It’s testament to the power of Tim Curry’s performance as the demonic Pennywise in Stephen King’s It that clowns are now universally acknowledged as being scary and wrong.
Distantly, in our childhoods, we remember that they’re meant to be funny. They’ve got buckets full of confetti, big shoes and small cars. They’re bad at climbing ladders with hilarious consequences. Yet most of us see a clown and feel physical revulsion, and that, in a huge part, is down to this guy.
There’s no denying that Stephen King’s It, an adaptation of the prolific horror writer’s 1986 novel, was one of the shit-scariest films of the 20th century. Released in 1990, it was presented as a two-part TV movie, running to 180 minutes in total. In it, we’re transported to typical Stephen King America: rain soaked, green, provincial; prim and pleasant on the surface, terrifying underneath. Much of Pennywise’s menace came from contradiction and juxtaposition: an entity of pure evil dressed like a children’s entertainer; a safe-as-clapboard-houses town harbouring a serial killer; a glimpse of something unnatural in a scenic beauty spot.
As the film methodically and expertly ramps up the scares, Pennywise, a physical manifestation of the nameless evil of the title, proves himself to be a master manipulator of children’s minds – praying on their worst fears, making his omnipresence known, biding his time, picking them off when they’re alone. The kids know that he could be anywhere – in the drain, in the woods, even in your bathroom.
The story takes place in two time periods, with the gang of friends, The Losers, battling Pennywise at two different points in their lives. The clown, we discover, is timeless and ageless, appearing every 30 years to terrorise the residents of Derry, New England.
When the kids fight Pennywise, they take on the clown. But when the adults return expecting round two with evil Ronald, it’s a spider. Literally, It, in its true form, is a giant spider. A big, dumb, eight-legged creature mooning around in a sewer, eminently outwittable, not noticeably sentient, its sluggish movements a tribute to the slim budgets afforded to TV shows pre-HBO and Netflix. And suddenly, the menace drips away, the horror dissipates in a flash, because the terror came from Pennywise’s mind games, not from him being a giant monstrous arachnid. It’s as if Stephen King’s publisher lost part of the manuscript and had the intern rewrite the last chapter, and it’s a moment that reframes the entire film; we were scared of the clown, we laugh at the spider.
So what I’m hoping for from the 2017 remake of It, in which Bill Skarsgård will play Pennywise, is something tantamount to a treasonous statement in the book-to-film world. I want them to change the ending. Because by getting rid of Pennywise’s clown guise before the final act, the 1990 version of It killed its villain before the climactic confrontation had even begun. And that, readers, is really evil.