Based on the widely-acclaimed novel by Stephen King, “It” follows a group of young misfits as they are haunted – and hunted – by a shapeshifting demon that feeds on fear and children’s flesh. “It” assumes many forms (at one point a pus-spewing leper, another an abusive father), but It’s most preferred and well-known disguise is that of Pennywise the clown.
Most viewers already know that this is not the first re-telling of King’s novel. Back in 1990, there was a two-part, Emmy-winning mini-series of the same name, which starred Tim Curry as the titular monster. For those who have seen both, the film seems like a natural glow-up; after all, a director can get away with a lot more in an R-rated film than in a TV-14 mini-series.
This point is made abundantly clear in the film’s cold open, during which Georgie Denbrough, the younger brother of protagonist Bill, is taken by Pennywise. The scene is little more than a glorified fade-to-black in the mini-series, but the film’s interpretation is exponentially more shocking and hardly leaves anything to the imagination. Bill Skarsgård’s bucktoothed Pennywise speaks to little Georgie from under a sewer grate in an excited stage whisper, a hurried voice that’s somehow reminiscent of both Vaudeville and Scooby-Doo. But perhaps the greatest feat of Skarsgård’s portrayal, other than his naturally looming height, is the steady stream of saliva that always seems to ooze down It’s chin. This subtle factor alone is enough to provide a growing feeling of uneasiness as the scene progresses, a feeling that climaxes to panic as Pennywise’s jaw suddenly unhinges to reveal rows upon rows of shark-like teeth before It lunges forward.
And so the opening credits roll, leaving the audience to deal with their own reactions to the gruesome display they have been forced to witness. While a monster stalking and killing its prey is hardly a groundbreaking idea, rarely is the prey so young: the majority are hardly over the age of thirteen. During the opening overture, I found myself asking a friend if the rest of the movie was going to be like this, that is, so very depressing.
Surprisingly, “It” isn’t. The next scene follows a group of middle-school boys – our beloved misfits – as they walk down the hall discussing with much intrigue the process of circumcision. It’s a genuinely funny exchange of words, filled with “your mom,” “my dick,” and “your mom and my dick” jokes that are almost Shakespearian in how they flow. Eddie Kaspbrak is a fast-talking hypochondriac pottymouth, and Richie Tozier (played by “Stranger Things’” Finn Wolfhard) is obsessed with “Street Fighter” and dick length. They help provide some much-needed comic relief that never truly feels like it has left the building.
As the lights in the theater turn back on, it becomes clear that “It” is just as much a coming-of-age story as it is a horror story – perhaps more so even. Almost every fear the young misfits face has something to do with transitioning from child to adult. Stanley Uris, a Jewish boy who is anxious about his upcoming Bar Mitzvah, is harassed by a portrait of a klezmer flutist, while Beverly Marsh, who has just gotten her first period, is harassed by sentient tangles of hair and gushing fountains of blood. To get over the fears It presents to them is to accept that they are entering a new chapter in their life. In retrospect, it’s kind of a touching parable.
That’s obviously not to say that “It” still isn’t terrifying, because it is. But as the film goes on and the audience gets more acquainted with the story and the characters within it – those both charming and frightening – each gasp or cringe is soon followed by a chuckle. Getting the shit scared out of you has never felt so awesome.