Of all the grimly iconic images Stephen King can be credited with thinking up – those slaughtered sisters in The Shining, that pig’s-blood deluge in Carrie – there’s one that stands out as so evilly nightmarish, so plain wrong, it’s actively hard to watch. It’s the sight of an innocent young boy, Georgie, being dragged into a storm drain by a child-eating clown – the name’s Pennywise – and never seen, or at least not in living form, again.
Whatever warped part of King’s imagination poor Georgie’s fate in the 1986 novel It sprang from, the line-crossing horror of the idea is hideous enough to have powered two separate adaptations: first the Warners miniseries in 1990, starring an unforgettable Tim Curry, and now a two-part film version.
The big difference between this film and the 1990 adaption is the time, which has jumped forward three decades. This lets the new It buy into the current vogue for Eighties teen-flick nostalgia, previously established with the likes of Super 8 and Stranger Things.
Andy Muschietti’s film has a lot to whip through in just over two hours, even though this one is only tackling half the book – bear in mind that the whole thing clocked in at a grueling 1,138 pages. Every one of the “Losers’ Club” – that’s Bill and his cohorts – is separately menaced by the thing they most fear, as well as being more straightforwardly persecuted, in classic Stand By Me style, by a group of older school bullies. As a vision of violence and depravity in small-town America, King’s book hardly pulled its punches: there’s a subplot about domestic child abuse, letters being carved into a fat boy’s stomach, racial assaults against the lone black kid (Chosen Jacobs), and so on.
Every one of them is just an alter ego for the shape-shifting Pennywise, an insatiable, inter-dimensional predator whose practically motiveless evil remains every bit as unnerving as it was when Curry played him. This time, the role falls to Bill Skarsgård – son of Stellan, brother of True Blood’s Alexander – speaking with a rogue Swedish accent that only adds to the skillful grotesquerie of his performance. He’s helped, it’s true, by a more extreme make-up job – childishly malign and goofy in the mouth, where Curry chilled the marrow with just a bland smile over razor-sharp yellow teeth.
Working with a far bigger budget ($35 Million), the effects team allow this Pennywise to contort himself impossibly as he unfurls his bulk from a disused fridge, or emerges twitching, his feet popping back to adult size, from the puppet-like body of a dead boy. All round, he’s a very successful reinvention of a classic villain, not quite doing all the film’s work as commandingly as Curry, but absolutely stoking your dread of his next appearance.
The gut-grabbing intensity of the film’s attack scenes, if anything, causes a problem: it creates a devil of a time building flow. These episodes are so individually frightening that the chirpier interstitial parts, with their stabs at comic relief, don’t gel.
As a rattling ghost-train ride through sewers and derelict houses even David Lynch would think twice before exploring, the film toot-toots its way around at often deafening volume, but settles for doing only partial justice to King’s epic ambitions. Perhaps Muschietti has more of these stored up for the sequel, once an audience has gained faith that the scary stuff – petrifying, when it peaks – is well and truly in hand.