After you’ve watched the new movie adaptation of It, come back and listen to our spoiler-filled discussion with Dana Stevens, Sam Adams, and Aisha Harris.
If you suffer from coulrophobia, a debilitating fear of clowns, then Andy Muschietti’s It—adapted from the 1986 novel by Stephen King, which was also the subject of a 1990 TV miniseries—might actually be beneficial to you as a form of exposure therapy. Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), the evil clown who terrorizes a small Maine town, appears frequently enough on screen that you start to grow inured to his grinning white-painted face, outsize yellow incisors, and stained ruff collar. He’s creepy, sure, but the queasy feeling he inspires is hardly dealt out in the titrated dosages seen in subtler and lower-budget horror movies, like the director’s 2013 maternity parable Mama. This sewer-dwelling children’s entertainment professional first appears peering out from a storm drain in the movie’s opening sequence, and for the rest of the movie’s two-hour-and-fifteen-minute runtime he seems to be every other place you look. He pops up in the photo carousel during a family slideshow, glowers from the pages of old books in the town library, and proffers a passing child a bouquet of red helium balloons in front of the boarded-up, broken-down house at the edge of town that of course is going to harbor a malevolent clown.
It’s maximalist approach also extends to the movie’s pacing. Nearly every scene builds to some kind of climactic jump scare—not just the appearance of Pennywise, but such alternative horrors as leprous zombies, menacing wall portraits come to life, and bathroom sinks that spurt fountains of blood. Each of these manifestations is tied to the deepest fears of the person seeing it—or rather, the child seeing it, since one of Pennywise’s powers is to be visible only to the underage victims he stalks. That makes for a lot of separate phobias to keep track of, since there are no fewer than seven young teen protagonists in It. Chief among them is Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), a shy, stuttering high school freshman whose little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) has been missing for the past year. On the last day of the school year in 1989, Bill and his gang of misfit buddies pledge to spend the summer solving the mystery of what happened to Georgie and another missing classmate. It isn’t until they cross paths with Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a new kid in town who’s been researching local history at the library, that they learn that Derry, Maine, has long held a grim record for unexplained child disappearances.
Both Bill and Ben harbor unspoken crushes on Beverly (Sophia Lillis), a pretty redhead who’s been unfairly labeled as promiscuous by the mean-girl clique at school. In fact, she’s quite sexually inexperienced, if you leave out the unseemly attentions paid to her by her father, who, like most of the briefly glimpsed parents in It, is both morally contemptible and oblivious to the horrors surrounding him. The gang of young friends who dub themselves “the losers’ club” also includes smart-aleck Richie (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard), hypochondriacal Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and taciturn Mike (Chosen Jacobs), one of Derry’s few black kids, who’s lost his parents in what may or may not have been a clown-related incident of violence.
The best parts of It have to do not with the cackling manifestations of the sadistic Pennywise but with the camaraderie, bickering, and flirtation among these kids, who unlike many on-screen high-schoolers seem like real kids, awkward and uncertain. During its most memorable scenes—like when the losers’ club members gather together in their underwear to jump into the town quarry for a swim—It sometimes recalls another Stephen King–inspired film about adolescent friendship, Stand by Me. And nearly all the most quotable lines come in the form of would-be-clever teenage banter, often about the sexual appeal (or lack thereof) of one’s interlocutor’s mom. But there isn’t enough time spent on nonscary activities to give these characters space to develop and grow. Though every one of the young actors is beautifully cast, we wind up knowing little about the people they play outside of their lone identifying trait (the fat kid, the Jewish kid, the black kid, the girl).
The extended, effects-heavy final sequence, in which the youths descend to Pennywise’s dank underground lair to battle both the clown and their own deepest sources of dread, garnered a huge response from the audience I saw It with: laughter, terror, and shrieks of squicked-out appreciation. Though there’s little about the ending you couldn’t have seen coming from the very first scene, it’s still satisfying to watch a bunch of sweet teenagers come together to conquer their demons while whaling on a homicidal clown.
But the catharsis delivered by the gang’s apparent defeat of Pennywise isn’t complete. Over the movie’s closing image appear the words Chapter One. The King novel that served as source material for this coulrophobic opus is 1,100 pages long, and in the second chapter, set 27 years later, the kids will come together in early middle age to conquer the next incarnation of the grease-painted ghoul. I can’t say the first half of It scared me senseless—I’ll still take my daughter to the circus next time it’s in town—but it built up enough goodwill toward its young heroes to make me curious about what they’ll be like in their grown-up incarnations. My only tip to whoever makes that movie would be to adjust the percentages: 60 percent more friendship, 40 percent less clown.