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'It's' a Nasty Clown in Stephen King's Horror Story

Sep. 12, 2017
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“Everybody loves a clown,” according to a hit song from the ’60s. But apparently, whoever wrote that lyric didn’t ask around about clowns. Fact is: many people hate clowns; they are disconcerted, creeped out, by the specter of heavily disguised mimes in fool’s costumes, licensed to play the jester in public. That serial killer John Wayne Gacy worked part-time as a clown only buttressed their bad rep by the time Stephen King wrote It.

It

Bill Skarsgård

Jaeden Lieberher

Directed by Andy Muschietti

Rated R

The movie adaptation is set during that time, the late ’80s, in Dewey, Maine, a small town where modest houses on narrow lots crowd together on tree-lined streets. We meet Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) in scene one, tempting a toddler with popcorn from the opening of a storm drain. That blood red fake smile painted on a pasty face, those leering eyes and that malevolent titter don’t inspire confidence. The boy looks doubtfully at his new friend—he’s not supposed to take gifts from strangers—but the clown is too swift. Pennywise drags him down into the sewer, the labyrinth where the monster dwells.

It contains two parallel stories that converge as neatly as words on a crossword puzzle. One concerns the clown, an entity that surfaces every 27 years to commit mayhem. In the ’80s, he’s the agent behind the milk carton children and the missing persons posters on the telephone poles of Dewey. The other story is about high school kids at the difficult dawn of puberty, a band of root-for-them outsiders drawn together by the cruelty of their peers. Their stuttering ring leader Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), older brother of the boy who disappeared into the storm grate, is surrounded by outcasts—the nerds, the chubby kid, the Jew, the black and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), whose unwarranted bad girl rep and thrift-store chic make her the town’s Molly Ringwald wannabe.

The nasty girls prey on Beverly and the goons with the muscle car bully the boys. But the outcasts have other problems: terrible visions that no one else can see, not the adults or their popular peers. Some of their early visions are genuinely unsettling—the distorted woman’s face that comes lose from a painting to terrorize a boy with sharpened fangs is especially scary. After awhile, however, Argentine director Andy Muschietti, who attracted the approval of gothic filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy), displays adherence to the horror school of nothing-is-too-much. It’s one shock and jolt after another as Pennywise pops up with the frequency of a jack-in-the-box with a broken lid. The scream fest starts to turn comical. 

But the baroque (if well-made) profusion of startling visuals and the film’s needlessly long running time can’t entirely get in the way of It’s strong points. The protagonists are a band of likeable, believable kids, some of them facing serious problems at home or in society as well as on the astral plane and in the sewers of Dewey. Pennywise the Clown works on fear, feeds on it, and many of his assaults are the illusions of fear itself. Will the kids confront and overcome this source of destructive anxiety? Will they chicken out? Or will Pennywise recede into the darkness, only to rise again in a sequel set during the second decade of the 21st century? Stick around, kids.

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