Pennywise the Clown might be the most inept child killer in the history of movies, horror or otherwise. After the opening scene, in which he chews off little Georgie’s arm before dragging the poor kid down a storm drain, the malevolent clown is presented as capable of doing all kinds of amazing things — appearing anywhere anytime, staging elaborate games, morphing into various creatures, exploding blood all over a bathroom (that only certain people can see), popping giant-sized out of a wall — but for some reason he just can’t close the deal and kill another kid.
This makes It a real slog, one of those horror entries filled with random events meant to chill the spine while succeeding primarily at numbing the butt. If Pennywise is only trying to scare our heroes, a group of misfit kids who call themselves the Losers Club, this is never explained and would not make sense, regardless. Fear is what feeds this creature, and these never-ending series of bungled and ultimately tedious kill-attempts only lessens the monster’s power to terrorize, which in turn makes It vulnerable, a paper tiger utterly incapable of instilling fear or a even sense of dread in anyone.
Unfortunately, that includes the audience.
This Losers Club is a handful of middle-school outsiders living in the small town of Derry, Maine. The year is 1989 (although it feels more like the 50s, the original setting of Stephen King’s mammoth novel), and on top of having a woefully inept clown stalking them, these kids also have to deal with crazed bullies, overbearing parents, and the fact that they themselves are not fleshed out as complex human beings, just as a shallow collection of tics.
There is the fat kid, the hypochondriac, the sex-crazed foul mouth (who at least delivers a few laughs), the stutterer, the tomboy, the lone black kid… Crushes are crushed. Ages come of. They bond. They stand together. They face their fears. They fight. Nevertheless, as good as these young actors are, and they are all terrific, when it is all over, they are still defined only by their respective tics.
As Pennywise, young Bill Skarsgård is, well, fine. Although it is not really his fault, he doesn’t do anything with the role, doesn’t make it his own. In the 1990 television miniseries, which isn’t scary but is oddly rewatchable (primarily because it does get the relationships right and manages to conjure a little dread), Tim Curry’s Pennywise lifts all boats, is nothing short of iconic due to a beguiling mixture of charisma, mirth, and lethal malice. While freaking you out, he still makes you laugh out loud — “Kiss me, fat boy!” — there is nothing close to that here.
It has its moments, a couple of cheap jump scares, a few solid laughs. But because I never bought into the characters as fleshed out and real, I was never sold on the relationships, which are central to losing yourself in the story. Like The Goonies or Stand By Me (a far, far, far superior King adaptation), the whole idea is to charm us with nostalgia and a sense of camaraderie, to sweep us away in a coming-of-age adventure. After the first hour, though, which is at least promising, the credits could not roll soon enough.
And at 135 minutes, man.
It will come at us in two parts. The coming chapter will focus on these same characters as adults, some 27 years later as they reunite for another go at Pennywise. My packed audience (It is going to be a smash), which was pretty restless throughout, did not seem ready for more. Nor am I.