(cover image via New Line Cinema)
Evoking a sense of helplessness in the face of an unknown malevolent force is the bread and butter of horror films. There is no shorter shortcut to this than making the protagonist a child. Trying to survive and keep your wits when being hunted by a demon clown is tricky enough, but with a curfew?
IT follows a group of outcasts in the small anytown of Derry, ME. They each experience bizarre and terrifying phenomena all involving a mysterious entity most often appearing as "Pennywise the Dancing Clown" (Bill Skarsgård) assaulting each kid with what they fear most. Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) believes this creature is responsible for the loss of his younger brother and rallies his friends to stand up and fight this mysterious threat.
A horror movie with uninteresting or boring characters may as well be a special effects demo reel. Thankfully each of the kids does a great job distinguishing themselves and their fears, motivations, and general personality type. Most of us knew at least three or four of these kids growing up. Finn Wolfhard in particular is having fun with his down time between Stranger Things seasons.
The film endears them to the audience, which makes it that much more wrenching when you see what the story puts them through. While this film does feature a murderous clown, it is first and foremost about the anxiety, uncertainty, and lack of agency that comes with being a kid. The most tense scenes, in my opinion, don't even involve Pennywise. Each character grapples with some combination of loneliness, bullying, trauma, loss, and several varieties of parental abuse. These fears are what Pennywise exploits to get in the heads and under the skins of his victims.
For as much as we learn about the protagonists, Pennywise remains a mystery. Thankfully the movie doesn't kill this with any detailed or shoe-horned in exposition about what exactly its deal is. It's an evil shape-shifting clown who likes murdering children and LOVES torturing and scaring the crap out of them first. Nuff' said. I never saw the original miniseries, so I can't comment on how well this stands up next to Tim Curry's performance in the 1990 miniseries, but in his own right, Skarsgård does a fantastic job of making Pennywise malevolent, unstoppable, and only temporarily escapable.
IT doesn't really do anything new. I imagine those who were terrified by the miniseries as children shouldn't expect that same level of fear. Nonetheless, the film looks beautifully dreadful, is paced well, and the acting is solid (a big accomplishment since age appropriate kids were cast). There are certainly bits and beats that don't quite work, but if you're looking for a good adrenaline rush that requires no deciphering, this is your ticket.