It review: What's scarier than an evil clown? The terrors of growing up

Director Andy Muschietti crafts a heartfelt horror that's capable of moving the soul just as much as it can terrorise it

Clarisse Loughrey
Wednesday 06 September 2017 09:56 BST

Stephen King's legacy is so exhaustive that, in a way, it's easy to feel spun up in its web. His work has spawned some of the greatest classics of cinema; indeed, to adapt a Stephen King novel must feel like trying to dine amongst the gods.

Andy Muschietti's new take on It, a tale of terror disguised as a clown, doesn't reach such divine heights. That's not exactly a surprise. What it does manage, however, is to stand as a deft and heartfelt piece of horror, capable of moving the soul just as much as it can terrorise it.

Much like Muschietti's previous film, Mama, It feeds from a quiet genre of horror that's arisen out of Spain and Spanish-speaking countries, with Muschietti himself hailing from Argentina. Between the likes of J.A. Bayona's The Orphanage, Alejandro Amenábar The Others, or Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, there's a sense of collective spirit at work here.

It's a style enamoured by the Gothic tradition, but that extends its meaning far beyond aesthetics and to its core belief that the supernatural is actually an echo of emotion, of long-gone passions that still stain the walls. It's that deep investment in the painful, emotional aspect of horror that lies at the centre of 2017's version of It, too.

King's book may be famous for inciting a whole new wave of coulrophobia, but It is much more than a scary clown, able to shape shift into its victim's worst fears. Here, Muschietti makes the smart choice of discarding the book's now kitsch terrors – there's not much a mummy or werewolf can do to really chill the soul now they're making out with Tom Cruise and becoming teen basketball stars – but what's far more impressive is what he conjures up in their stead.

These frights dig deep into the psyche and pluck out a person's deepest traumas: guilt, loneliness, the weight of expectations. Each then mould themselves into some ghoulish visage. The results are truly terrifying. A knock in the teeth, certainly, for anyone who feels merely ambivalent toward clowns and thought they'd escape It unscathed.

Speaking of, 2017's Pennywise is certainly a far step from Tim Curry's rendition of the '90s miniseries. Whatever nightmares he may have stirred within an entire generation, what he traded off was a faux-cheery demeanour and colourful appearance, things so immediately sinister in their desperate ordinariness.

IT Trailer 2

Bill Skarsgård's Pennywise, however, is fear itself, that most penetrative of emotions. A rendition that leans far more into Pennywise's origins as a primordial force of evil: from the dirtied, silken 19th century garb to Skarsgård's twitchy, ferocious performance. To the adult mind, at least, this Pennywise is far more terrifying.

King's books can often feel utterly immense in their mythology, in a way that's impossible to translate on screen. Nikolaj Arcel's The Dark Tower certainly felt this bite, with the Gunslinger's intricate universe swiftly becoming a befuddled mess. Here, however, Muschietti is far more successful, carving out a simple storyline and dispensing the rest. The “Macroverse” and It's enemy “The Turtle” go unmentioned outside a sly nod, and that infamous group sex scene (unsurprisingly) has been cut.

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The film may still feel a little rushed in places, but it's certainly one of those rare cases in which it's actually advisable to split the momentous brick that is King's novel into two parts, since the book is a natural entwinement of two separate narratives. It makes a resurgence every 27 years; one story sees it terrorise a group of kids, The Loser's Club, the other sees them return to their home town as adults to face him once more.

All creative decisions that narrow the film closer and closer in on its central theme: the pure terror of childhood. Since we only ever see The Loser's Club as teens here, we become fully submerged within their perspective; it all works perfectly to the point it's a wonder whether a second film could ever be as successful.

The adults in town can't see Pennywise, neither can they see the non-supernatural terrors that stalk them just as ferociously: bullying, racism, sexual abuse. All scenes that Muschietti renders with as much intensity as It's attacks. Willingly or unwillingly, adults turn a blind eye to what these kids are going through. Their isolation is palpable. The world of a child is one that's utterly closed off, but often not by choice.

Bolstered by an entire cast of wonderful, engaging performances from the likes of Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, and Jack Dylan Grazer – the film is surprisingly funny, too – It triumphs in its humanity.

It's the kind of horror that doesn't feel the need to rely on jump scares or booming musical cues, but reels you in with empathy. We understand these characters, we understand so painfully their fears. That's the kind of horror that nestles deep inside your brain. It's the kind that follows you home.

It hits UK cinemas 8 September.

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