US (2017) Dir. Andy Muschietti
Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns. This might sound odd to be afraid of costumed japers whose sole remit is to entertain us and make us laugh with their slapstick antics, so what exactly is there to be afraid of? At least with spiders or confined spaces it is quite obvious what the problem is, but clowns?
In 1989, the small of Derry in Maine, children have been disappearing in high numbers with no trace of their whereabouts. One, Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), went missing a year earlier leaving his older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) distraught with guilt as he sent Georgie out the day he vanished. Bill refuses to believe his brother is dead and continues to search for him.
Along with friends Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Bill explores the nearby woods for clues. The group soon expands when new kid in town Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Beverly (Sophia Lillis), all avoiding the local bullies, begin to experience strange phenomena based around their inner fears, a connecting factor being an evil clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).
Stephen King may be on the most prolific horror novelists yet I have never read any of his works; of the film adaptations, I’ve only seen The Shining, Carrie, The Shawshank Redemption and Misery. Had It not been on Amazon Prime I probably would not have seen this one either but it is the month of Halloween so why not?
Whilst it was originally adapted as a TV series in 1990, all point of references in this review will be to this film alone, so no comparison discussion here. In fact, I was actually unaware until the recent cinema release of It Chapter Two that King’s novel was such an epic tome and this film’s slightly dragging 135-minute run time was only going to tell half the story.
The setting of the story in the late 1980’s plays a huge part in the helplessness of the Losers’ Club – which they call themselves as victims of sociopathic bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) – with no mobile phones or the like to stay connected to the outside world. For some of us, this is a nostalgic throwback to when kids really were innocent free spirits and not slaves to social media and computer screens like today.
Yet, one of the underlining themes of this tale is the loss of innocence as the Losers’ Club are thrust into a dangerous situation only they can being a resolution too, in part to kids being the targets of Pennywise but also it is their own fears they must confront and conquer. Like any psychopath worth their salt, Pennywise knows what spooks each one of the kids and uses it to his advantage, though his endgame has yet to be revealed.
For instance, Pennywise teases Bill with images of Georgie, sickly Eddie is confronted by a ghoulish leper, Stanley a fiendish distortion of a woman from a painting, Mike by the people who died in a fire he was saved from, whilst Richie is the resident Coulrophobe. One the less subtle instances involves Beverley, a girl ostracised by her peers because of false rumours regarding her alleged promiscuity, and hounded by her abusive, possible paedophile father (Stephen Bogaert).
After she cuts her hair short to put him off, Beverly is attacked by strands of hair coming through the bathroom sink before being drenched by geysers of blood, which apparently only she can see. I might be wrong but I saw this as symbolic of Beverly’s timely buying of tampons which seemed to deter her father, whose oppressive behaviour seems to point towards keeping her pure either for his sake or simply forever.
However, the rest of the narrative isn’t quite as subtle or open to (mis)interpretation but makes for good capital for a coming-of-age story that equates facing our fears as a milestone in growing up. Like all movie kids this is a precocious bunch, able to figure out the deep meanings behind Pennywise’s campaign and how to counter it without once calling upon adults for help, since they are part of the problem in the first place.
In other hands this would take on a fantasy approach, empowering the youngsters with a sense of righteousness of their own to hold them up as beacons of inspiration for a generation, but King is having none of that. He throws them head first into situations that would cause most adults to have nightmares and refuses to leave the unscathed regardless of any success achieved, something which is implied to carry over into the sequel.
Pennywise is decidedly creepy chap beyond his evil grin and fixed stare, possessing more teeth than a convention of Janet-Street Porter clones revealed when his head opens up to consume whatever is in front of him. It is barely minutes into the film before we get to witness this for ourselves, which I personally would have held off on as the shot of Georgia being dragged into the gutter is effective enough without seeing his arm bitten off first.
Even though his performance is heavily augmented by CGI, Bill Skarsgård is a horribly unhinged and demonic chap, the ironic cheekiness to his jolly clown persona being just self-aware enough to be efficiently disturbing, though I personally felt Beverley’s dad was arguably creepier. The young cast really stand out in their roles, notably Jeremy Ray Taylor whose timing and astuteness should not be understated, and Sophia Lillis in rising above the tokenism of being the lone girl in the group.
Maybe not scary as it could have been but certainly as “fun” as a big budget, bells and whistles horror film can be, It is formulaic but entertaining hokum, driven by a nuanced subtext which no doubt is fully realised in the second chapter. And yes, I can see why people are scared of clowns now. Thanks Mr. King!