderous Pennywise, which might be the only acceptable way to say something nice about a character who's most definitely not. The kids all play their parts well, though relative newcomer Lillis steals the show from the teenage boys she finds herself sharing the screen with.
Ironically, the inclusion of Stranger Things' Wolfhard draws attention to the film's main weakness: the demogorgon that is nostalgia. Swapping the book's '50s setting for the decade in which it was written smacks of jumping on the current '80s-loving bandwagon. It's a cycle as vicious as Pennywise feeding off the fear he creates: the Netflix series was influenced by King's body of work, and the new movie in turn tries to ape its success. Ultimately, it leaves It feeling suitably unsettling, yet all-too-familiar in its eagerness to copy recent retro-styled hits and era-appropriate horror fare.
Even so, you'll probably still have clown-filled dreams after you finish watching.