MOVIE REVIEW: ‘It,’ Pennywise and the taunting red balloon


The most afraid I’ve ever been was when I was 12 1/2 years old, and that event has been the mark against which I’ve measured every comparable experience since. The Losers’ Club in Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” are the same age as I was, and a lot of their fears were recognized: the paralysis, the mistaken complicity, the helplessness. Six boys and one girl terrorized by an entity permeating their town like a dark fog, understanding both their weaknesses and strengths, and trying to separate one from the other. Ultimately, the theme of King’s story is the ethereal, magnetic, and dangerous power of childhood that monsters in multiple forms try to exploit and defile, and Muschietti succeeds best when he captures that, however subtly, on screen.

This is Beverly Marsh’s story; she ties the group together in strength and danger. Played by a wonderful Sophia Lillis, she literally receives her power very early in the film, when she gets her first menstrual period. Reminiscent of Mrs. White’s fears and revulsion toward her maturing daughter in King’s first published novel, Carrie, blood is life and womanhood and wickedness and debasement depending on who is responding or harassing or ogling Beverly. Her burgeoning womanhood, which should be celebrated as a rite of passage, is met by fear and distrust by the negative males in her life — namely her creepy father (Stephen Bogaert) — or lustful curiosity by her male friends in the Club: intense Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), sensitive Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), goofball Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), and high-strung Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), themselves dealing with the first ravages of preteen hormones and sexual urges. Through much of the film, Beverly walks a tightrope between object of scorn by female bullies, shame by her elders, and awe and desire by boys and agent of change in asserting her identity and feminine power. Bill says late in the film that he “wants to run toward something, not away.” Bev, despite her miserable home and school life, is constantly moving forward, haters be damned.

Red is thus associated with Beverly, and it is the color of choice of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård), whose form It assumes the most often. Why is he always tempting children with red balloons instead of blue or green? Red is fear, and death, and rage in the citizens of Derry. It is also power and life if you take charge of it, which Pennywise hopes you don’t. Skarsgård’s clown is less funny than Tim Curry’s 1990 version, more animalistic. It mocks less and taunts more. When the effects are practical, It is terrifying as Skarsgård’s sheer height (6’4”) dwarfs the children and monopolizes the negative space in the shot. Costume designer Janie Bryant created Pennywise’s turn-of-the-century silver costume, more form-fitting than Curry’s billowing Bozo-like suit, which emphasizes the longevity of his diabolical form as existing far back in Derry’s history.

His beaver-like front incisors, built for gnawing and tearing, and constant salivation make him appear constantly ravenous, and his eye color changes from bright blue to gold in response to his prey’s emotions. When the clown leaps out of a projector screen or balloons in size, however, the effects are more cartoonish and less scary. Also, a new monster in the form of a grotesque picture on the wall in Stan’s father’s study who comes alive (recalling Dick Halloran’s reminder of pictures in a book from The Shining) is reminiscent of Muschietti’s earlier work, Mama, and less effective than the headless boy or the leper.

Muschietti and Chung-hoon Chung, the director of photography, never forget to portray these events through a child’s perspective, and Chung often shoots from a child’s height or from a high angle when they are scared or vulnerable, or places them at the center of a wide angle indicating the dangers lurking about town buildings or alleyways. When a child becomes more assertive or a leader, they are shot from a low angle indicating their stature. Even the monsters tend to crouch or crawl when they get closer to the children. Peter Grundy’s and Rosalie Board’s art and set direction, respectively, recreate the most terrifying locations a child can envision (the old house at the end of the street, the damp cellar, the dark, wood-paneled study) while also capturing some stellar set pieces in Pennywise’s lair and Bev’s bathroom. In addition, Benjamin Wallfisch cavernous and haunting score at times seems to mimic heartbeats or blood rushing through one’s ears at the moment of deepest fear.

In the evolving script by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, one crucial aspect of Pennywise’s personality that they brilliantly captured is the way the creature fools children into thinking they are complicit in their own fear, guilt, and/or shame. The film’s first casualty, Bill’s little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), is asked by the clown to smell the circus in order to gain his trust. Bill is later taunted by It as being responsible for Georgie’s death, and his guilt causes him to get into dangerous situations. Beverly is abused by her father for the sin of womanhood, made to feel responsible for men’s lustful behavior toward her (because they can’t help themselves and have no self-control), and initially she chops her hair off in self-hate, yelling at the bathroom mirror “This is what you did!”

What the otherwise outmatched children do to combat Pennywise is to turn his manipulations around to their advantage and assume that power. The waning innocence the Losers still possess, blossoming into teen years in casual glances at a swimming hole and peeks into the secret world of a girl’s bedroom, is potential energy at its purest. Bill’s responsibility toward his brother, and all the town’s children, lead him to gather the group to fight Pennywise together. Ben avoids the constant bullying about his weight and newness in town by sequestering himself in the library, studying the town’s archives. Beverly begins to utilize those male responses to her nascent sexuality in order to distract the weak and unite the strong, and she is the one who leaps first. Richie is afraid of clowns even though he tries to be one as both a talent and defense mechanism, and he uses humor to bring the group back to Earth when their fear becomes too immersive. Diminutive Eddie has the biggest psychosomatic obstacles to overcome, thanks to his oppressive mother (Mollie Jane Atkinson), but his sequences in the sewer, including getting showered with sludge, at least indicate he is trying.

Stan Uris is the biggest skeptic and least defined of the characters (I would have liked to see his bird knowledge used in the film), and his impact on the group will lie more in his absence than presence.

Finally, there is Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), who joins the Losers’ Club late and is their only black friend. In fact, he is one of the few black people in the town, and after his parents’ death, which he feels some responsibility toward, he is homeschooled on his grandfather’s sheep farm. He and his family know about hate and death, and they have isolated themselves for protection. His grandfather senses an underlying evil in the town which makes bad things happen and otherwise good people turn the other cheek, and Mike is often at the receiving end of blows by the sadistic teenager Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his toadies.

Goaded by Pennywise, the bullies in town — Bowers or otherwise — sniff out weakness and draw power from the unwillingness of spectators to intervene. Anyone who has ever been harassed as a child or adult will recognize the lust in the eyes of their tormentors, that desire to see fear and pain, as also seen in Bowers on screen. Mike is my favorite adult character in the King’s book, as he becomes the town librarian and amateur archivist and pulls the gang back together as adults, and I hope to see Mike given more authority in the second part of Muschietti’s adaptation (which began filming in March 2017).

All in all, this was a satisfying adaptation, fleshing out most of its young heroes without ignoring the humanity, however cowardly or stunted, of its human villains. Furthermore, Muschietti has envisioned a Pennywise very close to King’s character, all lust and hunger and fear of strength. It will return. So will Beverly and the gang.