The two-part TV version of It looms large in the horror canon, having birthed the evil clown trope, the haunted funhouse attractions at Halloween scare parks and the ‘killer’ clown craze that became a media circus last autumn. It also struck a clever balance between nostalgia, atmosphere and scares. Pennywise the clown, like all the best horror baddies, had infiltrated a cosy corner of the world – the fictional Derry, Maine – and picked on seemingly its most vulnerable inhabitants: the ‘Losers Club’ of tweenage misfits. It was Stand By Me with blood-filled balloons.
Still set in Derry, this new film transposes the action from the ’60s to the ’80s, the go-to safe place of modern cinema. With children being abducted on the reg and Finn Wolfhard playing one of a central gang of bike-riding kids, it’s hard not to draw parallels to Stranger Things. Except, of course, that in Stranger Things there’s no demonic painting that comes to life, nor leprous zombie stalking a child. It is a creature that takes the form of a kid’s worst fears, meaning the film has multiple nasties out to get the adolescent gang. But it’s only in the most regular guise, as Pennywise, that the film is ever truly terrifying. Bill Skarsgård plays the clown with a manic stare, a toothy Cat In The Hat grin and frantic Tasmanian Devil moves. He’s a killer that delights in evil and feasts on souls, and some of his scenes – particularly one in which he reveals himself to the gang via a slide projector – are deliciously creepy.
Director Andrés Muschietti says the film is based on the original Stephen King text, not the ’90s films, and his greatest win is in fleshing out the characters and stories of the adolescent protagonists; the real-life brutality they encounter, from parents and peers, is arguably worse than that inflicted by Pennywise. The biggest loss is too much of that creepy smalltown atmosphere, and – crucially – showing us the clown’s big, inhuman teeth too soon. Rarely does a mere trailer terrify so many people as that for It did earlier this year. But like the kids, you suspect many viewers will have overcome their fears by the time they leave the cinema.